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The Tree of Popovich and Buford

A man with more descendants than Moses? (Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports)

Upon seeing the size of the coaching and front office personnel tree that has branched out from the San Antonio Spurs, Scott Rafferty and Miles Wray had their jaws hanging open. The following conversation transpired:

Miles: Usually, when an NBA team has success, a gaggle of step-slow teams will try to copy-cat that supposed blueprint for success.

Things are a little different with this year’s Spurs. The rest of the league is not trying to copy the Spurs. The rest of the league is quickly becoming the Spurs.

Scott, yesterday you tweeted a picture of the coaching and front office staff who learned their craft with the Spurs and have since migrated away to other NBA teams. By our count nine of the NBA’s 29 other teams were represented on this tree, a staggering percentage of the league.

Incredibly, that coaching tree is not even comprehensive. This tree, a few years old, finds Spurs disciples on 14 NBA teams at the time. A tree that is both comprehensive and up-to-date will surely boggle the mind more than these two already do.

But let’s identify the other NBA teams who are being meaningfully directed by people who thoroughly learned the ropes in San Antonio. My criteria is totally subjective here, but let’s just say that I’m leaving off the Los Angeles Clippers and Doc Rivers, who played briefly as a veteran underneath an assistant-coach Popovich.

- Atlanta Hawks: General Manager Danny Ferry played three years from the Spurs and spent four years, over two different tenures, in their front office. Head Coach Mike Budenholzer was a Spur for eighteen seasons, and an assistant coach for sixteen of those years.

- New Orleans Pelicans: General Manager Dell Demps played one year with the Spurs and worked in their front office after retiring. Head Coach Monty Williams played two years and coached one year for the Spurs.

- Oklahoma City Thunder: General Manager Sam Presti worked his way up from video intern to assistant general manager in his seven years in the Spurs’ front office.

- Orlando Magic: Head Coach Jacque Vaughn played for three years and coached for two years with the Spurs. General Manager Rob Hennigan spent four years in the Spurs front office, working as Director of Basketball Operations during their 2007 championship season.

- Philadelphia 76ers: Head coach Brett Brown was an assistant coach and player developer over twelve years and two tenures with the Spurs.

- Utah Jazz: General Manager Dennis Lindsey was San Antonio’s Assistant General Manager for five years. Brand-new Head Coach Quin Snyder coached Spurs’ NBDL affiliate Austin Toros for three years, and spent this past season as an assistant with Budenholzer in Atlanta.

Okay, what?! That’s like most of the smart rebuilds going on across the league. Will the league just be overrun with Spurs-ian domination come 2016?

Scott: It sure seems like it’s heading in that direction. A couple of months ago, Jim Boylen was a candidate for the head coaching gig in Utah. Steve Kerr wants to lure Chip Engelland away from San Antonio to get him on his own coaching staff, and Sean Marks is supposedly looking for a head coaching job. Even if none of that comes to fruition, that means three of the five assistant coaches on the Spurs this season have been, at the very least, linked to jobs elsewhere in the NBA, thereby extending the branch even further. Give it two more years and I’m sure one or two of them will be working for another franchise.

It’s understandable, though. I think few will argue that the Spurs are the most well ran franchise in all of basketball, and a case could certainly be made for them being the best in professional sports as a whole, too. When you have a team that functions that well on a year-to-year basis, it’s a reflection of the coaching staff and management; not necessarily on the players. The #SpursCulture is a real thing. They’re a disciplined franchise from top-to-bottom and the one word that gets thrown around time-and-time again when describing how they function is “family.”

In the NBA world, working under the reigns of Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford is like graduating with first class honors from Harvard — it comes with a sense of credibility. Knowing all that, it’s no wonder that teams are trying to replicate that culture by prying away coaches and people working in their front office.

The most impressive thing to me, though, is — as you alluded to — a lot of the teams that have former Spurs employees are the ones that are ahead of the game. Sam Presti built the Oklahoma City Thunder from the ground up and has changed how teams approach the draft. Rob Hennigan is in the midst of rebuilding the Magic but he did it the right way: Parting ways with a franchise player by bringing in a ton of young assets and draft picks. It didn’t seem like a wise plan at the time, but it’s certainly paying off. It’s still early for Mike Budenholzer, but in a season that was riddled with injuries for the Hawks, he built a team that pushed the number one seed, Indiana Pacers, to the brink of elimination.

There is a possibility that Gregg Popovich retires this summer, in which case, does this tree end? Are R.C. Buford and Popovich, as a team, the reason this has gone as far as it has, or will we eventually be drawing up a tree that extends way beyond our imagination, similar to this?

Miles: If Buford and Popovich both retired today, I believe with confidence that the tree would do the expand-beyond-our-imaginations thing. The branches already have branches: Charlotte Hornets General Manager Rich Cho has no direct connection with the Spurs, but he worked with Presti in both Seattle and Oklahoma City. (And, whaddaya know, Cho has turned a basement team into a playoff team in rapid time and with cap room to spare.)

I really like the comparison of working for the Spurs as being similar to attaining a degree from a reputable school. I really think that a complete definition of “The Spurs Way” is just to eliminate the noise and only focus on what helps win basketball games.

Sounds stupidly simple, but it’s really pretty dramatically different from the ways most teams operate. Players who want more minutes are noise. Players who don’t play defense are noise. Making a splashy trade is noise. Everything to do with the media is noise. Plenty of individual statistics are noise. Somebody who received their basketball education in the Spurs Academy is absolutely a desirable candidate for other teams — because they come with experience tuning out the noise and learning about the elements of constructing a basketball team that actually matter

The more I think about this tree, the more I’m especially intrigued by the Hawks, Jazz, and Magic. All three of these teams: finished the season below .500; have “Spurs Guys” for both their General Manager and Head Coach; and continue to make quiet and intriguing transactions.

For me, one of the most intriguing moves these teams have made was Orlando’s decision, last month, to extend Jacque Vaughn despite his .262 winning percentage over the last two seasons. If the Magic paid attention to “noise” factors — such as the popular perception that Vaughn is too quiet and introverted to be a manly-man “leader” — they would have already canned Vaughn instead of giving him this vote of confidence. The extension says to me that Hennigan and the Magic have confidence in their development process, and it makes me feel that a powerful, deep team will eventually bloom in Orlando.

Who intrigues you most out of the Spurs Guys who have made their exodus from San Antonio?

Scott: Something that has always interested me about the Spurs is, no matter how good they are on a year-to-year basis and no matter how great of a tandem Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford are, high profiled players who are dead set on “winning a championship” refuse to take a slice of humble pie by joining forces with them. I’m sure a reason for that is San Antonio isn’t as big of a market market as, say, Los Angeles or Miami, but what’s scary about that is with the tree continuing to grow — as you expect it will — it’s only a matter of time until some bigger market team replicates that winning formula. And when that happens, the rest of the league is probably screwed, because, honestly, who wouldn’t want to play for the Knicks if they’ve got the perfect culture and are in the running to win a championship every single year?

That’s why it’s worth keeping an eye on these sub-.500 teams. Clearly Hennigan trusts that Vaughn is the right coach for the Magic moving forward, and they have the pieces in place to make some noise in the Eastern Conference. If they find that winning formula, they could certainly be a hotspot in the future. It doesn’t happen overnight, obviously, but if they can build a strong foundation with the right people in place, the sky is the limit.

To me, though, the Atlanta Hawks group intrigues me the most. Danny Ferry did a great job as general manager in his first year with the team, and Mike Budenholzer showed a lot of promise. The way he coached the team — when healthy, especially — was very Spurs-esque. Sadly, injuries derailed their season and shut the door on their hopes of making it deep in the post-season, but it didn’t stop them from pushing the Indiana Pacers to seven games in the first round. (It’s worth noting that Budenholzer did a fantastic job of building a game plan that exploited the Pacers’ short-comings. The Pacers were terrible following the All-Star break, but the Hawks had no business advancing to the second-round with their depleted roster, and they came close to it). All in all, it’ll be fun to see what they can do next season when healthy.

I think we’ll both agree that “The Spurs Way” is the right way, but is it at all replicable? Do teams like the Orlando Magic and Atlanta Hawks actually have a chance at building something similar without either Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford on board, or is it simply wishful thinking?

Miles: I too am bewildered why more free agents don’t look to join San Antonio. (Or — maybe they do, and Buford is just not interested.)

Crazy theory: perhaps it is actually being in a big market that prevents big-market teams from taking a “Spursian” approach. The Spurs-inspired rebuilds that we’re talking about are taking place in Oklahoma City, Orlando, Salt Lake City — places where the media is more relaxed and does not instigate a dumpster fire at the thought of a 30-win season. Perhaps the “noise” of unforgiving expectations, or the “noise” of having to maintain a legacy actually prevents squads like the Knicks or the Nets or the Lakers from feeling able to slowly and methodically institute a long-term rebuild.

Obviously not every one of the Spurs disciples is going to win five championships. I don’t mean that as a referendum on the Spurs way of being: there are too few championships and too many Spurs-infiltrated teams for that to be possible!

Playing the percentages, at least one of these rebuilds is probably going to flame out. Looking for an early candidate, I’m not sure if the braintrust in New Orleans really absorbed the lessons they learned in San Antonio. Between Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, and trading Nerlens Noel for Jrue Holiday, it seems like the Pelicans are making a ton of moves that the Spurs would not even consider. I even buy the argument that Sam Presti of the Thunder is not totally following Buford’s path, as evidenced by the Thunder’s counter-productive benches of recent years.

It’s one thing to think about this front offices putting together a playoff contender but, yeah, it’s something else entirely to think about any team creating seventeen straight playoff appearances. Perhaps this really is an accomplishment that only Buford and Popovich are capable of. But I think, out of my three most-intriguing teams — Hawks, Jazz, Magic — at least one of them will be an annual contender at the close of this decade. That team might not look like the Spurs — hard to imagine Popovich yakkin’ it up on TrueHoop – but I think they will be a deep, egalitarian team that scours the world for the talent that best fits their roster. And that, more than any specific concept, is the Spurs’ way.

What do you think is the optimal endgame for the Buford/Popovich alliance? How many more years will they go at it? Any chance they leave San Antonio and reunite elsewhere with one of their proteges? Will the Spurs ever be a bad team, as their successors will be trained by these masters themselves?

Scott: Kawhi Leonard is a pretty good example of your theory. Many thought that his outing in the 2013 Finals was his coming out party, but he got off to a slow this season and nobody really batted an eyelid. It wasn’t until he returned from a broken finger at the turn of the New Year that he started to somewhat resemble the Kawhi we expected to see, and even then he didn’t blow anyone’s socks off. But not being in the spotlight 24/7 — as some of these bigger market teams are — allows the Spurs to stay on course and block out that “noise” that can bring teams (and individual players) down. The Spurs have always flown under the radar, which certainly helps when dealing with expectations.

After all, the Spurs lost in seven games to the Heat last season and not much was said about them restructuring their roster for one last hurrah. They were just expected to fizzle out yet again with their ageing trio of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan at the helm. Now, this year’s Finals weren’t nearly as close, but the general consensus is that the Heat need something big — be it another superstar in Carmelo Anthony or a souped-up role player in Kyle Lowry — if they have any hope of winning their third championship in four years.

When it comes to individual players not living up to the hype, a lot of that has to do with their system, too. Leonard isn’t expected to carry as big of a load as, say, Paul George. Nevertheless, playing on a smaller stage for an established franchise makes it easier for players to progress at their own pace, and you can’t argue with the end result.

As for the future of the Buford/Popovich alliance, I think a lot of it hinges on whether or not Tim Duncan decides to retire. If he does, I can see Popovich walking; if he doesn’t, there’s no way he does. For Buford, though, I imagine he’ll stick around no matter what happens. I doubt he’ll have a hard time bringing in a good replacement for Popovich (although nobody will ever truly replace him) and he’ll still have a good core in place to build around. Parker has still got a few good years in him and the torch is slowly being passed to Leonard who seems ready to take on a bigger role. As long as the team has a strong sense of direction — as they have over the last 15 years — they’ll continue to be competitive. The culture is embedded in the franchise now, and after so many years of flaunting its beautiful stuff it will take a hell of a lot to wash it away.

Miles Wray