The San Antonio Spurs have an indisputable track record of success that other organizations can only marvel at and dream of achieving. With a culture second to none, this is a team without individual egos, a group that constantly buys in regardless of the roster composition and plays as one cohesive unit that is a greater force than the sum of its individual parts. While some will say that’s much easier to achieve with one franchise pillar in David Robinson handing off to another in Tim Duncan, it takes significantly more than the contributions of two players alone for a team to win at least 50 games in every campaign since the 1999-2000 season.
When the Spurs hired Gregg Popovich, not even owner Peter Holt could have predicted the move would have this kind of impact on the franchise. Unquestionably one of the best coaches that professional sports—not just basketball—has to offer, Popovich has been far more than a leader of men, far more than someone capable of developing players and far more than someone well known in the viral age for his ability to execute an in-game interview. In an NBA where careers are often being born before players reach the legal age, Popovich has found a way to pave a path to success time and time again both on and off the hardwood.
Basketball has always been a numbers game, and it’s never been more evident than in the age of analytics. With more information, projections and data available than we’ve ever had previously, teams are making smarter, more-informed decisions on a regular basis. At the same time, we still see those same clubs drooling over things like wingspan, vertical jump and every other measurable—whether it has a direct impact on a person’s ability to play basketball or not—that is on a prospect’s “vitals” sheet as he attempts to make an impression around league. Decision-makers are typically willing to overlook the bad if it’s outweighed by the good, and rarely are items like heart, psychological approach or intelligence pointed to as a desirable asset that forced a team’s hand into pulling the trigger.
How appropriate would it be if those qualities, ignored by most, were a part of how Popovich and the Spurs set themselves apart? Considering this is a franchise that looks for (and finds) talent where others haven’t, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time that we’ve been able to identify a key portion of what makes San Antonio’s blueprint impossible to replicate. Popovich, by his own admission, is very fine with his standards. “I try to be a little more specific in my definition, especially when it comes to the characters of players we bring in.”
That quote, and what follows this passage, is an excerpt from Forces of Character: Conversations About Building a Life of Impact, authored by Jon Finkel and Chad Hennings.
Being able to enjoy someone else’s success is a huge thing. If I’m interviewing a young guy and he’s saying things like, “I should have been picked All-American but they picked Johnny instead of me,” or they say stuff like, “My coach should have played me more; he didn’t really help me,” I’m not taking that kid because he will be a problem one way or another. I know he will be a problem…I don’t need that stuff. I’ve got more important things to do. I’ll find somebody else, even if they have less ability, as long as they don’t have that character trait.
We also look at how someone reacts to their childhood…I like to hear situations where they had to raise a brother or sister, or where they had a one-parent family or a grandma or grandpa raised them and they still ended up doing pretty well academically in high school.
I like to see if they participated in some function in the community, or if they’ve overcome something or had a tough injury and came back…When I think about character I want to know about the fiber of an individual. I want to know what, exactly, they’re made of; what’s attached to their bones and their hearts and their brains. It’s all those things that form their character to me.
Remember when you had to do a group project at some point in school? Your teacher would pair you up with certain people in order to see how classmates together and see how the combination would react, operate and ultimately how they’d fare. It didn’t matter how individually talented one part of the group was if that person was unwilling to work with others. It didn’t matter how well the group worked together if there was one person who constantly didn’t do the job. The group either thrives or dies as a singular unit.
We focus so much on individual traits when judging players who need to work together in a group-based setting in order to succeed. Why? While so many are so deep in the usual analysis that involves crunching data in order to figure out what a player might be able to do at professional level, Popovich is using his own set of standards to build a successful model on how to construct a team. Looking for key personality traits that serve as a direct reflection of the individual’s willingness to sacrifice for the betterment of the group, Popovich is playing a different numbers game than the rest of the NBA.
Maybe that’s why his team hasn’t dipped below the 50-win barrier in more than a decade. Maybe that’s why so many are envious of the Spurs and the success that San Antonio enjoys. Maybe that’s why so many are quick to call the Spurs’ beautiful brand of basketball boring. But it’s definitely why Gregg Popovich has become synonymous with how to build a basketball team.