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How to understand the San Antonio Spurs

A collection of resources to improve our collective knowledge of the best franchise in sports.

2014 NBA Global Games - Berlin Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

This series seeks to round up some of the best information available on how the Spurs do business. It starts from an organizational perspective and will work its way down to the nitty-gritty tactical details. There’s a lot of incredible Spurs-related media available, so if we miss something, or as new stuff becomes available, let us know and we’ll continue to add and update as we go.

Who before what, why before how, us before you or me

We spend a lot of time thinking, talking, writing and reading about what the Spurs do and what they should do, and it’s easy to find narrative explanations of their motivations by focusing on the impact of a particular decision or sequence of events. But all too often, that’s far too narrow a lens to apply to San Antonio basketball. We don’t spend nearly as much time considering the ethos that underpins those actions, despite the fact that understanding how the Spurs’ organization sees itself explains more about everything they do than Xs and Os ever could.

Fortunately, Coach Gregg Popovich discussed the philosophy and approach behind the Spurs’ success at a coaching clinic in Berlin on October 6th, 2014 as part of the NBA’s Global Games that year. As ever, when he’s not playing a curmudgeon for the cameras, Popovich was both engaging and disarming, with the eloquence to simultaneously address serious topics with the gravity they deserve while remaining lighthearted enough to joke with the audience. (Yes, this is a 33 minute video — just the kind of thing the “watch later” feature is for.)

First and foremost, it’s a masterclass in organizational leadership. From emphasizing participation and ownership at every level of the franchise to prizing character as a distinguishing trait, Coach Popovich lays out a framework for building and maintaining individual investment in group goals. He stresses the need for absolute accountability, fairness and honesty with and between every member of the team, which sets the foundation for building trust and forming relationships that extend beyond the work at hand.

In addition to the overarching themes, Coach Popovich also drills down into the specifics of how the team recovered from the devastating loss in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals, describes his approach to handling timeouts and why the players often run them, and compares some of the different types of leaders that have played for the Spurs. As he moves from topic to topic, the underlying message is clear: Popovich really and truly cares about the people who work for and around him.

Perhaps just as important is how he frames the team’s goals. Each season, they set out to be the best prepared and most healthy team they can be at playoff time. There’s no discussion of where they’ll finish in the standings or how deep they’ll go in the playoffs, just a commitment to the journey. Every year they start at the beginning, giving attention to every detail, with the understanding that when the season ends, regardless of what else happens, they’ll be proud of the work they’ve done.

For the Spurs, it’s not about the result. As long as they take care of the people and are committed to the process, they believe the results will take care of themselves. Twenty-two consecutive winning seasons say they’re right.