The San Antonio Spurs are considered a monolith. Their success led to the type of continuity that is rare in sports, and with it came a way to do things from which they rarely deviated. San Antonio values familiarity and the reliability of veterans. They don’t make risky moves unless they absolutely have to and rely on avoiding mistakes to make up for their lack of dynamism. That’s who they are.
In recent years, however, there has been a slow but noticeable shift in the franchise. From on court stalwarts retiring to changes in the coaching staff and the front office, we’ve seen some cracks in the stone. While it’s been scary to embrace this franchise-wide change, it could ultimately be what propels the Spurs back to relevancy.
As it typically happens with vertical organizations, the top hasn’t seen much of a shift. The board of directors remains the same. The divorce of Peter and Julianna Holt shook things up some, but the family still owns the team, and it doesn’t seem like their notorious hands off approach has changed. Neither has the mandate to put together a competitive team while spending below the luxury tax, presumably, although the lack of upheaval after only one playoff appearance in the past three seasons would suggest that ownership understands that the years of contention are over, at least for now.
A step below is where the more interesting shakeups have seemingly happened. R.C. Buford went from team President to CEO of Spurs Sports and Entertainment. Gregg Popovich retained his title of President of Basketball Operations, but now Brent Barry is directly below him as Vice President of Basketball Operations. The General Manager title has been held by Brian Wright for the past two years, and Danny Ferry has been brought in as consultant. More interesting than the shuffling of names has been the apparent changes in team building philosophy and the growing pains of developing a new brain trust — or at least adapting the old one to a new era.
The big moment that showed that maybe the coaching staff and the front office weren’t in the same page yet came two offseasons ago. The fact that the Spurs tried to go for not only DeMarre Carroll but also Marcus Morris while still having Rudy Gay on the roster and no natural power forward suggests that the shift to full time small ball that we saw in the bubble might have happened sooner if Morris had actually stuck to his word and Pop had not decided to remain more traditional by going with Trey Lyles. This is just speculation, but it seems like the new generation of executives wanted to push for something that the coaching staff wasn’t necessarily ready for at the time.
If we fast forward to this past season, however, we can see that the coaching staff and the front office largely agreed on staying the course early and on when it was time to move on from LaMarcus Aldridge. Both sides seemed to have learn their lesson from the frustrating experience from the year before: change has to come, but not matter how good an idea is, if there’s no consensus, it simply won’t work.
If in fact trust has been established between the basketball people, old and new, this draft and free agency process could be an exciting one. There will be less experienced but empowered decision-makers trying to make their imprint on the roster and a coach that seems receptive to change. A normal Spurs offseason in the past mostly involved tinkering with the edges of the roster, even when in recent years there was a case to be made for the need of bigger shakeups, but now it’s a time for a bolder approach. Having fresh faces with hopefully innovative ideas could prove to be a huge asset when it comes to taking the next step.
The point here is not to deny that Pop and R.C. have wonderful basketball minds which produced a perennial contender, but it’s undeniable that they developed their skill set under completely different circumstances. Rebuilding might demand a different approach, and the hiring or promotion of new faces, mostly young, both at the executive level and in the coaching staff seems to suggest even they know it. The league is changing rapidly, and the Spurs’ Way could be in danger of becoming a relic if it’s not updated. This renewal doesn’t mean throwing out the playbook that took so long to develop, but it means revising it.
What that will actually look like in practice is unclear. Hopefully it will involve using the cap space the franchise has spent years setting up wisely, even if there are no game-changing free agents available. Whether it happens by facilitating trades as a third team or absorbing the contract of a highly paid veteran that fits the current needs, the Spurs have given themselves options to be creative. There’s also enough positional overlap in the young core to potentially remain deep even after a trade, either to move up in the draft or get a piece that rounds out the roster better. If there is a time for San Antonio to show ingenuity and risk-taking, it will be this offseason, because staying the course just doesn’t seem viable.
It’s taken a little while, but it has been encouraging to see the Spurs’ rebuilding of the coaching staff and the front office mirror the one we’ve seen on the roster. The veterans are still there to pass on knowledge and lead the way, but there are new additions hungry to make their mark.
Now, both on the court and in the war room, it’s time for the new faces to show that they can become the dominant force in the franchise. How this offseason goes should tell us a lot about how ready the Spurs are to eventually move past the Buford-Popovich era when it sadly comes to an end.