“I would do anything for you guys but not this organization.”
This sentence perfectly encapsulates the power of players in the modern NBA. It is a quote that Kawhi Leonard reportedly said to his San Antonio teammates at a locker-room meeting last season, and is a sentiment that garners a lot of sympathy from fans when teams preach family and loyalty to players only to move them on with seemingly little emotion and care when a better opportunity arises.
This wasn’t always the case. LeBron James received backlash supreme when he made The Decision in 2010. Many sided with Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert (even if they mocked his choice of font) after he wrote a passionate letter about how the team would win a championship before James. It was only six years later, when the league’s best player chose to return to Ohio after winning two titles (not three and not four, not five…) in Miami, that the Cavs won its first NBA Finals in 52 years.
This might have been the start of this modern player empowerment era. Since then, teams have cut players due to injury or the need to improve, as was the case with Isiah Thomas in Boston and DeMar DeRozan in Toronto, respectively, and received reasonably bad press. And with each passing Kevin Durant signing with a new team or Chris Paul orchestrating a sign-and-trade, more empathy lies with the players, who are urged by fans to look out for themselves.
But with the San Antonio Spurs, this was always different, and it wasn’t until the summer of 2017 that any Spur had ever asked to be traded: LaMarcus Aldridge’s request must have felt like a shotgun blast to the chest. There were always concerns about his fit within the offense but never his displeasure with the culture or the organization. It was the intimate approach in which Head Coach Gregg Popovich handled Aldridge’s gripes that led the power forward to re-sign with the team and record his best season with them.
This is why it was so difficult for fans of the San Antonio Spurs to stomach the fact that a player – a star player that the team targeted in the draft, developed, nurtured and helped create – didn’t like its culture.
The problem was reading Leonard and understanding what he wanted. Every pundit has their own theory: he wants a team of his own, he wants to be in a big market, he wants to be on a good team in a small market, he doesn’t want to be the face of a franchise. The point is nobody knows, and he has likely been as forthcoming with the Spurs as he has with the media. The only thing that has been made clear is he did not fit in with the culture of San Antonio.
The Spurs Way is known throughout the league. It has made other franchises envious, and bit by bit the team’s bench is dismantled by others who want a piece to recreate the culture elsewhere: the Hawks took Mike Budenholzer before he moved to Milwaukee, Brooklyn hired Sean Marks as General Manager, the Mavericks input Avery Johnson as Head Coach, PJ Carlesimo for the Seattle SuperSonics, and the list goes on.
Part of the Spurs Way is treating everybody the same. Coach Pop is famous for calling out his star players, and newcomers to the team were often surprised at the level of criticism he would level at Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. At a Q&A with FIBA coaches in 2016, Popovich was asked how he deals with ego and he said: “If this kid is selfish, you’re not changing him. It’s going to come out in an important part of the game and you’ve got to get rid of him. Bye, bye.”
He later went on to say: “When you amass enough [unselfish] character[s] on your team, that’s when you can handle someone who might be a little off the mark in some way shape or form.”
The Spurs’ problem arrived when the leaders from the team weren’t wholly bought into this culture. Leonard is a fantastic player and teammate, but there might be some more developed ego underlying the quiet exterior. Nobody knows. It might be that he sees other players at the All-Star Game get special treatment from their teams while the Spurs’ support is more subdued. An addendum from Michael C Wright on Zach Lowe’s podcast hinted that Leonard had to walk through New Orleans with his hood up to make his way to the All-Star Game in 2017 because of a problem with transport. Could you imagine that happening to James Harden or Kevin Durant?
This might only be a small issue, but a combination of small issues build to mistrust and uneasiness. And if that happens to your star player and team leader, that is when they start to look around and wonder if it could be better in a culture that is more focused on them.
Perhaps these smaller issues don’t boil over if you still had Duncan, or Parker was still a go-to person on the court, or if Ginobili was under 40?
Even the San Antonio Spurs legend David Robinson reached out to Leonard “several times”, he told Rachel Nichols on ESPN’s The Jump. He said: “San Antonio, we obviously have a reputation for taking care of our players, almost too much… But if a guy’s not happy, he’s got to go somewhere where he can play.”
You’ve got to get rid of him. Bye, bye.
Despite this cold approach, San Antonio’s culture is made up of multiple aspects. Coach Pop is possibly the head of it but at Tim Duncan’s retirement press conference he said: “I would not be standing here if it wasn’t for Tim Duncan. I’d be in the Budweiser League someplace in America, fat and still trying to play basketball or coach basketball. But he’s why I’m standing. He’s made livings for hundreds of us, staff and coaches, over the years and never said a word, just came to work every day.”
Amid all the drama, former Spurs player Antonio Daniels tweeted:
This is why I call Tim Duncan the greatest teammate in professional sports history. He QUIETLY shielded this SA fan base from all the drama the other 29 teams deal with. When he retired a huge piece of culture retired w/him. TD left some huge shoes to fill. #Salute21
— Antonio Daniels (@adaniels33) July 18, 2018
Duncan undoubtedly helped set a tone in San Antonio that Popovich has tried to maintain since the big man retired – maybe a team’s culture does entirely spawn from its star player…
In recent years, LeBron James has held teams to ransom by signing one-year deals, bent front offices to his will by strategically sitting out games, got certain players overpaid by telling them to withhold their services. You can see why players, managers, and coaches don’t stand up to him. In defense of James, most of the time he is the greatest basketball mind in the building, and certainly was in Cleveland, so that might change now he is in Los Angeles, but the culture of the Cavaliers was LeBron James during his time there, from the roster down to the assistant trainer. There is a reason it is called a player’s league, and James is a perfect example of this.
But the Spurs have still worked hard to create an equal platform where no one curries favor over another. When Roy Hibbert played with the Indiana Pacers, he joined a San Antonio training day.
He told Larry Wilmore on Black On The Air: “When George Hill got traded to the Pacers, I reached out to Tim Duncan and I flew to San Antonio to work out with the team… They would all do court work together but then everybody, literally everybody – trainers, coaches – they’d all go to the track and they all ran. I think I even saw Popovich there as well, like a family. Even the ball boys, they would all run together.”
There is even evidence of Popovich getting in the trenches with his players at the Team USA camp this summer – how many times do you recall former USA coach Mike Krzyzewski doing this?
Pop takes no prisoners ? pic.twitter.com/mDBehGcUEp
— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) July 28, 2018
So maybe this summer’s activities can be a rehabilitation exercise for Gregg Popovich. He can use the opportunity to highlight his everybody is equal culture to the best players in the country. Not only will it give DeMar DeRozan and his new coach a head start when it comes to building chemistry but it will reassure other stars that last year’s turbulence was the exception that proves the rule in The Spurs Way.
Krzyzewski never intended USA Basketball to be a tool to use outside of simply winning a few gold medals and putting something good on his CV, but it has raised the coach’s profile. The Ringer’s Bill Simmons might not be the biggest fan of Duke, but when discussing Coach K’s brilliance on his podcast with former NBA and Duke player Jay Williams, he said: “He did USA basketball because it’s the greatest recruiting tool, because he has all these dudes on speed dial for when he’s talking to RJ Barrett and he’s like ‘oh, you love Kevin Durant? Hold on, I’ll text him right now.”
Williams simply responded: “Truth.”
This next chapter for Popovich is exactly what the Spurs need. The team’s coach will be around star players with big egos, he will learn how to handle non-Duncan-esque people, while also showing those guys – some of whom will be available in Free Agency after next season – that he has not been entirely at fault this past year. It will revive a man who has struggled personally and professionally and helped him re-establish a culture in San Antonio, so the team’s new, existing and future stars can start believing in the organization again as much as they believe in its players.