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The Spurs' ascension under the management team of Popovich and Buford began, as so many things do in basketball, with Larry Brown, who hired them as assistants in 1988-89, the first of his 3 1/2 seasons in San Antonio. Both left for a while: Buford followed Brown to the Los Angeles Clippers and was an assistant at Florida; Popovich worked under Don Nelson with the Golden State Warriors. When Popovich was named the Spurs' G.M. in '94, he brought back Buford as head scout. Pop drew a lot of heat early in the '96-97 season when he fired Bob Hill and took over as head coach, keeping the title of G.M. until he handed it off to Buford before 2002-03. They're an interesting duo-- Popovich the fiery out-front face, Buford the easygoing behind-the-scenes shadow. Ask them about their working relationship or who is responsible for what, and they both go coy. "Philosophical differences?" says Buford. "Well, Pop likes wine, and I drink beer. That's about it." Says Popovich, "R.C. tells me when I'm full of crap."
Clearly, though, it is Pop's team. As executive vice president of basketball operations and head coach, he is above Buford (senior vice president and general manager) on the team's organizational chart--"the head of the snake," as Duncan calls him. "For 11 years around here they've had one guy making decisions for this franchise," says Carlesimo, "and you can't overstate the importance of that. True, three championships wouldn't have happened without David Robinson or Tim Duncan. But in this organization you have a guy who says, 'This is the way you're going to act; this is the way you're going to play defense; this is the way you're going to share the ball. And if you don't do those things, you won't be here.' One man decides what it means to be a Spur."
Popovich takes that role seriously. He may appear to have a hair-trigger temper on the sidelines, but his time in the front office provided him with, as Buford puts it, "the perspective to trust that we had to take it one step at a time, one piece at a time."
Those steps began after the Spurs won their first championship in the lockout-shortened season of 1998-99. Popovich and Buford saw that the contracts of key players such as Robinson, Sean Elliott, Avery Johnson and Mario Elie would be running out over the next couple of years, and it was time to plan for a new era--the Duncan-not-David era--by creating cap room. Over the next three seasons the Spurs reshaped their roster, adding as many as eight players from one season to the next, re-upping Duncan (he got a max $122 million deal in the summer of '03) but never overcommitting to unworthy free agents, always keeping their eye on the prize of long-term success through financial flexibility.
Who can say if the Spurs would have been better in the long run had New Jersey Nets point guard Jason Kidd been swayed by their $94 million free-agent offer in the summer of '03, when they had maximum cap room after Robinson's retirement? That would have turned Parker into either a backup or attractive trade bait and prevented them from signing other free agents. Even in the glow of this year's championship, any San Antonio fan who believes that Parker is a better playmaker than Kidd has been drinking too many prickly pear margaritas along the Riverwalk. But Parker is still developing, while Kidd is an oft-injured 32-year-old who has missed 31 games over the last two regular seasons.
There's little doubt that the Spurs have been fortunate--they won draft lotteries in '87 and '97, when Robinson and Duncan were the top prizes. But a winning culture, inculcated by Popovich on the sideline and Duncan on the court, is the main reason they've prospered.
As he basked last week in the glow of his third title, Duncan, not normally a mushy sort, pondered how good it felt to know what awaits him when practice begins again in October. "There's a group of guys that I'm in love with," he said. "We just won a championship, and all I'm thinking about is that we could be together for years and play even better."
The rest of the league has those same thoughts, though with a lot less relish.