- The Washington Times - Friday, November 11, 2005

In his first season with the New York Knicks, Larry Brown is trying to teach his young team to play “the right way,” as he likes to say. But it won’t be an easy lesson, given the Knicks’ winless start and Brown’s short fuse when it comes to doing things the wrong way.

One of Brown’s many former teams, the San Antonio Spurs, have learned the lesson.

Guided by the stern hand of coach and ex-military man Gregg Popovich, a close friend and disciple of Brown, and led on the court by an authentic but unpretentious superstar, forward Tim Duncan, the Spurs won last season’s NBA championship, making it two in the last three years and three in the last seven. A repeat would not be unexpected. Not only did all the key players return, but the Spurs added three talented veterans.

“This is the deepest team we’ve had, talent-wise,” Popovich said last month before heading to training camp in Duncan’s native Virgin Islands. “What I’m hoping is that it ends up being the deepest team we’ve had knowledge-wise.”

But season-wise, it’s too early to draw any conclusions as to whether the Spurs match the brainpower of the 2003 champs, which featured such savvy veterans as David Robinson, Steve Kerr, Danny Ferry and Steve Smith. But the early indications are favorable. The Spurs, who play the Wizards tomorrow night at MCI Center, are 4-1 going into tonight’s game in Boston.

“This is the best team in basketball by far,” Charlotte guard Brevin Knight said Wednesday after the Spurs overcame a sloppy first half to beat the Bobcats behind Duncan’s 29 points and 10 rebounds. “They have all that talent, and still Pop goes in and says, ‘This guy go here, that guy go there,’ and those guys do exactly that.”

The Spurs are generally regarded as a model franchise — “persistent in their pursuit of excellence,” according to Bobcats coach Bernie Bickerstaff — the NBA equivalent of the New England Patriots.

Not only have they achieved that excellence, “they’ve done it in a very fiscally responsible manner,” Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld said.

Duncan remains at the core of the team, but Argentinian guard Manu Ginobili has become an electric, marquee player and point guard Tony Parker teeters on the brink of stardom. As if the Spurs weren’t sound enough, they added NBA veterans Michael Finley and Nick Van Exel as well as Ginobili’s countryman, 30-year-old Fabricio Oberto, to an already deep bench that includes the likes of NBA Finals hero Robert Horry.

“They’ve managed the salary cap well, they’ve drafted well,” Grunfeld said. “Obviously, they’ve had a great piece to work around, but they’ve put some outstanding pieces around him. … They’re not this high-flying, spectacular-play type of team. They’re more fundamental. They make the extra pass, they play outstanding defense, they rebound the basketball well and they have a go-to player that rises to the occasion.”

That would be Duncan, whose nickname as bestowed by Shaquille O’Neal is “The Big Fundamental.” The antithesis of most superstars, Duncan is reserved, practically devoid of self-promotion, guarded about revealing anything but his game. As Shaq and his Miami teammate, Dwyane Wade, grace the cover of video games and LeBron James and Tracy McGrady sell shoes on television, Duncan simply collected his third ring.

“He helps people to be better and he allows people to reach their highest level, because roles can be fit around him very easily,” Popovich said recently.

Duncan not only leads by example, he serves as the template for the rest of the team. As with the Patriots, character counts.

“It’s not just Tim, it’s a philosophy and a mentality,” said Sean Elliott, a member of the first championship team in 1999 and now a Spurs broadcaster. “It’s bringing in the right people and substance beats style. It’s eliminating distractions in the locker room.”

Referring to the recently unemployed NFL wideout Terrell Owens, Elliott said, “You won’t see any of these guys having a press conference with their agent on their lawn.”

Spurs senior vice-president and general manager R.C. Buford, who works alongside Popovich in making personnel decisions, said owner Peter Holt eagerly embraces and facilitates such a philosophy.

“The ownership group gave Pop an opportunity to provide a vision consistent with the values that they, as owners, had espoused,” said Buford, who defined those values as bringing in “character people whose goals align with team play and competing for championships.”

Finley provides no better illustration. A mainstay with the Dallas Mavericks the last eight and a half seasons, released so the team could avoid paying the luxury tax, he was a desired free agent who turned down offers of more playing time and more money in Miami and Phoenix.

“He’s been playing 36, 37 minutes a game for the last four or five years and he’s not gonna do that here,” Popovich said during his pre-camp briefing. “He knows that already. He wouldn’t have come if he didn’t realize that or wasn’t ready to accept that. The goal is to win a championship and all of us, to some degree, will sacrifice something to get it done.”

“The most important thing is to win and to be part of what I consider one of the best organizations in the league,” Finley said last month. “I led the league in minutes [twice]. I just wanted to have the opportunity to contribute to a winning situation.”

Popovich, who doubles as executive vice-president, has a wry sense of humor and numerous outside interests, including an appreciation of fine wines. But he never has been labeled a “player’s coach” nor, apparently, would he want to be. An Air Force Academy graduate, Popovich, like his mentor, Brown, is unafraid of hurting a player’s feelings if it means achieving the desired results.

Elliott remembers Popovich’s eruptions and even now, when he sneaks into the restroom at halftime and can’t help but hear the coach go off, it remains a little jarring.

“It’s eye-opening,” Elliott said. “If Tim’s not playing well, I tell you, he’ll go after him. He’ll go after Manu and Tony and do it to the 12th guy, too. There’s no favoritism, no special treatment. I guarantee it’s not like that with 90 percent of the coaches in the league.”

Yet for all the Spurs’ success, they remain somewhat trapped by their small-market status and vanilla image. Some of that is a carryover from the slow, methodical way they used to play, with Robinson and Duncan as the twin towers. Now, with the speedy Parker and the acrobatic Ginobili, that is no longer the case. But there is no wasted motion, no gratuitous showmanship.

“This isn’t your father’s Spurs team,” Elliott said. “In years past, people thought this team was boring and plodding and slow, but they’re the opposite of that. It’s easy to dismiss them as boring because they don’t have these brash and outrageous personalities, but you put this team in a Celtics or Knicks or Lakers jersey and people would think this was the most exciting team in the league.”

Elliott said he was flabbergasted when he heard somebody on TV call Duncan an “uninspiring” MVP after the Spurs beat Detroit last season in the NBA Finals.

“I guess if he pounded his chest five times with his fist after dunking, people’s opinions would change,” he said. “I guess you’ve got to do that in today’s environment.”

Or you could just play the game the right way.

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