The San Antonio Spurs “Program”


A couple of seasons ago (that’s how long this post has been sitting in my Drafts folder, egads), Bethlehem Shoals penned for AOL Fanhouse (RIP) this nice ode to the fast start the San Antonio Spurs went on that year.

The Spurs, if you remember, went from a methodical team that made its name on defense to a offense resembling a high-powered sports car. Suddenly the Spurs were fun to watch. It was a dramatic change from what we were used to and some are still slow to wrap their heads around what happened. With that philosophical change, Shoals produced three paragraphs that hit to the heart of the silver &T black.

At the same time, that the Spurs have found so much success early speaks, first and foremost, to that increasingly vague “Spurs culture.” It’s not necessarily about personnel, or style of play. It’s not even really about Gregg Popovich, or unheralded general manager R.C. Buford (so far, highly-touted rookie Tiago Splitter has disappointed). The Spurs, like the Celtics before them, have an ethos that allows for both continuity and a level of sustained excellence that just doesn’t happen these days. It’s not a function of player loyalty, coaching or front office brilliance, or market size. This reading of what makes a franchise durable is completely backward. The Spurs have all these things because that’s the organization they decided to be.


Some of it is dumb luck (Duncan), and there’s a first time for everything. But anyone looking to either learn from the Spurs, or use them as ammunition against some other player or team, needs to understand that pro sports teams are institutions. They take on a life of their own, and at the same time, cannot take shape in the first place without some sense of purpose. The right question about the Spurs, whether it’s this season or any other, isn’t “how do they keep it up,” or even “how did they get here in the first place?” There’s a “why” behind all of this, and that’s the real Big Fundamental.


Duncan helped take the Spurs to new heights, and yet even he isn’t essential. Nor should Spurs fans be measuring out how many years Manu has left. It might sound mystical, more suited to college ball than the pros, but at this point, the Spurs are the Spurs. This has been true for years; this season just happens to bring an especially dramatic reminder of it.

Shoals’ post reminds me of something that always catches my attention when Gregg Popovich speaks to the media. Coach Pop always refers to the Spurs as a “program.” Not a team or franchise or organization. It’s “program.” The program. This program. Our program. It always strikes me as an interesting word choice.

It makes me think — like Shoals — that this program now exists outside of those that currently run and execute it.

It wouldn’t be possible without Coach Pop and Tim Duncan and others’ previous work for this program to be successful. Popovich with his coaching style and beliefs, and Duncan with his greatness and ability to be coached. But now that they’ve reached this point, this continued success, the program can now just exist.

J.A. Adande touched on it during last year’s playoffs, when the Spurs were rolling and people outside of (210) were just starting to appreciate some of the things that were happening in South Texas.

“When there’s a clarity of what works here and doesn’t work, hopefully it gives us the clarity to know when we’re looking for people,” Spurs general manager R.C. Buford said. “Maybe it helps us reduce our pool.”


It’s not just a culture. The term the Spurs keep using is program, as in a college program.


Example: “Pop has brought the vision to our program,” Buford said. “Everyone who has come through our program understands the things that are important: character and selfless people who want to be part of a team. Want to be part of something bigger than themselves.”

This program has taken on a life of its own. And despite the changes that are coming in the next few years, the program will still be in place. As long as one sweeping change is not made — replacing the ownership, management and coaching staffs — people will be brought in who can work with the program. Kawhi Leonard was a continued step in that direction

The San Antonio Spurs have built a system that runs with little maintenance and the occasional tune-up. An overhaul may be needed soon, but the mechanics handling it seem well qualified.

  • thecity2

    This is why I like the Spurs so much. They play the right way. And when I say “they”, I mean, up and down the roster, it’s like there are no goofballs. Even the goofballs who go there from somewhere else (like SJax) seem to immediately get with the program (pun intended). In my book, that’s the sign of great coaching. It’s astonishing to me that so few other teams (Boston? OKC?) can emulate it. As a Warriors fan, I like to think we’re heading in that direction, but more having to do with Bob Myers becoming the GM, not Jackson becoming the coach.

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  • Jared

    Interesting that you fixated on the use of the word “program” by Pop. The Thunder players and Sam Presti all do that too, and I’m assuming Presti brought it over from the Spurs.

  • lvmainman

    Why can’t the program get Tony Parker to improve on his 3 point shooting? In the last 5 seasons, Parker has shot better than 30% only 1 time!!! Shouldn’t the program get Parker to incorporate a better 3 pt shot into his offensive repertoire? Wouldn’t Parker be a better offensive threat, if he could develop a 3 pt shot?

  • Graham

    Because TP’s energy is best directed elsewhere. I’d rather him work on perfecting his passing from the drive than a 3 point shot, we have guys who can knock those down in spades. We only have one guy who is the firing pin for our whole offense, and that’s Tony and his surgical drives to the lane.

  • SargeSmash

    I’m sure that they’ve worked on his shot quite a bit, as is evidenced by his improvement with his mid-range jumper. However, there is a ceiling on any player’s skill set, no matter how talented. Perhaps Parker has reached the limit of his shooting ability. Not everyone can be a Steve Nash, or a Larry Bird, or a Ray Allen. Even Michael Jordan, as preternaturally talented as he was, did not have a _great_ 3-point shot.

    Not saying Tony can’t get there, of course! But I wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t improve much from behind the line.

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  • zain521

    tony doesn’t need a 3 point shot to be elite… he’s faster and a better finisher than 95% of all pg’s in the league… I’d rather him pass to 3 point specialists like gary neal, danny green, etc that will always have a WAYY better percentage of making the 3 point shot than TP… also the main reason TP will never have a great 3 point percentage is because his shot doesn’t really have too much arc… shots with low arc are generally for shots that are mid range but NOT 3 point shots. Therefore unless you want him to completely change his shooting form in the prime of his career, I would advise him to stay focused on his strengths (finishing in the lane and mid range shots) and let the 3 point masters do their jobs. I also agree with SargeSmash in saying that TP has reached his ceiling in shooting.

  • ThatBigGuy

    The program is based on drive and kicks. Tony is arguably the best drive and kick player in the game, making him the perfect PG for this particular program. Would it be nice if he could shoot 40% from 3? Sure, but it’s ok if he doesn’t because his game is perfectly tailored for his prticular role within the program.

  • Andrew A. McNeill

    I think you guys are confusing the system with the program. The system is how the Spurs play on the court. Things like drive and kick, not leaving shooters open in the corner, etc. The program is the way the organization handles its business, from top to bottom. The type of players they bring into the team and the level of professionalism they expect from everyone involved.

  • Tyler

    Why shoot 3’s when you can get higher % looks at the rim?

    Unless he’s wiiiiiiide open, TP lets the defense off the hook when he takes 3’s…..

  • lvmainman

    That doesn’t work in the playoffs. Teams sag off of Parker, keep him out of the lane, and Parker is effectively neutralized. From the Lakers (.04 series) with Derek Fisher to the Suns (23 pt 4th qtr Dragic) series with Grant Hill or this year’s Thunder series with Thabo Sefalosha. In the playoffs, one needs a counter move when the dribble drive is stymied. The 3 pt shot is that counter move.
    Every good player in the NBA has added the 3 pt shot to their arsenal. From Magic to Michael to Jason Kidd. Why Parker refuses to be a more complete, effective player makes no sense.
    In game 6 against the Thunder for instance, Parker went 0 for 7 on shots beyond 10 ft in the 2nd half. In the 4 losses, Parker shot 9 for 32 = 28.2% from 10 ft and beyond. He needs to improve his outside shooting, if this current Spurs team plans to compete for a championship.

  • DorieStreet

    Insightful article, and good response to clarify what the topic is about. The franchise has been nearly pristine during its long outstanding run (save for a few things involving #9 over the last few years). This track record will insure the ‘program’ continued loyalty from its fanbase after the people who help create this success begin to exit from the organization.

  • Titletown99030507d

    Anybody know when that Spurs scrimmage open to the public is?

  • DorieStreet

    I could not find the exact date, but states that teams playing international preseason contests start training camp on September 29th. Since the Spurs host Montepaschi Siena on October 6th, I figure that open scrimmage is either the first day camp opens, or the following day-Sunday, September 30th.
    (I attended the one in 2010; it was on October 3rd that year- a Sunday afternoon.)

  • Clint Briley

    Nicely noted piece. I have one caveat though. The Spurs do NOT have a “program” even though thats what R.C. and Coach Pop call it. A program indicate that there is a beginning and an end, and though there may be an end to their success at some future point, what drives that success would e more accurately descibed as a CULTURE. Culture is ingrained at the start and stays with the organization despite the personell changes and even changes in geography. The Spurs are a culture. OKC adopted a CULTURE. Popavich bought into the culture and nurtures it. Thats the thing about a culture, new people brought into a “program” will go through the motions but you live by a culture. Thats why Spurs players rarely draw negative media attention (Parker being the exception).

  • Titletown99030507d

    Cool. Thanks Dorie.

    Here’s a fun bit from Aguilar who’s in town today working out with the Spurs. Pause it at 51 sec. If only he could do that in the NBA night in and night out. Ask Durant.


    Excellent point. And the other problem the Spurs have offensively which defines their high 3 point attempts is the fact that no one else on the team can penetrate and finish at the rim with consistency. Ginobili used to. But he just can’t perform it as effectively as he used to. So…in hindsight to your post…Green and Leonard are going to have to become more adept at (not only attacking the rim) but more importantly improve at finishing at the rim. This way teams can’t just focus on shutting down Tony.

    That would be utopian. Parker developing a consistent outside shot AND Leonard and Green becoming better finishers at the rim.


    Excellent point.

  • Titletown99030507d

    Andrew it’s not Tiago’s fault Pop doesn’t play him the way he’s supposed to. We are depending too much on Timmy. If they would make him the focus on the pick n roll and get someone to help out on defense like timmy did for Dejuan for the last 3 years then maybe he would would have enough playing time to make an assessment either way. That was a cheap shot. Why don’t you put the blame on Blair he’s non existent at this point and he had plenty of run with Timmy to make such an assessment. I suppose now your going to blame Tiago for the WCF loss? Get real some people had plenty of run to get the job done. If and only if Pop plays Tiago better than 20 minutes each night you can never make such a claim. I smell a rotten fish.

  • Titletown99030507d

    Japeth Aguilar’s workout went well he was so excited he punched out Kobe.

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