TORONTO - Toronto head coach Dwane Casey holds the San Antonio Spurs franchise in high regard.
That’s not a bad thing. The Raptors could do a lot worse than try to emulate the Spurs, winners of four titles since 1999, the owners of 13 straight 50-win seasons (lockout season excepted) and 17 division titles.
Like Toronto, San Antonio can’t sell players on fantastic beaches or an intoxicating history. San Antonio isn’t Los Angeles, Boston or New York City. Yet only the Lakers have won more rings over the past 15 years.
Character and consistency have been the keys for the Spurs. Gregg Popovich is the longest tenured head coach in the NBA and R.C. Buford has been expertly at the controls for ages as well. Popovich is the first to admit “a little good fortune” (ie. Going 20-62 after three straight 50-win campaigns and winning the lottery and the chance to grab all-time great Tim Duncan) had a lot to do with it too.
In the absence of good fortune, which of course, can’t be guaranteed, the Raptors need to control what can be controlled.
That means letting Casey implement his culture and finally finding and sticking with a core.
“We’re trying to get there,” Casey admitted.
“We have a good plan. The plan is laid out. We’ve got some good pieces in place and now we’ve got to make sure we make the right decisions around those pieces. Do a good job in forming the right nucleus,” he said.
Casey said he has “total respect” for Popovich. What makes the Spurs worth copying?
“They don’t change what they do, they may tweak it a little bit, but keep the same offensive philosophy and same defensive philosophy.
It’s just handed down over the years and improved over the years,” Casey said.
“It’s probably been the most consistent program in the NBA over the years.”
Great scouting has boosted the Spurs too (who else finds superstars like Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili so late in drafts — 28th overall for Parker, 57th in the case of Ginobili) as has rooting out potential problem players.
“If they have a bad egg, he didn’t last very long, they weed them out quick. Pop’s also the general manager so he has a bigger hammer, or weed eater,” Casey said admiringly.
“We’ve got good guys that understand the priorities. They’ve gotten over themselves, we try to find guys that understand that,” summed up Popovich of the San Antonio philosophy.
“The core is an easy core to get to know, to play around.”
The Raptors seem to be acquiring high character players, so that is a positive start and in Andrea Bargnani and potentially Jonas Valanciunas, a high 2012 draft pick and DeMar DeRozan, some semblance of a Toronto core is emerging.
The league-wide belief also is that Casey is the right man for the job.
Popovich, a friend of Casey’s would be pleased to see an emergence.
“I thought that Toronto was right there (in recent games and in Wednesday’s loss to the Spurs). They’ve had some tough luck the last couple of games, but they are playing terrific defence,” he said.
“It’s going to happen, it’s going to happen for those guys. I was really happy for Case and their group to see how well they are playing. It’s just hard to get over that hump but they are going to do it.”
But first, the talent base must be strengthened both, physically and mentally.
“What we have to learn how to do is execute,” Casey said after his Raptors wasted another glorious opportunity against the Spurs.
“All the young guys need to learn how to play in those situations. It’s the game within the game.
“That’s what I want to build our program into, as we go forward.”
And it is what Popovich has consistently been able to create in Texas.
The wizened coach believes in the importance of chemistry and basketball smarts, along with talent.
“The source is the character of the players. Professional intelligence that they embody, the understanding of what fits. What wins and what loses,” he said.
“Feeling responsibility to others. All those things create chemistry.”
Which in turn, creates wins. In San Antonio’s case, a whole lot of them.
Spurs an example to follow
The San Antonio Spurs definitely are a franchise to envy. They have done things the right way for years, and the results speak for themselves:
Joined NBA: 1976
Division titles: 17
Gregg Popovich playoff record: 101-59
13 seasons in a row with at least 50 wins (lockout years excepted)