This past offseason, the Magic hired two products of the Spurs’ wildly prolific tree, and Magic executives have said publicly that they hope to replicate the Spurs’ success.
On June 20, the Magic hired Rob Hennigan as their new general manager. Hennigan started his post-college career as a Spurs intern in 2004 and spent a total of four seasons with the organization, ending his tenure in 2007-08 as the team’s director of basketball operations. From there, Hennigan spent four seasons with the Oklahoma City Thunder, whose basketball-operations department is headed by another former Spurs executive, Sam Presti.
On Saturday, the Magic hired Jacque Vaughn as their new coach. Vaughn spent the last three seasons of his playing career in San Antonio and spent the last two seasons as an assistant coach, apprenticing under Gregg Popovich.
You could argue that the true stars of Vaughn’s introductory news conference Monday were Popovich and the franchise Popovich helped build.
“Obviously,” Magic CEO Alex Martins said, “when you talk about the San Antonio Spurs, there are not many better in terms of the number of championships that they’ve won.”
Vaughn named Popovich as one of the three coaches who have influenced him most.
“The last five out of six years, I’ve been around a gentleman who just goes by the name of ‘Pop,’ ” Vaughn said. “I’ve emulated him. I’ve taken notes. I’ve shared an office. He’s been unbelievable to me to allow me to be around his brilliance, and for that, I thank him tremendously.”
The Magic would love to emulate the Spurs’ success.
San Antonio is one of the smallest markets in the NBA, and yet the Spurs still have managed to win four league titles since 1998-99.
In June, shortly after the Magic hired Hennigan, I asked Spurs general manager R.C. Buford to explain how they’ve maintained that success.
He meant it only half-jokingly.
The Spurs were downright lucky to win the 1987 and the 1997 draft lotteries and win the rights to select Robinson and Duncan, respectively, first overall. Robinson and Duncan are the rarest of superstars: true team-first guys.
But Buford’s initial comment also didn’t do the Spurs justice.
The Spurs selected Ginobili 57th overall in the 1999 draft. The Spurs selected Parker 28th overall in the 2001 draft.
San Antonio deserves credit for scouting Ginobili and Parker, for evaluating them correctly and then for developing them into the players they’ve become.
I asked Buford to describe the Spurs’ approach further.
“It’s being around people who want to be part of something bigger than themselves, who are committed to working diligently together, and no matter what, there’s always a talent level that has to happen,” he answered. “But I think that also the character of the individual is reflected in the character of the team.”
Hennigan and Vaughn each have used Buford’s phrase to describe the players they’re seeking: “people who want to be part of something bigger than themselves.”
To follow the Spurs’ model, the Magic will have to build through the draft.
They’ll have to make the most of all of their picks, but they likely will need some luck in the lottery.
This is why the Magic might win long-term if they lose big in the short-term.
Remember, the Spurs went 28-54 in the season before they drafted Robinson and 20-62 in the season before they drafted Duncan.
Again, the details of the Magic’s long-term strategy remain unclear.
The franchise could speed up a rebuilding process by paring payroll and by signing a marquee free agent who would embrace a team-first philosophy.
Because of Florida’s warm weather and lack of a state income tax, the Magic have succeeded in landing free agents before — and they almost succeeded in prying Duncan out of San Antonio as a free agent in 2000.
In the meantime, the Magic will stress player development.
This past season, Popovich’s coaching staff featured four assistant coaches, including Vaughn, who did the game-planning and helped run practices. Two other assistant coaches focused more on player development.
Vaughn’s coaching staff could follow a similar model.
“Development will be a huge component of what we do here,” Vaughn said. “I think San Antonio has done a good job of capitalizing on that part of the market. They’ve taken guys drafted 50th and drafted in the second round and created spots for guys that were on the summer-league team and ended up being integral parts of the team.
“So for us I’m going to be a huge believer in development, and I’ll have guys on the staff that their focus will be development. But we all will touch the players every single day. I’m a huge believer in that.”