Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs
Fire Gregg Popovich.
It’s the first thing one NBA executive said he would do if given the challenge of taking over one of the most successful franchises in the National Basketball Association.
The long-time Spurs coach led the team to five NBA titles, and the franchise’s 22-year playoff run concluded only recently, due in part to the coronavirus pandemic. At 1,277 wins, Popovich is the third-winningest coach in NBA history.
So, fire Popovich?
Andy Dolich, the Memphis Grizzlies’ former president, laughed when told about the executive’s first move. He called it a “knee jerk reaction.” Instead, Dolich suggested a “deep look at the organization” to identify areas of improvement.
“That’s how real businesses get better,” he said.
The question, though: After so much dominance, so many memorable moments with David Robinson, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili, how do you rebuild the Spurs, sports and entertainment?
How do the Spurs start another 22 years of dominance in the NBA?
To find the answers, the team set up a Zoom call with three of the organization’s top executives, including CEO R.C. Buford and general manager Brian Wright.
A new vision
The executive who wanted Popovich gone laughed after the notion. He knows the chances are slim but recalled Popovich’s first move when talking over the Spurs in 1996: He fired then-coach Bob Hill.
Dolich said the Spurs could do what he labeled a “SWOT Test.”
“Strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and drill down to every part of the organization,” he said. “See what we have that’s still strong, see what we have that’s weak, and create plans for making it stronger.”
The first question on the Zoom call to Buford: In which areas are the Spurs currently weak?
“Are we only going to talk about the weaknesses,” Buford answered.
He then spoke of the Spurs’ values-based system, mentioned the team’s 47 years in the NBA, making the postseason 39 times in that span, and a .599 winning percentage, best in league history.
“That is the history and the legacy that we’re here to build from,” Buford said. “And from a vision standpoint, it’s not going to change a whole lot – values based, culture focused, community engaged, and championship driven.”
Over the last five months, the world has been rocked with a pandemic, which forced the NBA to shut down on March 11, and social unrest following the death of George Floyd on May 25. Buford said the Spurs have learned “articulating our vision and our messaging is going to be important.”
But the Spurs could use an upgrade in several areas, including its practice site, the dreadful AT&T Center, which lacks adequate Wifi and is soon coming up on naming rights in 2022 for the building.
Through an email, AT&T confirmed the naming rights expiration but did not make an official available to discuss the matter.
The vision also includes being more open to the public. The Spurs have used social media to give a more behind the scenes look at the franchise through new assets like “Spurs Stories.”
It’s a data play, as the team is seeking new revenue streams with Covid-19 changing engagement strategies. The Spurs’ fan base are some of the most loyal in the NBA; hence, providing them a closer look inside of the franchise could be lucrative if the metrics follow.
The new executive
Brandon Gayle, the Spurs’ new executive vice president of partnerships and revenue, was also on the Zoom call and discussed the vision.
Gayle, who Buford recruited from Facebook, will help oversee the team’s desire to expand reach from Monterrey, Mexico to Austin. “How do we start to own that full territory and all the points around it and in-between,” he said.
Gayle said creating “a peek behind the curtain so folks will get to know this brand and understand what it stands for” will help that growth. If the Spurs can build a new audience and collect the metrics, Gayle said, monetization opportunities should follo,w allowing the team to grow its roughly $285 million in revenue.
Gayle said AT&T and Frost Bank “have been great and committed to our partnership.” AT&T has arena naming rights worth about $2 million per season and Frost Bank has a jersey sponsorship. If for some reason they pull out, however, it would offer a “great opportunity to extend our regional and global perspective,” Gayle said.
He added the Spurs are strong locally, and “business supports that from a revenue standpoint over these last 22 years.” “But we’ve got a real opportunity to maximize that revenue generation as we think about the brand globally and even regionally,” he said.
Gayle said the Spurs would also start improving its app making more cashless options available as it hopes to lure fans back once health and safety conditions allow.
Tom James, the Spurs’ long-time communications chief, then chimed into the Zoom conversation. He mentioned the team’s new photographer, who has “full access.”
“He can do whatever he wants,” James said of the photographer’s access to gather the content. “You know us. That’s a big shift.”
“We had to get you to leave before we start doing that,” humored Buford, referencing this reporter, who covered the Spurs before coming to CNBC.
DeMar DeRozan #10 of the San Antonio Spurs handles the ball while Russell Westbrook #0 of the Houston Rockets defends during the first half of a NBA basketball game at The Field House at ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on August 11, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.
Kim Klement-Pool | Getty Images
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the vision that fans are concerned with has to do with the basketball product.
One Western Conference team executive praised Popovich’s job in the NBA Disney bubble, noting the Spurs’ small-ball lineup, which he called a “unique style” but questioned its roster direction overall.
Do the Spurs go young and rebuild? Another model is staying competitive and attracting another top free agent, similar to what the team did in 2015, when it landed LaMarcus Aldridge from the Portland Trail Blazers?
“We think we’re positioned well with the mix of veterans that we have and the mix of younger guys developing along the way,” said Wright.
Aldridge will make $24 million next year, and co-star DeMar DeRozan has a $27 million player option. Near the NBA’s trade deadline, the Spurs were rumored to be shopping Aldridge, but rival executives suggest the Spurs “overplayed their hand thinking they were supposed to get some giant package for him,” one NBA executive said.
The Spurs could shop Aldridge again this offseason. Aldridge had repaired his relationship with Blazers superstar Damian Lillard, and one agent suggests the Spurs could ship him back to the Blazers.
On the DeRozan front, he’ll likely decide to pick up his option. The Spurs could build around him, using the team’s bubble play as a roster model or trade him, too, should he opt out. DeRozan is close with Miami Heat star Jimmy Butler, and one agent forecast a possible Spurs-Heat package.
It’s Wright’s job to help fix the roster, and the NBA’s economics around its 2020-21 salary cap will be critical. But having been promoted less than a year ago, Wright is still learning the Spurs’ way. That came through on the Zoom call.
Asked how the Spurs can rebuild, Buford intercepted Wright’s question.
“Jabari let me answer this one,” Buford interrupted. “It’s more fair for me to [answer] since I’ve been engaged in this for a long time.”
Buford explained the Spurs have never been swayed by public opinion. To back this, he remembered calls to “blow it up” at the end of David Robinson’s era, and then again at the end of 2009-10 season.
Buford said the Spurs would continue to address its roster “optimistically and opportunistically.” He then mentioned Aldridge’s signing, which translated to a Western Conference finals appearance in 2016.
“Things didn’t go as we hoped, and it’s not on anybody,” Buford said. “Some decisions we wished we could’ve done differently, but I think having the ability to develop young talent and flexibility to be opportunistic is going to be what we’re going to continue to do.”
Gregg Popovich head coach of the San Antonio Spurs congratulates his team after defeating the Detroit Pistons at AT&T Center on February 27, 2019 in San Antonio, Texas.
Ronald Cortes | Getty Images Sport | Getty Images
But who will be on the sidelines as the roster continues to develop?
According to Buford, even with the Spurs’ vision shifting in a different direction, it’s still channeled through Popovich, who is 71, and that will continue.
“Pop’s vision has clearly been our North Star,” he said. “However, having said that, when we get ready to make a decision, we all get in the room, and everybody needs to be prepared, and he doesn’t care who it is that gets the right answer, as long as we get the right answer.”
Asked about the Popovich to New York rumors, where former Spurs executive and current Brooklyn Nets GM Sean Marks could be seeking his services, Buford said the Spurs are “under the assumption” Popovich is returning. The coach is also scheduled to coach the USA basketball men’s national team in next summer’s rescheduled Olympic games in Tokyo.
“I don’t know if he’s told Brian any differently,” Buford said. “Pop’s shown nothing other than how we’re going to build our team for next year.”
But Buford added: “Pop’s vision will be in play long after his presence. That doesn’t mean it’ll be him in there making those decisions, but we’ve all learned together, and you’re not going to step away from a values-based, team-building aspect that focuses on culture and coming to work every day and working on it.”
As the Spurs approach 50 years in the NBA, the team is looking to celebrate its organization, Buford said. He concluded the Zoom discussion assuring the Holt family’s commitment to San Antonio despite turning a $75 million investment in 1993 to $1.8 billion and a recent minority ownership change.
“Pieces change all the time – not much here but in other organizations,” Buford said. “Individual investors, for whatever reason, change all the time. But the Holt family’s commitment to the community, we’re here in San Antonio to stay.”