The Anti-Wizards: Why Washington is Really Following the San Antonio Spurs Model
[Ed. Note: Even if the San Antonio Spurs lose Game 7 of the NBA Finals to the Miami Heat tonight, going down as having "choked" Game 6, their legacy as a franchise—the class of the NBA—is still in tact. San Antonio's "model" will continue to be followed by franchises for years to come, including the Washington Wizards. And if they do happen to pick up their fifth NBA title under Gregg Popovich, it makes what they've accomplished over the last 16 seasons all the more special.]
The layers probably won’t ever be pulled back in an exposé and it will never be admitted by the man himself, but Ernie Grunfeld has changed. And it would be hard to deny that much of it is due to Ted Leonsis. Would you expect anything else with a change of majority ownership? It goes much deeper than a new coat of paint on the team logo.
Under the frugal, and sometimes meandering, mom-and-pop ways of the Abe Pollin regime, Grunfeld was often forced to swing for the fences, particularly when it came to the NBA Draft. That is no longer the case. For the Wizards, it’s been a new world but with the same old losing problems … so far.
From ending his association with America Online (AOL) at just the right time to his various other successful endeavors en route to becoming a billionaire, Leonsis has learned a thing or two, or three. He has grown since the days of courting Michael Jordan to the Wizards with cigars and a high-powered cronies, convincing Uncle Abe to play along. He has grown since the days of throwing money at the bungled existence of Jaromir Jagr with the Capitals. Leonsis now plays a smarter, safer game. He shoulders his emotions on his blog, Ted’s Take, but not necessarily when he’s in his decision-making business suit.
These days, Leonsis is trying to build his teams by following a pattern proven to increase the likelihood of long-term success, and he subtly assumes the role of “hardliner” during sports league work-stoppage negotiations, perfectly willing to sacrifice games for a more ideal collective bargaining agreement for the owners. Leonsis loves the world, but he also firmly believes that he’s the end cultivator for all that exists as a pro sports team. His foresight stems from an ‘If it weren’t for the investment from the owners, there wouldn’t be a league…’ type of attitude. But unlike other hardliners, Leonsis wants to do it the right way.
People have pixelated over the Oklahoma City Thunder Model to the point of irrationality, especially as it might pertain to the Wizards. They are not getting a Kevin Durant. Still, like the Thunder, Washington has aimed to build through a slew of consecutive high draft picks while collecting lower picks with the goal of developing them into assets. Hasn’t exactly worked out. OKC “earned” top-5 draft picks in three straight seasons (which became Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden), and then raced into the playoffs with 50 wins. Washington, after its fourth straight season at the bottom of the NBA standings, will make its fourth consecutive appearance at the top of the draft order (1st, 6th, 3rd, and 3rd).
If anything, Washington is following the San Antonio Spurs Model. Not to discredit Tim Duncan as being the main cog, but the Spurs’ model doesn’t center around one person, or even a trio of stars. It’s systematic, never something to be driven by players like Stephen Jackson when they want to act like Stephen Jackson. No, players buy into San Antonio’s system led by Head Coach Gregg Popovich. Or else.
And through it all, as Pop’s international strategy has become the strategy in the NBA—seven GMs and five head coaches this past season grew from the Spurs’ tree—it’s always been framed in Moneyball terms: Go somewhere other teams aren’t, find talent nobody else finds. But to spend time inside the Spurs organization today is to uncover another interpretation of the Spurs dynasty: that as America’s youth basketball pipeline has produced a type of player that Pop has no interest in coaching, he has found an advantage not only in targeting international players but in avoiding domestic ones.
Seth Wickersham recently wrote an excellent piece about the philosophy of Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs—their model. The piece appeared in the June edition of ESPN The Magazine and rehashed the long-known issues with the U.S. amateur basketball system. Coach Popovich obviously doesn’t disparage all American players with a blanket—the Spurs drafted Kawhi Leonard, after all—but one particular quote in Wickersham’s article caught national attention.
The U.S. has the NCAA serving as a conflicted arbiter of both the players’ time and money; there is no pretense of amateurism overseas, and for better or worse, practices often last hours longer than our regulated college ones. The Spurs, of course, are not in the business of worrying about the demands on a student-athlete’s time and saw it as a plus that guys like Ginobili and Parker had been playing club basketball since they were teenagers, schooled by accredited coaches, the 10,000-hour rule brought to the hardwood. Consider Pop’s brutal assessment that foreign players are “fundamentally harder working than most American kids,” and it’s no wonder the Spurs want to avoid the fate of so many NBA teams, which are, as Buford says, “the end of the road for the developmental habits that are built in the less-structured environment in the U.S.”
Andray? Nick? JaVale?
Aside from drafting John Wall and Bradley Beal—two no-brainers (and one-and-done college players)—just look at the pattern of foreign-schooled or experienced college players that Grunfeld has followed since Leonsis took majority ownership prior to the 2010 NBA Draft:
Kevin Seraphin – 17th overall, 2010 – Born in the French Guiana in 1989, Seraphin only started playing basketball in 2004. But in 2006 he joined Cholet Basketball Academy in France where he developed under dedicated basketball instruction until entering the 2010 draft.
Trevor Booker – 23rd overall, 2010 – Spent four years in college playing for Oliver Purnell at Clemson.
Hamady N’diaye – 56th overall, 2010 – From Senegal, spent four years at Rutgers, won Big East Defensive Player of the Year.
Jan Vesely – 6th overall, 2011 – Groomed in Czech club system, started playing professionally at age 17 in Slovenia and went to play in Serbia at age 18.
Chris Singleton – 18th overall, 2011 – Spent three years at Florida State playing for former Wizards coach Leonard Hamilton.
Shelvin Mack – 34th overall, 2011 – Spent three years at Butler, played in back-to-back NCAA title games.
Tomas Satoransky – 32nd overall, 2012 – Groomed in Czech club system, has played in the Spanish ACB League since 2009 (age 18).
Granted, before Leonsis, Grunfeld’s teams made the playoffs in four seasons … however, Grunfeld’s six-year draft legacy pre-Leonsis boils down to Andray Blatche (49th overall in 2005 out of high school), Nick Young (16th overall in 2007 after three years at USC—under Tim Floyd? … please), and JaVale McGee (18th overall in 2008 after two maldeveloped seasons at Nevada). All three were gambles by Grunfeld; unpolished, talented risks. If there’s been a more anti-Popovich trio drafted into the NBA by one guy, I’d like to know who they are. Oleksiy Pecherov (18th overall in 2006 out of Ukraine) loved the offense, didn’t speaking the language of defense, and would fill the hole in four successive drafts of setting the franchise back.
Aside from three American youths with undeveloped basketball cognition, the only other U.S.-bred player Grunfeld drafted during his pre-Leonsis tenure who actually played for the Wizards was Dominic McGuire (47th overall, 2007), who spent two years at Cal and one year at Fresno State. McGuire, a defensive-minded player, lasted two-plus seasons with Washington until he was traded to the Sacramento Kings in February 2010 for essentially nothing—the move was made to ensure that the failing Wizards would be under the NBA’s luxury tax. Devin Harris (5th overall, 2004) was immediately traded to the Mavericks for Antawn Jamison, Bill Walker (47th overall, 2008) was immediately sold to the Celtics, and Jermaine Taylor (32nd overall, 2009) was immediately sold to the Rockets.
In addition to Pecherov, the other foreign player Grunfeld drafted who played for the Wizards was a relative bust, Peter John Ramos (Puerto Rico – 32nd overall, 2004). Vladimir Veremeenko (Russia – 48th overall, 2006) might never play in the NBA, but Grunfeld was able to turn him into Kirk Hinrich and Kevin Seraphin in a 2010 trade with the Chicago Bulls.
Abe Pollin’s edict to Grunfeld was to sacrifice team-building to save money. Michael Lee’s article in the Washington Post in early May said that Grunfeld was “given orders” to trade the 2009 fifth overall pick to get rid of long-term contracts. It’s safe to assume that Grunfeld was also following orders when he sold second round picks in back-to-back years, 2008 and 2009. You won’t ever catch the San Antonio Spurs selling second round picks. According to RealGM.com, the Spurs currently retain the draft rights to eight players, five of them their own draft picks (all second rounder). The Wizards currently retain the draft rights to two players: Tomas Satoransky, their second round pick last year, and Emir Preldzic, whose rights were acquired from Cleveland in the February 2010 Antawn Jamison deal.
Washington holds two second round picks in this year’s draft, their own at 38 and pick 54, acquired from the New York Knicks in a December 2011 three-team deal. Randy Wittman saying that the Wizards don’t need any more ‘damn kids’ has less of a bearing on what they do with their second rounders. They could select a Euro-stash, they could kick the can down the road by trading one for a future second rounder. But don’t count on Washington just giving a pick away for cash this time around.
Even if he’s now clearly subject to different top-down management, the growth of Grunfeld, his advisors, and his ability to listen to his advisors should not be discredited. Just as he learned his Grunfeldian style of measure in front of the media via exposure at a Big Apple level with the Knicks, perhaps Grunfeld has now learned how to not get duped by dumb American players.
But in a sense, McGee, Young and Blatche have each made it much further than ever expected—not one of them were lottery picks, all are still in the NBA. Goes to show you that you can get somewhere on sheer talent alone. But they’re struggles to stay relevant, and under contract, may also say something about teamwork and how the default American developmental system is simply becoming less and less tolerated by today’s NBA. Allen Iverson is iconic. But perhaps the era of ball-dominant NBA players died with Iverson’s career—the greatest and the last, now drunk and broke.
Unless there is drastic change amongst the AAU and college programs, the ills of the American system will still occasionally infiltrate the top level of basketball. Sure, there are good organizations trying to change the pattern in the U.S., as there is also some natural self-correction going on, but true change is hard to come by when money is being leached off people. But with the bad, there will always be those who rise above—Bradley Beal didn’t come up in no European system.
In trying to follow the Spurs fleet to the land of plenty, the Wizards have shifted player evaluation strategies and fine-tuned their navigation systems (including implementing SportsVU, a player-tracking technology that was originally developed by an Israeli company to track missiles). There’s also been a recent pattern of minor player moves and acquisitions otherwise since the passing of Pollin and the deconstruction of the Arenas/Butler/Jamison core while the inevitable transfer of ownership was rather clear.
Cedric Jackson first signed with the Spurs in March 2010 and saw three games of action; the Wizards brought him in later that month for four games. Larry Owens was first signed by the Spurs in January 2011 and played seven games; the Wizards signed him for five games in March 2011. Othyus Jeffers was signed by San Antonio on March 4, 2011; the Wizards signed him for the rest of the season on March 17, and his hard-working, humble, Spurs-like attitude amidst a contrasting environment immediately won Jeffers the affection of Wizards fans. If he hadn’t injured his knee the following summer, he might still be with the team. Washington initially signed Alonzo Gee in March 2010, swiping him from the Austin Toros, the Spurs-owned D-League franchise. San Antonio signed Gee later that month but waived him in November; the Wizards brought back Gee days later but waived him in December. Cleveland swooped in and signed Gee to a 3-year, $10 million contract before last season.
Roger Mason, Jr. left the Wizards to sign with the Spurs in 2008 and then came back in 2011 (with a stop in New York in between). The 34-year-old Fabricio Oberto, a 2007 champion with the Spurs, was Grunfeld’s big free agent signing in the summer of 2009 (as part of Pollin’s last-ditch). Sean Marks, once known as “Tim Duncan’s practice dummy” and now a director of basketball operations with the Spurs, was with the Wizards during training camp in 2010, but was waived before the season. Don Newman was an assistant coach with the Milwaukee Bucks during Grunfeld’s tenure there at the helm. After spending some time with the New Jersey Nets, Newman, starting in 2005, spent seven years as an assistant on San Antonio’s bench under Gregg Popovich. In July 2012, Leonsis, Wittman, and the Wizards hired Newman away from the Spurs.
Garrett Temple is the most recent example of the Wizards sailing on winds of San Antonio. After playing on 10-day contracts for the Rockets and Kings in early 2010, Temple was signed by the Spurs for the rest of the season in March 2010. He started the next season on San Antonio’s roster but was waived before mid-November. After time with the Bucks and Bobcats, the Wizards signed him in December 2012. Temple epitomizes the type of defensive-minded, multi-tooled, willing-to-relent role player that systems like San Antonio love to have soak up their environment.
“We actually had the same defensive concepts as we did in San Antonio with ‘Coach New’ and Coach Pop, and I think that’s a reason why we’ve been able to be in the top six, top seven defensively,” Temple told me in mid-April when I asked him to draw comparisons between his time under Gregg Popovich in San Antonio with his time under Randy Wittman in D.C. Washington finished with the NBA’s eighth-best defensive rating in 2012-13, San Antonio finished third-best.
“Both of these [coaches] work around their players,” Temple said. “We have guys that can score inside and also a point guard that can really keep the pace up and run the ball up the court. So whatever players we have, I think they’re going to work their offense like that, and both of them are comparable that way.”
Quickness, ball movement, and taking advantage of increased value and efficiency of the 3-point shot. The Wizards, with John Wall, are very similar to the Spurs and Tony Parker in this regard. When Wall played at a high-level, the Wizards were one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the NBA—39.7 percent, ranked third-best in the league during Wall’s healthy days from January 12 to the end of the year. For the entire season, San Antonio tied the Knicks for the fourth-best NBA 3-point field goal percentage at 37.6 percent. The Spurs also picked up assists on 90.9 percent of their 3-point makes, ranked fifth-highest in the league. The Wizards ranked second-highest with 93.1 percent.
Of course, Pop’s coaching style, as prescient as it is curmudgeonly, isn’t for everyone. He’s demanding and ruthless; his playbook is pick-and-roll heavy, more structured and complicated than European ball but a blood relative. The traits he scouts for—players with “character,” who’ve “gotten over themselves, who understand team play, who can cheer for a teammate,” who “don’t make excuses”—hold true regardless of nationality.
Popovich’s style is infamous. Wickersham’s article didn’t shed any new light there. I would further say that, similar to Phil Jackson, Popovich is a master of motivational sarcasm and can work a room, at his choosing, with well-timed doses of dry wit.
Wittman is from a similar school, but perhaps without the military background of Popovich. Wittman can be just as brash with players, yet can balance that with empathy when the situation calls. As with Popovich, Wittman knows how to apply brush-to-canvas using tough love without splashing paint everywhere.
“Coach Pop is fiery… both of them are pretty fiery coaches,” Temple told me. “They really want the best out of their players, and you can tell that they really care about their players by the way that they react to them. They hold people accountable no matter what. No matter if there’s 17 seconds left on the clock in the last game or the first preseason game. I’ve seen Coach Pop call a 20-second timeout in the second preseason game because somebody attempted to do something they shouldn’t have. So they hold people accountable and they understand that defense is the thing that really wins games for people and wins championships.”
Popovich has been provided with players who are willing to adhere to the system and accept their role. The idea of Grunfeld doing the same has long been a laughable concept. Eddie Jordan always had trouble holding Gilbert Arenas accountable, but more detrimental to the “system,” the coach felt unsupported by the front office when he did want to take a stand. Andray Blatche once ignored Flip Saunders during a game in late-March 2010, choosing to plop his butt at the end of the bench instead. After the incident, Saunders said that Blatche was “unlikely” to play the next game. But there Blatche was—the very next game—back in the starting lineup. Meanwhile, Wittman has been allowed to bench Young, McGee (Can’t say that I do!) and Blatche as he’s seen fit; the Wizards are now even paying Blatche not to play for them, partially due Wittman refusing to coach him ever again.
Jordan Crawford furthermore provides a sharp contrast to his lesser-talented replacement, Garrett Temple. All in the span of 24 months, Crawford was gathered from the Atlanta Hawks for pennies-on-the-dollar, was anointed as a member of Leonsis’ future “Big 3,” was benched by Wittman when he pouted about his role (in the shadow of Bradley Beal), and was later cut loose when he didn’t act right. You live, you learn, you move on. This is another lesson from San Antonio, a franchise that hasn’t always won players over. Stephen Jackson, who spent time with the Spurs franchise early in his career, was acquired from Golden State for a second stint with San Antoino for their 2012 playoff run. This past season, Jackson played 55 games with the Spurs, but trouble started brewing as the regular schedule came to a close. Jackson complained that players like Danny Green were stealing his run. Popovich responded to those complaints by waiving the 35-year-old Jackson right before the playoffs, after the deadline to sign with another team for the postseason passed. That’s San Antonio’s no-nonsense accountability for you.
“If you can have continuity, a good group, a team, so to speak, and all that that entails, and keep it in a continuous manner so that it grows more or less upon itself, within itself, and the knowledge and understanding continues to grow, you have a pretty good understanding,” said Popovich in an NBA Finals conference call with media last Friday. He was mostly addressing the irrationality of owners and an NBA coaching carousel that seemingly keeps increasing in speed.
“You can deal with adversity and you cannot get too pumped up about success but just enjoy it and realize how fleeting it might be. But the change, change, change, change, change thing doesn’t really work.”
The only constant during Grunfeld’s tenure with the Wizards has been Grunfeld, who often seems consumed with using one hand to clean up the mess that the other makes.
Aside from a pivoting draft strategy and ridding the roster of uncoachables, the Wizards still struggle to find success with player development. If Grunfeld was better at his craft, Washington would have better withstood two and a half months without Wall, amongst a myriad of other potentially avoidable pitfalls during his tenure.
Unlike the scouting and development successes spawned by San Antonio, Grunfeld has yet to crack the code. A lack of constancy has bitten him in the ass and that continues to translate to losing. Leonsis shifting the model of his franchise toward a hybrid that emulates what works—the Spurs, the Thunder—is one thing, but trusting the guy shaping the clay is another.
Grunfeld has changed alright, but does he have it in him to move forward when facing the right direction?
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