The San Antonio Spurs and the Myth of the Small-Market Loser

If you have been reading this blog for more than a minute, you recognize that this blogger loves teamwork, sports, organizations, leadership, and humility – and it is like my birthday when all of these topics collide!

As much as I wish I could say that this article was about the resurgence of my hometown Pistons, as they won the NBA Draft Lottery – oh wait, that didn’t happen. Well at least we kept our first round pick and will be able to still field a growing young team. Wait, that didn’t happen either? Well, at least the Cavs didn’t get to move up again. No? That did happen, they actually “won” the lottery for the 3rd time in 4 years (and this time with a 1.7% chance)? REALLY???? – sorry about that digression, it might be a little bitterness in my system this morning, ok enough about this, today I want to point out just how amazing the San Antonio Spurs are.Image

Within professional sports, one of the constant myths is that teams in the large markets are always the winner. This myth was largely built in the 1980s and 1990s when LA, NY, Chicago ruled professional sports. But in the present environment of league-wide TV deals, social media exposure, and salary caps (in all sports but baseball – though spending more money doesn’t even guarantee things there, just ask the Yankees, Mets, and Phillies of the last few seasons).

An amazing thing happened way back in 1987, the San Antonio Spurs, a team that was one of four ABA teams given “expansion rights” by the NBA to join their league only 11 seasons prior, drafted a 4-year player from Navy named David Robinson. The following year, the team added two assistant coaches to the staff of Larry Brown, R.C. Buford and Gregg Poppovich. In 1993 Peter Holt, the owner of the largest Caterpillar dealership in the United States came on as a part-owner (attaining majority shares of the team later). Then after a horrific 1998 season saw the firing of the head coach and the General Manager (Poppovich) stepping in as the interim coach, the Spurs won the NBA Draft Lottery and drafted Tim Duncan, 4 year player out of Wake Forest University. The primary pieces were in place to form one of the greatest most consistent franchises in all of professional sports.

These Spurs, with an owner who has made his mark with a values-based focus on business, a GM and Coach who have successfully built a roster and coaching staff with underappreciated names, who are well-trained, and fit their organization have become the standard bearer in the NBA. They have won 4 championships since 1999-99 season (the most by any team during this 15 year time frame), making the Western Conference Finals 9 times in that span, and never falling below a .610 win percentage each year (averaged 57 wins a season during that span), and never missing the playoffs. This is all being accomplished as the smallest of the three Texas cities represented in the NBA, and the 4th smallest market of any NBA franchise.

So how do they do it? They win as an organization! Name a player on the team that has ever established a me-first attitude during this era? When is Poppovich a distraction to the team? When does Buford blow a draft-pick (without at least flipping that person in a later deal), what free agents do they bring in that don’t fit? How?

Identity! They know who they are. They know what they want to accomplish, and they find players who fit that type of culture, regardless of personal background (last year they had 10 international players to start their season on a 15-man roster). They win, but they do it with class and with teamwork. If the Red Wings are the class of the NHL, the Spurs are certainly the class of the NBA!

Could 2014 mean another ring for this elite franchise?

Why do some organizations “get it” and others don’t?

What are the bedrock values in your organization? Do you hire based on values? Does everyone from the CEO through the rest of the organization understand these values?

What do you think?

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