Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs continue to make the rest of the NBA look bad.
That’s not the intention, though. It’s simply a result of doing their job to the best of their ability.
Overseas, the Spurs were at the forefront of international scouting, among the first organizations to capitalize on the vast, untapped potential in foreign talent. San Antonio broke its own record last season by employing 10 players born outside the U.S. They even made waves on the coaching staff last month, adding European legend Ettore Messina.
On the court, Popovich has built a well-oiled system that works beautifully with interchangeable parts. He was fined by former commissioner David Stern two years ago for sending four of the Spurs’ top five scorers home before a national TV game in Miami; the Heat needed a late three-pointer to eke out a narrow victory.
At the negotiating table, San Antonio has found a way to keep its Big Three happy and intact for more than 13 years. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli have signed multiple contracts to their liking, while the team reserved enough money for a solid supporting cast at a reasonable price, creating a culture of “we’re-all-in-this-together.”
There wasn’t much more the Spurs could do to separate themselves from fellow NBA teams … unless you’re talking about winning more championships.
But like it or not, the franchise moved further from the pack Tuesday when it added Becky Hammon to the staff, making her the first female full-time assistant coach in NBA history.
It would be fantastic if we could look at Hammon’s credentials as a six-time WNBA All-Star and consider nothing else. Clearly she’s got game, named one of the league’s all-time Top 15 players in 2011, ranking fourth in assists, sixth in games and seventh in points on the career lists.
Surely that’s all Pop took into account. You sense that he would hire the first Martian assistant coach if it helped the cause. He didn’t mention Hammon’s gender in a press release because it’s irrelevant to him.
“Having observed her working with our team this past season, I’m confident her basketball IQ, work ethic and interpersonal skills will be a great benefit to the Spurs,” he said in a statement.
But the rest of us can’t ignore Hammon’s sex or its significance. Anyone who has daughters (I have two) understands how empowering this is for girls, who often question why boys have more options.
For instance, they can coach both leagues. The WNBA has six males among its 12 head coaches and eight males among its 24 assistants. They can coach men’s and women’s college basketball. They can coach boys’ and girls’ high school basketball. They can coach boys’ and girls’ youth teams.
But females pretty much are restricted to coaching other females … if they’re allowed to coach at all.
Hammon, a 16-year veteran, is retiring from the WNBA at the end of this season. In pondering life after basketball, she talked with her coach, Dan Hughes of the San Antonio Stars. Hughes informed Pop that Hannon, a fan favorite in San Antonio since 2007, might be interested in coaching.
Pop in turn invited her to attend Spurs’ practices last summer while she recuperated from knee surgery. She also sat in on film sessions and was behind the bench for several games last season. He liked what he saw.
“She’s perfect,” Pop told NBA Inside Stuff in March. “She knows when to talk and knows when to shut up. That’s as simple as I can put it. A lot of people don’t figure that out. She’s right in the middle and knows how to do it. Players really respond to her and she’s just a natural.
“She talks the game. She understand the game. For all of those reasons you really know she’s got that same sort of Avery Johnson-, Steve Kerr-, (Mike) Budenholzer- type thing.”
Budenholzer was an assistant with Pop for 18 years and won four titles before taking over in Atlanta last season. Kerr won two titles playing for Pop and was the subject of a bidding war this offseason before accepting the Golden State job. Johnson won a title while playing and led Dallas to the NBA Finals in his first full season as coach.
Other former players/assistants who have gone on to become NBA head coaches include Doc Rivers, Mike Brown, Monty Williams, Brett Brown and Jacque Vaughn. So it’s safe to say Pop knows what he’s doing in tapping Hammon.
He didn’t hire her because she’s a woman. And he won’t treat her any differently.
“’I’m sure Pop will be yelling at me soon enough, with the rest of them,” she told reporters Tuesday.
She’s about to become one of the guys.
Meanwhile, the Spurs continue to be one of a kind.