Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs
Fire Gregg Popovich.
It's the first thing an NBA executive said when faced with the challenge of taking over one of the National Basketball Association's most successful franchises.
The longtime Spurs coach led the team to five NBA titles, and the franchise's 22-year playoff run only recently came to an end, partly due to the coronavirus pandemic. Popovich is the third-winning coach in NBA history with 1,277 wins.
So fire Popovich?
Andy Dolich, the former president of the Memphis Grizzlies, laughed when he heard 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 for improvement.
"This is how real businesses get better," he said.
But the question, after so much domination, so many memorable moments with David Robinson, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, how can you rebuild the Spurs, sports and entertainment?
How do the Spurs begin another 22 years of dominance in the NBA?
To find the answers, the team set up a Zoom call with three of the company's top executives, including CEO R.C. Buford and General Manager Brian Wright.
A new vision
The executive who wanted to let Popovich go laughed after the performance. He knows the odds are slim but remembered Popovich's first move when he spoke about Spurs in 1996: he sacked then coach Bob Hill.
Dolich said the Spurs could do what he called a "SWOT test".
"Strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and drilldowns for every part of the organization," he said. "See what we have that is still strong, see what we have that is weak, and make plans to make it stronger."
The first question about the zoom call to Buford: In which areas are the Spurs currently weak?
"Will we only talk about the weaknesses," replied Buford.
He then talked about the Spurs' values-based system, mentioned the team's 47 years in the NBA and made the postseason 39 times in that period and a profit of 0.599 percent, the best in league history.
"This is the history and the legacy we want to build from," said Buford. "And from a vision standpoint, not much is going to change – value-based, culture-driven, community-engaged and championship-driven."
For the past five months, the world has been rocked by a pandemic that closed the NBA on March 11, and social unrest following the death of George Floyd on May 25. Buford said the Spurs had learned to "articulate our vision and." Our news will be important. "
The Spurs could use an upgrade in several areas, however, including the practice area, the terrible AT&T Center, which lacks adequate WiFi and which will soon be given naming rights to the building in 2022.
AT&T emailed the expiry of the naming rights but did not provide an officer to discuss the matter.
The vision also includes being more open to the public. The Spurs have used social media to take a behind-the-scenes look at the franchise through new assets such as Spurs Stories.
It's a data game as the team searches for new revenue streams with Covid-19 changing engagement strategies. The Spurs fan base is one of the most loyal in the NBA. Hence, giving them a closer look at the franchise could be lucrative if the metrics follow.
The new manager
Brandon Gayle, Spurs' new Executive Vice President, Partnerships and Revenue, was also on the Zoom call discussing the vision.
Gayle, who recruited Buford from Facebook, will help oversee the team's desire to expand the reach of Monterrey, Mexico, to Austin. "How do we start to own all of this territory and all of the points around it and in between," he said.
Gayle said "Going behind the scenes so people get to know this brand and understand what it stands for" would help that growth. If the Spurs can build a new audience and collect the metrics, Gayle says monetization opportunities should follow so the team can grow its roughly $ 285 million in revenue.
Gayle said AT&T and Frost Bank "have been great and are committed to our partnership." AT&T has naming rights to the arena worth approximately $ 2 million per season, and Frost Bank has a shirt sponsorship. However, if for any reason they pull back, it would be "a great opportunity to broaden our regional and global perspective," Gayle said.
He added that the Spurs are strong locally and "the business has supported this from a revenue standpoint for the past 22 years". "But we have a real chance of maximizing that revenue generation if we think about the brand globally and even regionally," he said.
Gayle said the Spurs would also start improving their app and making more cashless options available, hoping to draw fans back as soon as health and safety conditions allow.
Tom James, Spurs' longtime communications chief, then joined the Zoom conversation. He mentioned the team's new photographer who has "full access".
"He can do what he wants," said James of the photographer's access to gather the content. "You know us. It's a big change."
"We had to get you to leave before we started," humbled Buford, referring to this reporter who covered the Spurs before joining 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 an NBA basketball game at the Field House of the ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex August 11, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida .
Kim Klement Pool | Getty Images
The roster is moving
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the vision fans are engaging with has to do with the basketball product.
A Western Conference team leader praised Popovich's job in the NBA Disney bubble, noting the Spurs' small-ball lineup, which he described as a "unique style" but questioning the direction of the roster as a whole.
Do the spores get young and build them up again? Another model stays competitive and attracts another top free agent, much like the team did in 2015 when it landed LaMarcus Aldridge of the Portland Trail Blazers?
"We think we're well positioned with the mix of veterans we have and the mix of younger people who evolve along the way," Wright said.
Aldridge is set to make $ 24 million next year, and co-star DeMar DeRozan has a $ 27 million player option. Just before the NBA's close of trading, the Spurs are said to have bought Aldridge, but rival executives suggest the Spurs "played their hand because they thought they should get a huge package for him," said an NBA executive.
The Spurs were able to buy Aldridge back in this off-season. Aldridge had mended his relationship with Blazer's superstar Damian Lillard, and an agent suggests the Spurs could send him back to the Blazers.
On the DeRozan front, he will likely decide to take his option. The Spurs could build around him and use the team's bubble game as a roster model or swap him should he log off. DeRozan is close to Miami Heat star Jimmy Butler, and an agent is predicting a possible Spurs Heat package.
It is Wright's job to help set the roster, and the economics of the NBA in terms of their 2020-21 salary cap will be vital. After being promoted less than a year ago, Wright is still learning the way of the Spurs. That came through with the zoom call.
When asked how the Spurs can be rebuilt, Buford intercepted Wright's question.
"Jabari, let me answer that," Buford interrupted. "It's fairer for me to answer since I've been dealing with this for a long time."
Buford said the Spurs were never swayed by public opinion. To support this, he recalled calls to blow it up at the end of David Robinson's era and then again at the end of the 2009-10 season.
Buford said the Spurs would continue to address their list "optimistically and opportunistically". He then mentioned Aldridge's signing, which was reflected in a 2016 Western Conference final.
"Things didn't go as we hoped and it's none of our business," said Buford. "Some decisions that we wish we could have made differently, but I think the ability to develop young talent and flexibility to be opportunistic will be what we will continue to do."
Gregg Popovich's head coach for the San Antonio Spurs congratulates his team after defeating the Detroit Pistons at the AT&T Center on February 27, 2019 in San Antonio, Texas.
Ronald Cortes | Getty Images Sports | Getty Images
But who will be on the sidelines as the roster evolves?
According to Buford, even if the Spurs' vision shifts in a different direction, 71-year-old Popovich will still be and will continue to be.
"Pop's vision was clearly our North Star," he said. "However, when we are ready to make a decision, we all come into the room and everyone has to be prepared and don't care who gets the correct answer as long as we get the correct answer."
When asked about Popovich's rumors going to New York where former Spurs executive and current Brooklyn Nets GM Sean Marks could use his services, Buford said the Spurs were "on the assumption" that Popovich is returning . The coach is also expected to coach the US men's national basketball team at the planned Olympic Games in Tokyo next summer.
"I don't know if he told Brian otherwise," said Buford. "Pop didn't show anything other than how we're going to build our team for the next year."
But Buford added: "Pop's vision will be in the game long after he's been there. That doesn't mean he's making those decisions there, but we've all learned together and you won't step back." A value-based, team-building aspect that focuses on culture and comes to work every day and works on it. "
As the Spurs approach 50 years in the NBA, the team wants to celebrate its organization, Buford said. He closed the Zoom discussion and pledged the Holt family's commitment to San Antonio despite a 1993 investment of $ 75 million to $ 1.8 billion and a recent minority stake change.
"Pieces change all the time – not much here, but in other organizations," said Buford. "Individual investors, for whatever reasons, are always changing. But the Holt family's commitment to the community, we're here in San Antonio to stay."