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Fran Blinebury

The combo of GM R.C. Buford (left) and coach Gregg Popovich has helped the Spurs shine.
D. Clarke Evans/NBAE via Getty Images

Shared ideology make small-market Jazz, Spurs model teams

Posted May 7 2012 12:26PM

SALT LAKE CITY -- When Amar'e Stoudemire's run-in with a fire extinguisher can own the back page of the New York tabloids and whatever daily drama that might involve LeBron James can blow up Twitter feeds, a playoff series between New York and Miami will always have as much peripheral fire as on court Heat.

More than half a continent away, the Spurs and Jazz have always been content to simply play low-key basketball at a high level.

If the two franchises were models walking down a runway, you can be sure they'd be wearing matching gray flannel suits. They have been virtual mirror images of each other -- taciturn and tough, silent and successful -- for nearly two decades.

While the Lakers and Celtics may be the standard bearers at the top rung of the NBA's fame ladder, the Jazz and Spurs are the archetypal small-market teams that make commissioner David Stern beam like a proud parent. Salt Lake City is the 33rd-ranked TV market in the U.S. and San Antonio is 36th. They are the 26th-and 27th-largest markets, respectively, in the NBA, ahead of only Oklahoma City (45), Memphis (48) and New Orleans (53).

Both teams are the only pro game in town and both play before a rabid, intensely-loyal home audience in and outside their packed arenas.

The resemblance hardly ends there.

Until he stepped down midway through last season, the Jazz had been led for 23 seasons by Jerry Sloan, who won 1,127 games and had been the longest-tenured coach in American pro sports. The Spurs have been guided now for 17 seasons by Gregg Popovich, who has won 847 games and is now the longest-tenured coach in American pro sports.

"The Spurs under coach Popovich have been the classic NBA team," said Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin. "From the way they play basketball to the way they run their franchise, they do everything the right away."

The Jazz under coach Frank Layden and then Sloan had a winning record for 19 consecutive seasons and made the playoffs 18 years in a row. The Spurs are coming off their 13th straight 50-win regular season, an NBA record.

For more than 1 1/2 decades, the logo of the Jazz might as well have been a group shot of Sloan, Karl Malone and John Stockton, who spent 16 years running the pick-and-roll offense and running opponents into hard screens on defense. Popovich has been the only NBA coach that Tim Duncan has ever had since entering the league in 1997.

In fact, the only thing that separates the Spurs and the Jazz are those four championship banners hanging from the rafters of the AT&T Center in San Antonio. The Jazz advanced to the NBA Finals in 1997 and '98, but both times were turned by Michael Jordan's Bulls.

But more than just numbers and longevity, the similarity is in the manner they do their business. While everything about New York and Miami screams for attention, the Spurs and the Jazz would be just as happy to play their first round series in a closet.

"There's a lot of similar threads in fabric of the two teams, most notably coach Popovich and coach Sloan as the I-beams that forged the stability of these franchises' success," said Utah assistant coach Scott Layden, who has spent almost half his life in the Jazz organization since his father, Frank, was named general manager in 1979 and helped lead the team into Salt Lake City that year.

"But the thing I like most about both franchises is the modesty and humility with which they conduct their business day in and day out.

"When I got whacked in New York (as Knicks GM in 2003), I had an opportunity to go their training camp when my father, coach (Rick) Majerus and I were invited by the Spurs. So I saw how they work from the inside and it is a work of true professionalism."

"Utah is the model franchise," said Spurs general manager R.C. Buford.

Malone and Stockton used to set the tone for the Jazz by being the first to show up at every practice and the guys who went at it the hardest. Duncan's I'm-just-here-to-work mentality is a reflection of Popovich and the foundation for everything the Spurs do. The emphasis in both locales is on building around stars of high character who require low maintenance and create an atmosphere of "team-first."

You won't see the Jazz or the Spurs honking their own horns with tweets or email campaigns. You don't hear them chattering or on the rumor mills about trades or stirring up headlines. Utah general manager Kevin O'Connor rarely sends texts, sometimes doesn't return phone calls for days and couldn't care less if you didn't know his name. San Antonio's Buford keeps a similar lower-than-a-mole's-belly profile and just continues finding ways to restock the Spurs' cupboard to keep them perennial contenders.

"I've been in awe of the job R.C. has done this year in bringing in the new talent to supplement this team," Layden said. "And I've been in awe of the job coach Popovich has done after the lockout, with the short schedule and no practice time, turning them into the team that he has."

Sloan used to say that he never wanted to win the Coach of the Year Award, "because they usually fire you the next year." Popovich accepted his second Coach of the Year Award earlier this week and insisted upon sitting and posing for photos with his entire coaching staff and for a the kind of celebratory affair that he likes about as much as a root canal.

Sloan was succeeded by Corbin, who was drafted by the Spurs, played below the radar for 15 solid seasons with nine different franchises (including the Jazz) and got his coaching start when he returned to Utah as an assistant under Sloan.

"This franchise did a great thing when faced with an unusual situation season with coach Sloan leaving," Layden said. "Kevin not only made a great hire in coach Corbin, but he was prepared because he did what it took to keep coach Corbin around. He had opportunities to leave, but the Jazz knew that it was important to be ready for a transition, for the next step, whenever it came.

"It happened last year, but it could have happened five years from now and they were planning ahead. I'm telling you, the San Antonio Spurs have the same kind of plan already made up, whether it's coach Popovich or a key player or an assistant coach leaving."

There is also an ownership thread of stability and consistency running -- in Utah with the family of the departed Larry Miller, whose son, Greg, runs things now and in San Antonio, where Peter Holt is the steady hand. They hire good people, give them autonomy and stay out of the way and let them do their jobs. That, perhaps more than any other, is the reason for long-running achievement in a pair of the league's smallest markets.

The Spurs are trying to stretch theirs into the longest-running dynasty in NBA history, capturing a fifth NBA title built around the core of Duncan and Popovich 13 years after their first. The Jazz are in a transition phase with a young coach in Corbin, solid pieces of a promising future in Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward, Enes Kanter and Alec Burks to go with veterans Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. As this series has shown, the gap is wide and Utah still has miles to travel to reach the contender level and yet the belief in the fundamental plan is unchanging.

"The success that we've had and that Utah's had is really satisfying because it's come in small markets and the people really appreciate it," said Popovich. "The fans in both places are unbelievable and basically demand that we do things a certain way, I think. We are the only games in town as far as professional deal is concerned.

"When you find an organization that does it with class the way we found Utah doing it when we came here, R.C. and I wanted to do it as closely as we could. And that's not easy because they do it the right way. They're closed-mouthed. They don't talk about things. There's no braggadocio. There's no moaning and groaning in the paper or talking about players in the paper or trades or anything. They just do their work and go home. That's what we've tried to do.

"They've set the tone and the example for that and, of course, Jerry did it on the court with the consistency and the hard-nosed play and demanding that all the players compete at a high level, do it unselfishly. We've tried to emulate that as best we could."

If they turn on the TV or put an ear to the wind, they can hear all of the noise. But the truth is, the Spurs and Jazz like it this way, listening to just the sounds of basketball.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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