Spurs players, executives remain close with those who left for Cleveland

Mike Monroe from Express-News writes – “Before Tony Parker played a minute for Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, he had to prove himself to assistant Mike Brown.

“He was my first coach in the summer league,” Parker recalled of his first games for the team that competed in the Rocky Mountain Revue in Salt Lake City in 2001. “I was always messing with him, because when I first came everyone thought I was too small and too skinny and can’t play in the NBA. So I was always being cocky with him, saying, ‘Coach Brown, you’ll see: One day I’ll be playing in this league.'”

There is little left for Parker, a two-time All-Star, to prove to Brown, now the head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers — except that he remains capable of leading the Spurs to another NBA title, this time against Brown’s team. They open the NBA Finals on Thursday at the AT&T Center.

More so than even the Dallas Mavericks, coached by former Spurs point guard Avery Johnson, the Cavaliers followed Popovich’s blueprint for building a championship organization.

In 2005, the Cavaliers hired former Spurs player and director of basketball operations Danny Ferry as general manager. He brought Spurs scouting director Lance Blanks along and named him assistant GM. Then Ferry made Brown, a Popovich assistant for three years, his head coach. At the time of his hire, Brown had spent two seasons as Indiana Pacers associate head coach under Rick Carlisle.

One of Brown’s first moves was to hire Hank Egan, his coach at the University of San Diego, as his top assistant. Egan, who also coached Popovich at the Air Force Academy, had spent eight seasons as one of Popovich’s most trusted Spurs assistants.

Soon after, the Cavs came to be known as “Spurs East.”

In fact, the ties between the two finalists are both tight and enduring. The final horn in the Cavaliers’ 98-82 victory over the Detroit Pistons hadn’t sounded Saturday when Ferry, Blanks and Brown received text messages from Spurs front office members offering congratulations.

“It’s a great opportunity to play against guys for whom you have the ultimate respect,” said Spurs general manager R.C. Buford. “You’ve been through the battles and won together and reached the pinnacle together. That bond doesn’t happen very often. So when you have that with guys like Mike and Lance and Danny, their success is almost as important as your own.

“You take great pride in sharing their successes with them, knowing how hard they approach their jobs and the integrity with which they approach their jobs.”

In this instance, familiarity breeds not only respect, but imitation. The Cavaliers aren’t built around a dominating big man, as the Spurs are, but their basic approach under Brown begins with a Spurs-like commitment to defense and offensive execution — even if the offense is more perimeter-oriented.

“There won’t be many secrets,” Buford said. “They’ll know what we’re going to do and we’ll know what they’re going to do. You have a great deal of respect for their execution and their vision and the discipline to their plan. Consequently, some of the things we oftentimes hope will provide us with a competitive advantage might not be a competitive advantage, because they’re going to be as committed as we are.”

Spurs forward Tim Duncan understands the biggest change Brown mandated since taking over was getting the Cavaliers to buy into the same defensive principles that have guided the Spurs since Popovich became head coach.

“Some of the parts are the same,” Duncan said of the Cavaliers’ defensive schemes. “OK, a lot of the parts are the same. Basically, they run the Spurs’ defense.”

Brown worked closely with Duncan while with the Spurs. Duncan isn’t surprised Brown has Cleveland in the Finals.

“He’s a very smart guy and I knew he’d get his opportunity to be a head coach some day,” Duncan said. “I think he’s done an exceptional job with them, what he’s done in such a short time. You can see it, but it’s never there until it’s there.”

As strong as the franchises’ bonds are, now that the Finals have arrived, it’s the differences that count.

“It is what it is,” Popovich said. “The bottom line is they’re the Cleveland Cavaliers. They don’t want to hear about the San Antonio Spurs. They’re sick of the San Antonio Spurs. They’re the Cavaliers and we’re going to go compete. Spurs against the Cavs, and we’ll see what happens.”