But what if they had hailed from a more media-centric market from which to launch their egalitarian approach, the one that endures in the post-Duncan era with a new leading man, Kawhi Leonard, who, like Tim Duncan, is averse to preening?
By the measures of a time (the early 1970s) and team (the 1970 and 1973 championship Knicks) that helped shape the young Popovich’s coaching methodology, it’s easy to imagine him in New York being deified as the second coming of Red Holzman; Duncan as the reincarnation of Willis Reed; and Ginobili, along with the French point guard Tony Parker, as celebrated examples of melting pot diversity.
Leonard? The melded athletic evolution of Cazzie Russell, Dave Stallworth, Bill Bradley and Dave DeBusschere.
It’s also fair to wonder: In the increasingly glitzy, superstar-driven N.B.A., could the Spurs have even been the Spurs in a market like New York, with its itinerant night life temptations and news-media-induced ego inflations?
“When you’re winning, I think you could do it,” Popovich said in the coaching office of the visitors’ locker room before Tuesday’s game. “I think they could have survived here. As far as the invasiveness, they’re also pretty open to people. They talk. But they’re pretty selfless in that it’s never been about the camera. So I think the solid, fundamental play and the individual personalities would have been appreciated by the Knicks fans, who are the most sophisticated — at least that’s what’s in my head.”
The question becomes more relevant now that the Knicks have moved on from their failed Hail Carmelo experiment and are building a foundation with a Spurs-like international flavor, beginning with the Latvian big man Kristaps Porzingis, the promising French rookie point guard Frank Ntilikina and the charismatic Turkish center Enes Kanter.
The Knicks may not be ready to beat the still formidable Spurs, but can they — operationally and stylistically, at least — become the Spurs?
A comically caustic voice of experience, Popovich is often asked what he thinks of pretty much all things N.B.A., and more. He will typically respond by saying, “Last I checked, we were still turning the ball over, so until I get all of that stuff straight, I don’t have to worry about anybody else.”
But the Knicks — and Ntilikina, in particular — did leave an impression on him in San Antonio last week with their attitude and their commitment to ball movement.
“They came into the timeouts and walked back onto the court and they played, and whether something went well or wrong for them, they just played, just competed,” Popovich said. “So I was just impressed with the operation.”
On Ntilikina, he said: “It was the first time I watched the point guard, and he was calm and cool the entire game. Didn’t say anything, just did what they asked him to do.”
Noting Ntilikina’s mental approach, size, reach, court vision and defensive tenacity, Popovich nodded when it was suggested that the 19-year-old could be a nightly stat-line filler.
“He might be special,” he said.
Popovich had to deal with a 19-year-old French kid with a different body type and playing approach when Parker was a rookie in 2001. Popovich’s first workout impression of Parker was “a skinny kid” who struck him as “soft” and “too cool for school.” He was inclined not to draft him, but a second look convinced him otherwise, and Parker was so impressive in training camp that he wound up starting 72 games as a rookie — and that was for a team with championship aspirations.
“I don’t know if rolling the dice makes you brave, but the insanity was certainly there,” Popovich said.
Parker, he agreed, paved the road for Ntilikina and others. As did the Spurs, in a larger sense, for latecomers like the Knicks to the mining of international talent.
“It’s just not an oddity, success through other people’s success, just knowing it could happen,” Popovich said. “We’ve all got ’em, and it’s made the N.B.A. better.”
Importing talent is different from nurturing it and blending it with homegrown talent, as the Spurs have done for nearly two decades with uninterrupted excellence. The challenge for the Knicks’ management team headed by Steve Mills and Scott Perry is how to tune out the daily news media dissections, balance long-term ambitions with short-term rewards, while hoping that the owner James Dolan doesn’t resort to his past chaos-inducing intrusions.
All with the understanding that Porzingis and his canny older brother and agent, Janis, are watching closely to see if the Knicks can behave more like the Spurs before the time comes to recommit long-term.
Ever the defender of the smaller and less-fussed-over market, Popovich nonetheless said he hoped they could.
“I’ve always believed that the N.B.A.’s better if it has good teams in New York, L.A., Chicago,” he said. “It raises everybody’s boat.”
At least the case can be made it did the last time the Knicks won a title, when Popovich was touring the world while serving in the Air Force, 45 years ago this spring.