Da Spurs

There has been an invisible war raging for a decade and a half, not unlike the invisible war being waged between spam messages and your email filter.  The San Antonio Spurs have been battling age, irrelevance, and history.  Somehow, the “boring,” un-hip, small market basketball team from central Texas has become the most historically fascinating sports franchise of our era.  In other words, they’re winning the war.

spurs2Photo credit:  Garrett Ellwood, Getty Images

As you probably know, players generally grow old, rosters turn over, and partnerships grow stale.  Teams fluctuate.  A team might be at the top of the league, then crash out of the playoffs, then stumble back in and lose in the first round a couple times, then lose in the Finals, then win a couple titles, then lose early for three years, then crash again and miss the playoffs with no relief in sight.  That’s the profile of the Lakers for the past twelve years or so.  They have been all over the place.  And that “all over the place” resume is easily one of the most successful teams in the entire NBA over that stretch.

Most teams are more like the Orlando Magic.  A few All Stars here and there.  Some coaches fired.  An unexpected Finals trip in 2009.  A few early and mid-playoff exits.  A few terrible years.  So it goes in a competitive league of 30 teams with a salary cap.

And then there are the Spurs.

You probably know that the Spurs now have won at least 50 games for an insane 15 straight seasons.  Two seasons before that, they won 56.  The missing season in between was the strike year of 1999-2000, when the Spurs had a 37-13 record when the season ended, which equates to 61 wins if a whole season had been played.  The team has topped 60 wins four times since then.  Beginning with the 1997-98 season, it has amassed a record of 950-396, better than a 70% winning percentage, won 11 division titles, won five Western Conference titles, and won four NBA Championships (1999, 2003, 2005, 2007).  They came one play away from a fifth title in the 2013 Finals.  Look at a graph of ESPN’s NBA Power Rankings for the past twelve years — the Spurs have taken up year-round residence in league’s elite class.  The team simply has had an unprecedented run of success in the modern NBA era.

The team was called “too old” to contend back in 2007, and here they are, extending their run with a league best 62-20 record and the No. 1 overall seed in this year’s playoffs.  They’re the NBA version of the Simpsons.  Something special is going on here.  Who gets the credit?

Gregg Popovich is the centerpiece of the Spurs’ excellence.

These days, Popovich is widely regarded as the best coach in the NBA.  His skill goes way beyond X’s and O’s.  He is a one of a kind talent for the way he instills a culture and manages the team, which is a skill he shares with the other greatest coaches of all time like Phil Jackson and Red Auerbach.  Popovich doesn’t allow player egos to interfere with his teams’ business.  You will never see a 2010 Monta Ellis running amok on a Popovich roster, and you will never read about Javaris Crittenton style off the field issues with Pop’s players.  He runs his domain in efficient and effective ways, and he demands and earns the respect of his players, who he in turn respects and loves in his own way.  He also has a way with words:

“I asked them if it wasn’t too much trouble, if I wasn’t being too pushy, if they could execute what we were trying to do. And if it didn’t make them too angry, if they also wanted to play some defense on the other end, that would be great.”

Pop has revolutionized the way a team should treat aging stars.  He has always been known for the strategic resting of his players, most famously sitting his starters in a November, 2012, game at Miami which Commissioner David Stern called “a disservice to the league and the fans.”  This season, he has managed to win 62 games in a stacked Western Conference without having a single player average 30 minutes per game.He has shown that careful management of the wear and tear on key veterans not only gives the team a better shot at contending in the postseason games that really matter and extends the players’ careers, but it also allows role players to get their feet wet and build confidence for when they’re needed in high leverage playoff situations.

Oklahoma City Thunder v San Antonio Spurs - Game Two

Even beyond all that, Popovich is a master at getting his players to buy in to what he’s doing, in the face of distractions and, sometimes more importantly, past defeat.  After last year’s oh-so-close loss at the hands of LeBron and the Heat in Game 7, the team lost two long-tenured assistant coaches (Mike Budenholzer to Atlanta and Brett Brown to Philadelphia) and had to shake off the sting of last summer’s finale.  Pop managed to guide the team without a hint of lethargy despite these circumstances and several injuries to important players.

Popovich has the public aura of a taskmaster and a no-nonsense military man, which fits his own experience in the Air Force.  His courtside interviews are hilariously awkward, and to say that his annoyance is even thinly veiled would be a major stretch.  But look at how his players respond to him, and listen to the stories and anecdotes about his off-the-field virtues.  His third Coach of the Year award, announced today, is a fine testament to his abilities, but it is a bit like awarding Sylvester for being the best Stallone brother.  It’s a bit obvious to those who observe him and watch him work.   The man is as good as it gets.

Tim Duncan is the centerpiece of the Spurs’ excellence.

Of all the players who can claim to be the best ever at their position, Tim Duncan, power forward extraordinaire, might have the most distance between himself and second place.  Center is crowded at the top, what with Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon, Wilt Chamberlain, Moses Malone, and Shaquille O’Neal.  Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, most people’s top shooting guard and point guard, respectively, are trailed by Kobe Bryant, Oscar Robertson, and Jerry West, among many others.  Larry Bird, the consensus greatest power forward ever, has Julius Erving, Elgin Baylor, and, especially, LeBron James to contend with.  Find me an educated basketball fan, though, who believes that Karl Malone or Bob Pettit is in Tim Duncan’s stratosphere.

The story of Duncan’s San Antonio destiny is well known.  The Spurs, led by Hall of Famer David Robinson, were a successful team for most of the 90’s.  Everything went south in 1996-97, though, when Robinson missed significant time due to a back injury and a subsequent broken foot, while First Mate Sean Elliott missed more than half the season as well.  Although aging superstar Dominique Wilkins showed flashes of brilliance, the team finished 20-62 which was good enough for last place and a win in the draft lottery.  Some still believe that the team purposely “enhanced” its loss total to increase its lottery chances.  Regardless, the team landed the Big Fundamental out of Wake Forest and matched him with Robinson to form a devastating “twin towers” lineup.

Duncan, a former top-level swimmer, would end up being a perfect fit with Popovich.  Duncan is as unassuming and ego-free as any superstar of the modern era, and is as smart as they come as well.  He and Pop have always seemed to be on the same page at the key moments, and his quiet leadership has doubtless rubbed off on many less level-headed teammates over the years.

Whatever the reasons, his partnership with Popovich has yielded one of the most decorated NBA careers of all time, which has included a Rookie of the Year award, two NBA MVPs, 14 All Star appearances, 14 All NBA teams, 14 All-Defensive teams, four titles, three Finals MVPs, and numerous Spurs all-time records.  He averaged a double-double for 13 straight years.  He averaged a line of 27.6 points, 14.4 rebounds, and 5.0 assists in the 2002 playoffs, and followed it with 24.7/15.4/5.3 the following year.  He has started 211 playoff games, and headlined Team USA in the 2004 Olympics (although the experience was apparently less than stellar for him).  He thwarted the “seven seconds or less Suns” year after year at the height of their powers, including four out of five seasons from 2003-2007, and provided numerous indelible moments like his 40 point performance and breath-stealing game-tying three pointer that sent game 1 of the 2007 Suns series to double overtime:

A lot has been said about Timmy over the years.  Alongside all his on the court heroics, off the court he is a psychology buff who prefers video and role playing games to the national limelight.  He’s an interesting dude.  It’s safe to say that without his contributions, equal parts skills and personality, the Spurs would not have become the small market monster that we all now know.  This year, he remains in great shape and looks leaner and meaner as the Spurs hope to avenge their bitter 2013 shortcomings.

R.C. Buford is the centerpiece of the Spurs’ excellence.

After joining Larry Brown’s staff at the University of Kansas in 1983 as a graduate assistant, Buford would follow Brown to the Spurs in the late 80’s.  He went off on a short foray in the mid-90’s, and then was re-hired by the team in 1994, by none other than Popovich, as Head Scout.  He rose to become Scouting Director and Vice President/Assistant GM before settling into his current role as General Manager in 2002 when Popovich relinquished the position.

NBA: Playoffs-San Antonio Spurs at Golden State Warriors

His eye for talent and cohesion has allowed him to be the architect of three championship teams, and nearly a fourth, spread out over a twelve year period.  Even as Assistant GM in 2000 and 2001, he showed his knack for the job by spotting diamond in the rough Tony Parker, then just a gangly French teenager, and convincing a skeptical Popovich that the kid could play.  Buford championed Parker and nabbed him with a late first round draft pick, and the rest is history — three titles, six All Star teams, three All NBA teams, and a Finals MVP.  Since spotting Parker, Buford has had a hand in drafting lane-driving savant Manu Ginobili, trading for all-around dynamo Kawhi Leonard, mentoring successful GMs Danny Ferry and Sam Presti, and maintaining the quality of the high-turnover roster of role players that is responsible for so, so many victories.

His smart, unassuming, good-fit-above-all-else approach to team building has endured the test of time and stands in sharp contrast to many lazy attempts at building blockbuster free agent “super teams,” both successful (Miami and 2008-2013 Boston) and not (here’s looking at you, Knicks and Lakers).  He is the perfect string-puller for the perfect team.

A cast of unselfish and international stars is the centerpiece of the Spurs’ excellence.

The Spurs’ 15 man roster this season included players from the Virgin Islands, Argentina, Italy, Canada, Brazil, two from France, and two from Australia.  The team has a culture, made up of an assimilation of many different cultures, and the team seems to find its type of guys at a remarkable rate.  Even though Italian national Marco Belinelli has largely been a marginal role player during his career with the Warriors, Raptors, Hornets, and Bulls, when the Spurs signed him during the offseason, the move was greeted by a widespread “yep, that’ll work” from NBA watchers.  The team has the most distinctive “feel” of any squad, and the “feel” just so happens to create wildly successful teams.

spurs1

To many fans, the “feel” is inaccessible and lame.  As a Denver Nuggets fan, for many years I was bored and frustrated by the Spurs’ continued success without any of the apparent flashiness and intrigue of the other Western powers like the Suns, the Mavericks, the Rockets, or even the hated Lakers.  Something just felt blah about them, and the blah would only be interrupted by outrageous Bruce Bowen pesterings and Duncan wide-eyed whines of disbelief after a bad call.   I know many felt the same way.  But like one of the fine wines Popovich is reported to collect, the team has aged brilliantly, and most fans have come to appreciate the flowing, ball movement focused offense that resembles some of the great offensive innovations of soccer and hockey when those sports have reached their own aesthetic peaks.  Something’s working, and it’s beautiful.

It is probably clear by now that there is no single thing or person responsible for the team’s sustained success.  The parts that make up the team are unique and impressive, and the whole is greater than the sum.  You can’t help but feel that things would have turned out oh-so-differently for most of the Spurs players if they’d ended up on any other team, but at the same time, you can’t really picture them being anywhere else.

 

Footnotes:

  1. Tony Parker averaged 29.4 minutes, Tim Duncan 29.2, Kawhi Leonard 29.1, Marco Belinelli 25.2, Boris Diaw 25.0, Danny Green 24.3, Manu Ginobili 22.8, Tiago Splitter 21.5, Patty Mills 18.9.
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