The Spurs Takeover
*Photo via AP
After a devastating NBA Finals loss at the hands of the Miami Heat (and, really, a loss of their own making) in 2013, it seemed an ageless group had reached its end. Though their crop of young talent, headlined by Kawhi Leonard, was just starting to spread its wings, surely the San Antonio Spurs core would shake the hand of father time and retire.
The finals loss ate at them and instead the under-celebrated group returned for another shot at a ring. Surprisingly, the Spurs returned to the finals to once again battle the Miami Heat.
Yet, this time it wasn’t a battle. The Spurs dismantled the Heat with picture perfect basketball, ridiculous ball and player movement, offensive sets that could draw tears (in fact, I nearly did just thinking about it). Allusions to Red Holzman’s Knicks were on display- literally the epitome of team basketball, it was truly a spectacle.
Anyway, Kawhi Leonard delivered gripping basketball on both ends of the court and won the Finals MVP. But how did we get here? A third year player winning Finals MVP, then he’s the Spurs’ future franchise player, now he’s signed to a max contract and will play along another max player in LaMarcus Aldridge.
Did the Spurs really just pull this off? My head continues to spin as I write this article. How do the Spurs continue to defy gravity, somehow do it under the radar, and next thing we know they’ve discovered water on Mars.
Behold the San Antonio Spurs, a marvel in sports. A modern day Roman Empire: while much of the basketball world is sloshing with one-on-one barbarity, they exercise the antiquity beauty of basketball.
They’ve trampled Gardens and bullied Kidds in the east, conquered Kings from North to South, and rivaled Lakers for regional supremacy. A dynasty that has risen to become basketball’s most prestigious franchise and has no foreseeable demise.
A year before the San Antonio Spurs selected Tim Duncan number one overall in the draft they were 20-62, this is the last year the Spurs missed out on the playoffs. Since then, they have won five championships in six Finals appearances. (The only team to duplicate those numbers is the Los Angeles Lakers, who won the same amount of championships but had one more Finals appearance).
Let’s decode the manuscripts and explore their greatness.
Building a Champion’s Resume: The 1999 Finals and the Birth of the Twin Pillars
Tim Duncan made an immediate impact upon being drafted. Averaging a double-double on his way to being named the Rookie of the Year. Duncan would only improve, leading his team to a 1999 Finals victory over the New York Knicks, winning MVP honors in just his second year in the league. It was clear that the sky was the limit for Duncan.
At the same time Tim Duncan was building his insane resume while playing alongside David Robinson (together they came to be known as the Twin Towers), Gregg Popovich was brewing his idea of what we now know as the Spurs. This idea came to life in their 1999 Finals victory.
Popovich, the Spurs GM at the time, was able to put together a team of players and veterans with high character to surround their two big men. Avery Johnson, Steve Kerr, Sean Elliot, and Malik Rose were vital to the Spurs 1999 Championship and beyond because they were willing to buy into a system and team that was greater than its individual parts.
In so many ways, this Spurs team cemented their future as a dynasty. They played hounding defense, moved the ball on offense, and had players who could step onto the court at anytime and perform. Moreover, they had Tim Duncan, who fit Popovich’s strategy perfectly. Through this, Duncan and Popovich would grow as the twin pillars of the Spurs’ organization and form one of the most perfect marriages the NBA has ever seen.
The ability to build a culture is one thing, yet to keep that culture intact is something entirely different. This is where the importance of Popovich and Duncan cannot be overstated.
Tim Duncan or Gregg Popovich? Asking who’s more important to the Spurs organization is like asking which came first the Chicken or the Egg (hold your scientific reasoning for another place, please). The Patriots’ Bill Belichick and Tom Brady perhaps only rival the duo’s significance to their dynasty.
The Spurs “Rebuilding” Plan
Since their first championship, never have we seen the San Antonio Spurs go through a rebuilding phase. Likewise, never have the Spurs made a huge splash in free agency like they did when signing LaMarcus Aldridge. This is because the Spurs are masters at replacing players through the draft and free agency.
Gregg Popovich drafted the entire Spurs core three of Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker.
They also drafted Luis Scola, Leonardo Barbosa, Tiago Splitter, Goran Dragic, and George Hill (whom they acquired Kawhi Leonard with) all of which are late first round picks and second-rounder’s.
Popovich passed on his GM duties to R.C. Buford who has clearly replicated and reverberated Popovich’s eye for talent and aligned himself with the growing culture. Yet, San Antonio doesn’t simply draft these players- they develop them and engulf them in the “Spurs” culture.
Take Manu Ginobili for example. After joining the Spurs in 2002, Ginobili quickly became an integral part of their success, eventually helping them win the 2003 Finals. Manu continued to get better and in 2005 nearly edged out Tim Duncan for Finals MVP in their victory against the Detroit Pistons.
In their 2007 Championship campaign, Popovich moved Ginobili to the bench in the latter half of the season, a head-turning move at the time that proved to be extremely auspicious. The Spurs have won three finals with him coming off the bench. This move exemplifies the kind of selflessness that bleeds throughout the Spurs organization.
Just as the Spurs are capable of spotting talent in the draft and developing young men into system players, they are able to garner high character players and replace significant roles with ease. Following the 1999 Finals, San Antonio lost two key players: Avery Johnson and Sean Elliott.
Tony Parker, and a stud defender in Bruce Bowen replaced these players along with Stephen Jackson, Danny Ferry, Steve Smith, and Manu Ginobili. And following their 2003 championship, Robert Horry, Brent Barry, Nazr Mohammed, and Hedo Turkoglu replaced Hall of Famer David Robinson, as well as Stephen Jackson and Steve Kerr.
This is truly remarkable. It’s easy to sit here in retrospect and say they made the right moves (obviously). But, how many teams have we seen go sour over the wrong free agent signings? It’s because the Spurs know exactly what type of players they want, when those players are in the market, and they won’t overstep their bounds or stretch their principals to get someone who doesn’t fit the “Spurs’” mold.
This quote by Gregg Popovich says it all: “No one is bigger than the team. If you can’t do it our way, you’re not getting time here and we don’t care who you are.”
Adjustments of the Twin Pillars and the Creation of an Everlasting Dynasty (until they’re both gone)
I’ll keep this section sort and sweet because it’s simple and essentially comes down to two things: adjustments and sacrifice (Popovich and Duncan).
Obviously enough, the Spurs are a different team since their first championship. Yet, their management, coach and their core has essentially stayed the same (with the latter additions of Parker and Ginobili). The Spurs teams of ’99, ’03, and ’05 were known for their defense, anchored by David Robinson and later Bruce Bowen.
Popovich showed great foresight by transforming his later teams, those of the ’07 and ’14 Finals, into offensive monsters. Popovich saw a changing NBA and made adjustments to his team in order to keep their Titanic afloat (basically keeping an eye out for icebergs).
Duncan went along and reprised his role as Power Forward to be the team’s sole big man in an increasingly positionless and versatile league. Duncan also willingly played second fiddle to Tony Parker (arguably the league’s best point guard during their last two runs and in between). While all their Championship teams are well rounded, these moves made it possible to win in an ever-changing NBA.
Ultimately, the ability for the Spurs to adjust and sacrifice is what has made them so great. Tim Duncan took a serious pay cut so the Spurs were able to give Kawhi Leonard his money and sign LaMarcus Aldridge. Let me be clear: the 39-year-old is worth at least triple his two year, 10.4 million deal.
Duncan’s innate selflessness has disseminated throughout the organization (take Manu Ginobili for example, and now David West) to become their mantra and will be the key to another, inevitable Spurs’ championship.