Over the last decade, large market NBA franchises have begun diving into billion-dollar T.V. rights deals. The San Antonio Spurs don’t have that option, but if they could take that lucrative route, they’d be Team PBS. The Spurs are dull, educational, garner low network ratings (their most recent NBA Finals in 2007 and Sunday’s Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals were record-lows), and have stood the test of time in the nation’s 37th smallest media market.
As rosters, rules and trends have changed over the past 16 years, the Spurs adjusted.
The New Orleans Pelican-Hornets, Oklahoma City Thunder and even the Memphis Grizzlies could pick up a few lessons on sustained success from the Spurs.
The Spurs titles revolve around Tim Duncan, but general manager R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich continuously amass one of the most eclectic rosters in the league via late draft picks, the D-League and the international waters. In the process, their 14 consecutive 50-win seasons (it's be 16 if not for the 50-game lockout-shortened '99 season) have challenged the concept of the NBA as a “players” league. The Spurs don’t rely on a singular strategy or dominant scorer, but are able to compete because they’re versatile enough to match up with any roster in the league.
“I like role players who aren’t very good but have a skill,” Pop disclosed to Sports Illustrated last season. “I know who’s going to have the ball on our team, and need players who understand this.”
Manu Ginobili is the known commodity. He is hoops’ Maradona to Argentinians, but in the NBA, he surrendered the spotlight to be Duncan’s and Parker’s accomplice off of the bench. At this stage of his career, Ginobili’s game can occasionally get a little senile. Every now and then, he summons the spirit of the savvy 27-year-old Euro Olympic gold medalist, but these days he often blacks out and plays up to his 36 years of age.
However, San Antonio isn’t solely reliant on Ginobili’s exploits to anchor the supporting cast. It extends way beyond Ginobili.
After averaging 7.9 points and 5.9 rebounds a game as a rookie, Kawhi Leonard upped his scoring average to 12 per game, solidified his rep as a wing defender during his sophomore campaign, and has Popovich uncharacteristically dishing praise about his potential.
“I think he’s going to be a star. And as time goes on, he’ll be the face of the Spurs,” Popovich told Sporting News before the season. “At both ends of the court, he is really a special player.”
It may seem like hyperbole because Leonard isn’t a microwave-ready star, but the Spurs’ 21-year-old starting small forward is being slow-cooked underneath the smoldering San Antonio heat at the same temperature as a young Paul George, Mike Conley or Tony Parker.
Meanwhile, former D-Leaguer Danny Green has emerged as their primary three-point marksman and displaced Ginobili from the starting lineup.
Robert Horry’s replacement, Matt Bonner, has become a favorite of Pop’s despite being little more than a 7-foot spot-up stretch-4 shooter. He’s also the only Spur outside of the Big Three who’s been with the organization long enough to have bathed in Spurs championship confetti. In Game 1, the trio of Leonard, Bonner and Green drained 11 of San Antonio’s franchise-playoff record 14 three-pointers on just 17 attempts.
So yes, the bench is major. However, let’s not skip over the fact that for the past 16 seasons, Duncan has been San Antonio’s constant. Amidst their roster variables and everything else, he’s been the closest contemporary equivalent to Bill Russell we have in this league.
There are pockets of fans that could make the case that Russell, not Jordan, was the greatest player in NBA history. In the post-Jordan highlight era, you could make the same argument for Duncan’s subtlety over Kobe’s flare for the dramatic.
Their similarities continue in the intangibles department as Russell and Duncan rank as the two best teammates in NBA history. (Larry Bird is in the conversation as well as Magic. However, people forget that before Deron Williams fed Jerry Sloan to the fishes, Magic Johnson was Paul Westhead’s coach-killer.)
Duncan definitely prescribes to the philosophy that Russell’s daddy once taught him: “If they give you 10 dollars for a day’s work, you give them 12 dollars worth in return.” After earning the third-highest salary of any player in the league, Duncan took a 55 percent pay cut off the $21.2 million he earned last season.
While Russell did whatever it took to win hoist championship trophies and left the scoring (and assists) titles to Wilt, Duncan’s magnanimity resonates throughout the entire organization. Watching Duncan’s efficient scoring habits for the past 16 years gives you the impression that he could have been a prolific scorer if he hadn’t eschewed personal accolades for team success.
Meanwhile, at the age of 37, he’s claimed his throne as the top 35-and-older player in The Association. Two years ago, Duncan appeared to be drifting into the abyss of irrelevancy. After averaging career-lows in minutes and points from 2010 to 2012, he’s aged like fine wine. Duncan’s upped his scoring average from 13.2 to 17.2 points while shooting a career-high 81 percent from the free-throw line. Prior to this season, Duncan was a sub-69 percent shooter from the stripe.
Since winning their fourth NBA title six years ago, Duncan has remained the face of the franchise, but Parker has usurped Duncan as the focal point of Pop’s system. Parker doesn’t bear much resemblance to the 23-year-old guard Spurs fans sought to trade before his prime for Jason Kidd. Instead of making the rare blockbuster trade in franchise history, the Spurs stuck it out and are reaping the benefits. In the meantime, Parker’s role has expanded as the Spurs have sped up their offensive pace, while Ginobili’s and Duncan’s have diminished.
In a sequential lineup of the NBA’s world-class point guards, there’s no distinguishing characteristic to the naked eye that explains why Parker is a suspect for the league’s best. Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose are athletic marvels; Curry is one of the best shooters in NBA history; and Chris Paul’s vision is Miss Cleo-like. Until Rajon Rondo can improve his non-existent jumper like Parker has, he’ll continue to linger beneath the elite point guards.
It’s an annual tradition to bury the Spurs alive. When they show up in the playoffs, we treat ’em like that silver-haired weekend warrior who shows up on the blacktop rocking goggles, knee-high socks and faded Converse sneakers.
The Warriors were supposed to run away and wear down the cane-toting Spurs. Instead San Antonio perplexed them with their Uncle Drew, old-man game. Memphis resembles a poor man’s Duncan-Robinson-Parker Spurs, but they got schooled by the original OGs.
Keep watching them. You’ll learn a little something, too.