When the San Antonio Spurs are playing at their selfless best—always making the extra pass that leads to the open shot, nearly automatically making the right play every single time—Gregg Popovich’s brusque answers to seemingly valid questions suddenly make sense. Because what the Spurs do is smooth the wrinkles out and make a complex game extraordinarily simple: Make the pass. Find the open man. Move into space. What is there to say? Just watch the game. It’s a system that’s been refined to near-perfection over the past 17 years, and while the Spurs may never be called a dynasty, they can settle for being the very definition of basketball excellence over nearly two decades. The last team to accomplish that was the Boston Celtics, back when there were eight teams in the NBA and no arenas had air conditioning. Dynasties come and go—the Spurs have built something more.
It wouldn’t be far-fetched to call this Spurs team the franchise’s best ever. Peak Spurs, in 2014. Imagine that.
It all starts with talent, of course, and Tim Duncan has received all the proper accolades. He’s a two-time MVP, a three-time Finals MVP, and is widely recognized as the best power forward ever. That said, he is still probably underappreciated. He’s only the second player ever to win titles in three separate decades, and considering the first was John Salley, who played just 78 minutes in his final championship playoff run, Duncan’s the first to have done it as a key piece. Salley also accomplished his feat in the minimal amount of time, winning his first in ‘89 and his last in ‘00. Duncan took an extra four seasons. His closest comparison is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who despite being the leading scorer in NBA history is often underappreciated himself. Longevity is tough to consider properly in a sport where excellence is normally defined via highlights.
Yet here Duncan and the Spurs are, and they haven’t seemed to suffer much for it. If anything, they’ve gotten better. This was the first time the Spurs made back-to-back Finals trips, and given the startling ease with which they systematically destroyed the two-time defending champs, they look far from finished. Given their league-best 62-win record (with minutes being spread around such that no one even averaged 30 minutes per) and their romp through the Finals, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to call this Spurs team the franchise’s best ever. Peak Spurs, in 2014. Imagine that.
This doesn’t happen without Duncan, of course, but it also doesn’t happen without the system he bought into early in his career. Which doesn’t work without Duncan, and so on and so forth unto the end of time. Duncan is the star everything in San Antonio revolves around, but he’s in the Bill Russell mold rather than the Michael Jordan one—which is probably why Russell himself is quick to praise him, and another reason why modern NBA fans have more difficulty appreciating him. Duncan, who’s shot 50 percent from the floor for his career, has only averaged 18 shots per game once, in ‘01-02 when he averaged a career-high 25.5 ppg and won his first MVP. The very next season he took a full shot per game less, shot a higher percentage from the field, and won his second title. There is probably a lesson in this.
There’s a lesson in nearly everything the Spurs do, but don’t expect Popovich to write a book extolling his own virtues or give motivational speeches at $100,000 a pop. If he did, he could hold them at airport gates so attendees could get right back on the plane. They wouldn’t take very long: It’s all about trust and balance—and talent, of course—where the players need to trust the system and the coaches need to trust the players (and maybe most importantly, the owner needs to trust the coaches and the GM). There also needs to be a degree of ruthlessness, where those not willing to buy in are discarded or allowed to move on. When all that is looked after, playing the game is easy.
It’s a delicate balancing act to be sure, but one that becomes self-corrective over time. Build a team around a selfish player, and a team tends to get more selfish. If they see that passes are never returned and ill-advised shots are the norm, that behavior spreads. If unselfish play is never rewarded, why be unselfish? But on the other hand, if the star of a team is willing to pass up his own shots in favor of better shots, that behavior spreads as well. Selflessness breeds selflessness, seeking better shots becomes its own reward and individual pressure is lessened. And once team success becomes more important than individual success, it’s likely there will be more of both.
This all sounds much simpler than it is. The Spurs sought players far and wide, and it’s not surprising they have one of the NBA’s most diverse rosters. They scooped up Tony Parker at the end of the first round, Manu Ginobili at the end of the second. In the Finals, they beat a team starring the players everyone wanted with one built from players no one did—Boris Diaw was claimed from Charlotte’s discard pile, Danny Green did two stints in the D-League after being waived by the Cavaliers. Kawhi Leonard was picked 15th overall by the Pacers and acquired in a draft-day trade for George Hill, as the Spurs dealt a finished product for a raw youngster with a much higher ceiling. Now Leonard’s a Finals MVP at 22, just like Duncan himself was in ‘99.
Time will tell whether a Leonard-led team can replicate Duncan’s level of success—or whether the Spurs can attract a marquee free agent to allow Leonard to remain a complementary piece. It seems unlikely. Asking the Spurs to continue at their 50-plus win pace for another decade and a half without Duncan, Ginobili and Parker would require a rebuild on the fly like nothing they’ve had to try before. It will necessitate other young players buying into the same style of play where true “hero ball” is making the right decision every single time—which means if someone misses their first 10 shots, like Parker did in Game 5, you still swing the ball to him when he’s open. It requires a tremendous amount of patience both on a large and small scale, and the understanding that misses (and sometimes even losses) are just a part of the bigger picture. Which in the Spurs case is five championships in 16 seasons, including three in five.
Maybe it’s not the questions themselves that draw Pop’s in-game (and postgame, and pre-game…) ire, but the fact that there are questions at all.
When the Spurs are playing at their best, no one can call them boring. The ball moves efficiently and quickly, flitting around the court until it reaches the open man. Ideally, that person—whoever it happens to be—will take the shot. It’s tiring to watch sometimes, so one can only imagine what it’s like to defend. With no one player being the focal point of the offense, none can be the focal point of the defense. The only way to do it is to guard all five players for all 24 seconds, which is basically impossible. This is how a player can become Finals MVP without having a single play run for him. This should be sustainable without Duncan, provided the faith in the system remains intact.
It’s debatable whether the hot hand exists at all, but it surely doesn’t in the Spurs playbook. Hit your last shot? Great. Hit the next open one. And if you’re not open, pass to someone who is. With role players given essentially the same responsibility as the stars, they’re more likely to play their roles. No one stands around on offense when the Spurs have the ball—at least not for long. And while they’ll gladly exploit mismatches—hello Udonis Haslem on Duncan—that too is in the interest in getting the best shot every time down.
There is a quote in the Spurs locker room taken from Jacob Riis: “When nothing seems to help, I go look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.” In short? Trust the process, the results will come. Which means maybe it’s not the questions themselves that draw Pop’s in-game (and postgame, and pre-game…) ire, but the fact that there are questions at all. Asking about a particular play, or even a particular quarter, is to ignore all that came before. It’s asking the stonecutter about the final blow. There is no mystery to what the Spurs do, at least from the inside. Explaining it to others—namely, people who aren’t Spurs—has never been part of the deal.
Five championships in 16 seasons. As a ratio maybe it’s not particularly remarkable—that’s one chip every three-year average—but as a body of work for one coach and one superstar it’s downright miraculous. Phil Jackson and Kobe won five in 11 seasons, but that was with a Rudy T interlude (and a sub-.500 season in ‘04-05). And the Lakers won five in 16 between ‘87 and ‘02, but that was two in the first two seasons and three in the last three separated by 11 years of drought, two mini-dynasties that had absolutely nothing in common except the uniforms. The Spurs have been a model of consistency in a league that’s in near constant flux. That shouldn’t change, even when the names inevitably do. And it’s as worthy of celebration as any championship.
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