Over the years, when the San Antonio Spurs coach, Gregg Popovich was asked about Spurs’ celebrated organizational culture or their long position as candidate in the Western Conference, he hit Give every credit to Hall of Famer Tim Duncan.
“Before you start clapping and credit anyone else in this organization for anything finished, remember that it all started with Timmy,” Popovich said a few years ago. “Right when he does [retires]I will be 10 steps behind. Because I’m not stupid. “
Spurs have barely dropped 10 places since Duncan retired in 2016, but for the first time in 22 seasons, the NBA playoffs will begin without them. Spurs were knocked out on Thursday with victories by Phoenix and Memphis.
During those 22 seasons, Spurs have won 1,260 wins in their most regular NBA season – 211 wins more than 2nd-ranked Dallas. Putting San Antonio’s dominance into context, the difference between Spurs and Dallas is greater than the gap between Dallas and Philadelphia No. 21. Spurs maintained that superiority for another season after Duncan retired when they won 61 games after Kawhi Leonard and marched to the Western Conference final. This kind of excellence for such an ongoing period is simply unrivaled.
Whether the culture that existed in San Antonio was the result of Duncan ‘s presence; the early adoption of innovation movements in team building, health, scouting, and style of play has become the defining element of the NBA today; or the leadership of Popovich and GM RC Buford, Spurs maintained it. During those 22 seasons, they mined international gems at the end of the drafting phase such as Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, and scoured the low-priced cargo box for underperformed players including Danny Green and Patty Mills.
Spurs have operated on the understanding that for any shortcomings of a player, San Antonio is where he can maximize his strengths and minimize his weaknesses. That is the key but simple attribute of the Spurs organization: It puts people in a position to succeed.
As Leonard said in 2015, “Coming to a team like Spurs, you automatically learn how to play the game the right way.”
If the Spurs crave perfection, then their performance in the 2014 NBA Finals, beating LeBron James’s Miami Heat in five games, is almost. For two weeks, Spurs held an exhibition of movement, timing and accuracy. The staged processes – the way players fly into space – are dazzling. They make quick decisions, but never lose their patience. The ball bounced around halfway around the field, and seemed to always land with the right people for the right shot.
Leonard is Duncan ‘s heir obviously personifies Spurs’ morality, a belief that basketball is about work – “smashing the rocks”, as the maxim in San Antonio – a commitment to selflessness with the process and an allergy to the competition of the NBA star system. It’s not that you should take your good life away – no one can accuse Spurs brass of being redundant – but that good life has to be an honor of the team and culture.
Duncan told me in 2013, “People choose to try to be bigger than the game, to create their own personal brand or whatever they can, and fortunately there are enough people around. I don’t choose. “
The NBA may have made Spurs the focus of national media and marketing campaigns during their time in office, but what will the problem be? The business federation sells the stars’ performance and athletic abilities, not the discipline and devotion of the teams. Besides, Spurs never cared about all of that. Although they are committed community ambassadors in central Texas, their dislike of the media and lack of interest in swagger has become a hallmark of their identity. They embody Duncan ‘s values, in Popovich’s view, and it served them well for almost a quarter of a century.
Leonard shares some of the values of Spurs. The folks in Toronto and Los Angeles describe him as a man dedicated to preparing and frequently demanding championships, and he’s not a born pitcher. But confidence between Leonard and Spurs eroded to the point of being unable to return in 2018 because of Leonard’s limb injury, and Leonard asked for a swap out of San Antonio in June of that year.
After Leonard’s departure, Spurs left in 2018 as LaMarcus Aldridge, whom they signed in 2015, DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay. Manu Ginobili, whose emotional IQ, personal fulfillment and family love for Spurs stood next to Duncan, retired, while Tony Parker moved to Charlotte. Despite Patty Mills, the last mark of Spurs’ glory is far behind.
Aldridge, DeRozan and Gay have their own strengths, but they are not archetypal Spurs. Aldridge prefers to play ball on the left flank, while DeRozan is third in the league in terms of isolation, and the majority of Gay’s actions appear in post and iso. In classic Spurs style, each of these scorers has produced more effective shots than previous stops, but in style and quality, Spurs has suddenly transformed the modern dance into heavy production.
Spurs have still won almost 50 games in every two pre-season, and still adopt many of the same organizational philosophies. In the bubble, they have had solid production from their youngsters, including Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Keldon Johnson – the 29 draft options trio (of course) – who are likely to is part of their next chapter.
However, Spurs have become more like an everyday NBA team, overcoming chaos like any other small market franchise. There’s absolutely nothing to be ashamed of at dusk, especially after five championships. Even a pack of tigers eventually died, and the Spurs’ lifespan was almost incomprehensible. But Popovich wasn’t mistakenly humble – if there wasn’t a special celebrity like Duncan, exceptionalism would have a way to die.
Somewhere while Spurs are winning trophies and reinventing the way NBA organizations manage themselves, the rest of the league has taken notice. Their coaching and management tree branched out into every corner of the NBA. It has roots in Milwaukee, Brooklyn, Golden State, Oklahoma City, Philadelphia, Utah, Charlotte, Memphis, and Phoenix. Even if there may not be direct descendants, many of the best practices in NBA organizations can be traced back to San Antonio.
In that respect, Spurs are not only victims of Father Time, but also their own success. They are no longer what they used to be, but more NBA teams coming into post-season look like classic Spurs than ever before.