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San Antonio Spurs: The Standard of Excellence

How the Spurs Are Still Here 20 Years Later

This hurts to write coming from a die-hard Laker fan. But, while the Spurs do not have the rings to contend with Boston and Los Angeles, they have etched their place as the third greatest franchise in NBA history. When Gregg Popovich is not busy becoming America’s favorite coach by lambasting the President of the United States, he is busy winning. 

He is busy winning a lot. The Spurs have been part of our basketball lives post-April now for more than two decades, and that looks to continue this season with a revamped roster in the post-Tim Duncan era. They have defined a brand of basketball using ball movement, floor spacing and making the extra pass on their way to five titles. The league is moving to position-less basketball with those very elements as its key components. 

San Antonio was the visionary of this new generation, ushering in a refined brand of basketball. The Spurs were the first to employ multiple international players and develop them to compete at an elite level. In a lot of ways, they have defined not only the previous two decades of basketball, but also the future of basketball. Why they continue to be overlooked and taken for granted is beyond me.

How do they continue to stay consistent in a turbulent NBA landscape? The answer: a winning culture. Jerry Krause famously once told Michael Jordan, the GOAT, that “players and coaches don’t win championships, organizations do.” That was a Bulls team with arguably the greatest player of all time, the greatest on-ball defender ever in Scottie Pippen, and the greatest manager of talent in the history of sports in Phil Jackson. 

Now, obviously players win championships; any executive who tells you that has an ego the size of the Grand Canyon. The Spurs would not have won five rings without David Robinson, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard, Robert Horry, and the list goes on. Shoutout to Sean Elliot (the Memorial Day miracle is still one of the most overlooked playoff moments in NBA history. Even better that it came against the Jailblazers). 

But I understand what he was trying to say. The same thing Kyrie left Cleveland in search of, and what the Spurs represent, is stability. They are constant. Stability fights complacency, and the Spurs have mastered it in a time when the NBA landscape seems to shift every summer. The Spurs are still here. It is annoyingly brilliant how they manage to maintain relevance.

In that same vein, the Spurs miraculously managed to maintain the same core in the Free Agent Era. Since the unrestricted free agent rule was instituted in 1988, no other franchise to memory has had such luck. Dynasties in today’s NBA have a short life span. Players are lured away by bigger money and personal gain. Players like Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant are a rarity. Their winning culture and guys embracing the fact that one player is not bigger than the team led them to five titles. Duncan is the greatest power forward of all-time (we will save the KG debate for another time) and only averaged more than 23 points per game one time in his career — 25.5 in the 2001-02 season. That is a testament to Spurs basketball.

Another key factor to the Spurs success is they draft very well, a necessity for a small market team in the most massive state on the mainland. The core of Ginobili, Parker, Duncan, and the late addition of Kawhi Leonard were all draft picks, but not necessarily coveted picks outside of Duncan. Aside from the stars, drafted role players, Patty Mills and Beno Udrih (international players) have played key roles on championship teams. They got this thing figured out, while the rest of the league is still catching up.

Any great accomplishment combines elements of timing, talent and some luck. Pop has been at the helm for more than two decades, making the playoffs every year aside from his first, in which the team won 17 games. A dismal first year that led to the lottery landed him Tim Duncan; the following year, they went on to win 56 games. Then, in his third season, a lockout year, he notched a 37-13 record and an NBA title. The timing of Duncan being available after four brilliant years at Wake Forest, and the luck of him falling to them, produced a title. The rest will be in the history books.

So, why do we take the Spurs for granted? Put simply: they are not sexy. The three-peat Lakers had appeal. Shaq was a freak of nature, and fro-Kobe was dunking on anyone with the fortitude to meet him at the rim. Making the right play does not make SportsCenter. 

Small market teams also do not have the same allure as their larger counterparts. The Spurs have defeated the small market label and recently have shed the stigma of a being a free agent repellent. Signing LaMarcus Aldridge a few summers ago shows the league is starting to take notice. Kyrie Irving, one of the league’s most coveted point guards, listed the Spurs as one of his top three trade destinations, largely due to Pop. 

The Spurs are the best thing running in the NBA. They have become an institution inside the league. Their impact on the league will be seen decades after Pop is gone. You see it in franchises such as the Oklahoma City Thunder, who pride themselves on small market values, building through the draft and preaching loyalty within the organization. With the emergence of Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio will likely be relevant for another decade. 

In most instances, I tend to disagree with Jerry Krause, but in the case of the Spurs, they are the exception. Players can certainly win a title, but organizations can win multiple. From a disgruntled Laker fan, a tip of the cap to Pop and the organization for being the standard. 

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