Since Tim Duncan was selected #1 overall in the 1997 draft, the San Antonio Spurs have been a powerhouse in the NBA. They have been the standard of excellence and consistency in the league. They haven’t had a winning percentage lower than 61%. They have seen the rise and fall of 2 different Lakers mini-dynasties. They thrived through the rise and fall of Boston’s latest “Big Three,” and now, they are looking to put an end to the Heat’s “Big Three.” What has kept them going for this long? What is so different about them that has sustained them for over a decade without a lottery pick to rebuild around?
The first thing that differentiates the Spurs from the rest of the NBA is organizational consistency. As the saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The Spurs have the longest-tenured coach in the NBA by a landslide. Greg Popovich has had the luxury of being allowed to implement a system and watch it evolve into the work of art it has become. In an era where coaches have to acquiesce to their star players, Popovich has engrained his system in his star players DNA. He is revered as one of the elite coaches in the NBA today, and probably of all-time, but this is all thanks to consistent support from the organization.
The second thing that makes the Spurs work is Tim Duncan. He is the epitome of fundamental excellence, coupled with a deep pride that isn’t expressed as an oppressive ego. His skill-set and mind-set on the court are a stabilizing force for the moving parts and personalities that make up the Spurs. His undying support of Greg Popovich has made them extensions of one another. His willingness to adjust his game to the changing trends of the NBA has prolonged his outstanding career. His unselfish play has enriched the development of players like Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard. His acceptance of the system has made him a better player and teammate, but it is he who keeps it running at such a high level.
The third asset that the Spurs possess that makes them that much better than most of the league is a roster full of self-aware players. San Antonio doesn’t have one player who feels that they are being held back by the system, and they don’t have guys who try to do more than what is asked of them. The closest thing they have to that is Manu Ginobili, but his unorthodox approach is more culpable for his odd-looking swagger than a selfish attitude. Players like Boris Diaw, who would struggle to play substantial minutes on most current NBA rosters because of his physical limitations, are a major part of the Spurs' rotation. He has a defined role, tailored to his skill-set, in the context of the system, and he is flourishing by doing what he can do. Players like Danny Green have become household names on the Spurs because they play their role, play for each other, and nothing else.
It will be interesting to see if they could hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy one more time in the Tim Duncan era. They are a basketball purist's dream, but all good things must come to an end. Eventually, Tim Duncan will run out of gas. Eventually, there won’t be one more year to give. In the meantime, though, enjoy what you are watching every time the Spurs are on your screen. In a league full of dysfunction and inconsistency, the Spurs live on synergy and efficiency. Simply put, the Spurs work because rather than being the sum of their individual parts, they are the product of cooperation in every facet of the game.