To the surprise of nobody, the San Antonio Spurs will finish this season among the oldest teams in the NBA. With a core led by 30-somethings Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, they're the NBA's resident "wily, grizzled veteran team."
And yet, the Spurs are elite year after year after year. No matter how creaky those three stars get, coach Gregg Popovich keeps moving them around while finding new pieces to keep opponents guessing. The Spurs may be aging, but they're far from complacent.
With 19 straight wins after topping Golden State on Wednesday, San Antonio appears to be ending its season on the highest of notes. Of course, we've seen this before. Two years ago, the Spurs won 10 in a row and 21 of 23 before sweeping through the first two rounds of the postseason. That 29-2 run led many to believe another title was on the way, but Kevin Durant and the Thunder had different ideas in the West Finals. Between those memories and last year's run to Game 7 of the Finals, the third time may be the charm.
When SBNation.com's Tom Ziller broke down the relationship between age and team success on Wednesday, he hardly touched on the Spurs despite being one of the league's biggest outliers. The reason isn't all that complicated: we know these Spurs inside and out. Or at least, we know the main figures involved.
But while Duncan, Parker, Ginobili and Pops are around ever year, the Spurs have always embraced necessary change. As the roster and competition have evolved, so has San Antonio's style of play.
As it did in 1997, the Spurs' success starts with Duncan. A unique two-way force who plays as smart as any big man in league history, his All-Star caliber play at the age of 37 is a testament to his talent and hard work.
But as his miles have piled up, Popovich has deftly altered his schemes to cover up those shortcomings. When the Spurs fell out of the league's top-10 in defensive efficiency during the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons, they found and promoted younger players like Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter to rebuild that side of the team. Duncan can no longer anchor a defense for 35-plus minutes like in the past, but Popovich has found ways to keep him fresh and maximize the rest of the roster. Only the Pacers and Bulls are allowing fewer points per possession, per NBA.com. Playing great defense usually requires both elite athleticism and execution. San Antonio lacks the former, but overwhelms offenses with the latter.
It's the perfect confluence of basketball I.Q. in the San Antonio locker room, which helps to foster an environment where anyone can thrive. Newcomers like Boris Diaw, Marco Belinelli and Patty Mills prove the axiom. When new additions like them keep going San Antonio and finding their game, it's a tribute to the team's chemistry and coaching staff. This is a group that understands the importance of everyone finding his right place, even if that equation is constantly changing.
And that's what makes the Spurs so incredible: no matter what's going on, everyone in San Antonio knows why they're there. At no point does Popovich ask a player to do something he can't do. His mastery of fitting guys based on their skill sets is his most impressive skill and allows San Antonio to keep bringing in different role players around its core.
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The core of the Spurs might be four future Hall of Famers, and the good health afforded to them is one of the biggest reasons for the team's success. But without Popovich's ability to identify skilled players and fit them into the system, thereby limiting the minutes of his greatest players, would they have stayed so healthy? As much as we can attribute the success of San Antonio to Duncan, Parker and Ginobili, who knows if they have this longevity under Tom Thibodeau?
At the NBA level, pretty much every player offers some skill that should help teams. Nobody gets into the league by accident. The fact that so many talented players fail at basketball's highest level reflects the importance of the role players around them.
And when it comes to the NBA, no team understands that better than the Spurs. They bring in new pieces and always find the best way to fit them in. That ability to change the roster while retaining continuity is the key to their success.