Ever wonder why NBA franchise owners and general managers only speak of the Spurs in platitudes? So often you'll hear the leaders of middling clubs talk about emulating the greatest franchise in the modern NBA, but never in specifics. While GMs, coaches and controlling partners will explain exactly how they intend to mimic teams in the style of the Warriors or by replicating something that the late-Aughts Celtics or early-teens Heat did, there's no specific example for the Spurs.
The Spurs have 50 wins in each of the last 17 seasons, and that includes a 66-game season. The Spurs' streak of winning at least 60 percent of their games (equivalent to 50 wins) is 19 seasons; over that span, San Antonio has 1,069 regular season wins and a .711 winning percentage. (Dallas is in second place with 155 fewer wins). The Spurs have five championships in that span, matched only by the Lakers, who got theirs in two spurts interspersed by spells of mediocrity. No one has been as consistently great for as long as these Spurs since there were only eight teams in the NBA.
While other franchises genuflect before San Antonio's dominance, they rarely cite specific tactics they want to borrow. Tanking to get a chance to draft Tim Duncan is one thing, but anyone can do that. Many have tried and most have failed even when they did strike it rich in the lottery. The Spurs have excelled by succeeding on multiple levels. Everyone wants to be like them, but no one knows how. It's hard to claim how you'll be like the Spurs because there's no one thing the Spurs are, other than awesome.
The Spurs don't lead revolutions; they evolve to solve problems and meet needs. To battle Erik Spoelstra's orchestra in Miami, Gregg Popovich installed a ball-movement offense and R.C. Buford found low-cost players who fit the scheme. When teams were beginning to win big by drafting international players at the turn of the millennium, the Spurs picked up Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili (not to mention Luis Scola, Tiago Splitter and Beno Udrih). When Mike D'Antoni and Steve Nash took the league by storm, when Kobe and Shaq threatened to shut down the West for a decade, when Golden State launched itself into the future with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, San Antonio stuck with its old fallback: defense over everything.
Teams can say they want to be more like the Warriors and list actual action items (play small, shoot tons of threes). It's futile, of course, because it's not simply tactics that make the Warriors the Warriors (or that made the Suns the Suns in a previous generation). Elite talent matters. But there is a distinct, knowable basketball ethos to mimic.
That isn't the case in San Antonio. The Spurs just do everything extraordinarily well.
The draft record of Buford and Pop is impeccable, and defies classification. When it makes sense to take college vets (Duncan, George Hill), the Spurs take college vets. When it makes sense to take raw, young internationals (Parker, Splitter, Ian Mahinmi), the Spurs take raw, young internationals. When it makes sense to take older internationals who have fallen through the NBA cracks (Ginobili, Robertas Javtokas, Scola), the Spurs take older internationals who have fallen through the NBA cracks. When it makes sense to take idiosyncratic young Americans with huge upside but major flaws (Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Anderson), the Spurs take idiosyncratic young Americans with huge upside but major flaws. The Spurs don't have a type in the draft.
The same applies in free agency. The Spurs pick over the NBA fringe (Danny Green, Jonathan Simmons, Bruce Bowen, Stephen Jackson) and chase the biggest free agent names (LaMarcus Aldridge). They give young coaches their first big break (Mike Budenholzer, Ime Udoka, Becky Hammon) and bring in experienced vets to add their knowledge (Ettore Messina, P.J. Carlesimo, Quin Snyder). The Spurs don't set trends and they don't chase them. They exist in almost a parallel NBA where they do whatever is best for the franchise, every single time, regardless of what everyone else is doing.
The battle with Miami is the exception, the one obvious moment in the past two decades where Popovich saw an opponent that forced him to change. But after that escapade, the Spurs went back to doing their own thing, dominating without regard to their rivals. Almost everyone in the league is chasing the Warriors, trying their small lineups and firing up as many threes as possible, regardless of their success. The Spurs, meanwhile, are playing half-court ball-control and dominating on defense. They are having their best season in franchise history.
Doing their own thing allowed San Antonio to survive beyond the Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers and tamp down the D'Antoni-and-Nash Suns. Maybe it'll be the trick to quash the budding Golden State dynasty, too. Even if it is, don't expect the rest of the NBA to follow the Spurs down the path, because there really is no path. There's simply suffocating excellence in every aspect of the sport.
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