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The Genius Of The San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs may seem mundane, but they're playing historically great basketball right now. Dan Grunfeld tackles their genius by taking an inside look at the qualities that make them such an incredibly good basketball team.


There are moments in life when the stars just align. The right factors combine in the right place at the right time, creating the potential for something magical to happen. It's a precious circumstance, and it's one that I myself experienced no more than a week ago, when I stumbled upon the precipice of one of the most awe-inspiring naps in the history of my existence.

I'm not exaggerating, because for an afternoon-snooze lover like me, an exceptional nap such as this one is the stuff that dreams are made of. I had just traveled 18 hours from Israel to the States, running on about two hours of sleep, and I'd finally returned home on a sunny Saturday morning after a nine-month stint playing ball overseas. I was excited to be back on American soil, but I was also punch-drunk from lack of sleep, and I happened to be riper than a month-old cantaloupe. Upon arrival, I was therefore instantly determined to start my summer off in the best way I could imagine: with a nice hot shower followed by an epic midday slumber.

As if my plan wasn't awesome enough, I had the great fortune of being able to doze off at my leisure to the sweet sounds of Game 3 of the Spurs-Clippers series. Once game time rolled around, I was primed and ready for a Beethoven-esque drool fest (the dog, not the composer), but as the contest moved along, slobber never became the issue that I'd hoped it would. Unfortunately, my glorious nap was thwarted by the brilliance of the San Antonio Spurs. I totally missed my sleep window because, even with my travel delirium, I could not turn away from the fluid efficiency unique to San Antonio's game. Against the Clippers, they shared the ball, they communicated, they made shots, they defended, and they worked together in harmony. At some point during the third quarter, I'm pretty sure I went cross-eyed watching them operate, but I stayed awake, mesmerized, as the Spurs erased a 24-point first-half deficit with poise and precision on their way to beating Los Angeles for their 17th win in a row.

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As someone who has been playing professional basketball for six years, I know how rare it is for a team to be synchronized on this level, so it's no surprise that the Spurs kept me -- a hardcore nap artist -- away from one of the most truly heroic sleep situations that I'd ever come across. Clearly, something special is happening with that team, and the numbers confirm it: a winning streak now at 18 games, a 30-3 record since March 12, a double-digit point differential during that span, the highest scoring average in the league, the most efficient shooting numbers from inside and outside the three-point-line, and many other dominating facts and figures.

These numbers are great, and they certainly prove that San Antonio is playing some historically terrific basketball, but the question I find more interesting is why? Why is it that the aging, should-be-over-the-hill Spurs are the best team in the NBA right now? Their superstar is years past his prime, they don't have anyone who scores over 20 points per game, and they have numerous rotation players who many fans have never even heard of. Of course, the Spurs have a ton of skill and ability (Tony Parker = amazing), and they have one of the best coaches in the business, but unlike other elite teams such as the Lakers, Heat or Thunder, they're not the type of explosive, electrifying, superstar-studded squad that sets the NBA world on fire. Yet it's the Spurs -- the "boring" team from Texas -- who are burning through the competition. So what is it that makes them so good?

In my opinion, one way to understand the Spurs dominance and explain their success is to evaluate their fabric as a unit. As a player who has played on championship teams, underachieving teams and teams who reveled in the age-old pastime of vicious locker room fistfights, I know how important a team's "personality" is to their success as a group, and I also know how important it is to keep your head on a swivel. Either way, San Antonio is a prime example of this principle because, more than anyone else, they epitomize some of the underrated yet essential core qualities that add up to a winning basketball team. These features are what set the Spurs apart, so below, I have graciously compiled some "personality traits" that, to an educated observer, seem most responsible for the Spurs' success on the court. And, to keep things simple and streamlined, especially for the many phonics enthusiasts out there, they all start with the letter S! So let's do this!


I wish it was possible to calculate how much time the members of certain basketball teams spend thinking about what's good for themselves versus thinking about what's good for the team. It'd be a telling statistic, I think, and from watching San Antonio play, I bet they'd have one of the most team-oriented ratios around, because there's absolutely no ego in what they do. They've been together for so long, and appear so secure with who they are as individuals and as a group, that their actions are all for the good of the team. They know their roles, and what's better, they accept them. No one protests substitutions. No one tries to be a hero. No one plays with an agenda. Everyone just plays, and that selfless quality is a credit to the culture that Gregg Popovich must demand, and that the players seem to openly embrace. Granted, the Spurs were very lucky to have drafted Tim Duncan in 1997 -- a top-20 player of all time and one of the NBA's finest citizens off the court -- and his stable position atop their totem pole for the last 15 years has undoubtedly helped set the tone for the unselfish culture of winning that thrives there today. Still, what they've created in San Antonio is an environment where guys play the right way -- together -- and in a team sport like basketball, that tendency can only breed success.


Whether you call it savvy, smarts or experience, the Spurs are soaked in it. Their core of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili (along with Coach Popovich) have been to the playoffs together 10 years in a row, and they've won three championships as a group. These guys are intelligent players by nature, and the ridiculous depth of experience that they've all gained over the years has only enhanced that. To the Spurs' credit, they've surrounded this core with like-minded players who also demonstrate focus and discipline. Guys like Tiago Splitter and Gary Neal may seem like random additions unearthed from the deepest corners of the basketball globe, but in reality, they were big-time players in Europe before joining the Spurs, and they both played for highly-respected European clubs that stress smart team basketball over everything else. I know this because I played against both of them in Spain before they made the leap to the league, and given the level they performed at in Europe (and the team-oriented tendencies of European basketball in general), I'm not surprised at how well they fit in with the Spurs. Besides being talented, they both know where to be and what to do, and the same thing can be said across the entire San Antonio roster. They're a smart, savvy bunch, and the result is a seasoned team that makes very few mistakes.


The demeanor of the Spurs is best described by the word "steady." Again, this is a trait that is exemplified (and perhaps also passed down) by Duncan (and probably Popovich, too), and it rings true for the team as a whole. They never get too high and they never get too low. During games, they're steadfast, resolute and unflappable. They just play their game, whether they're up 24 or down 24, and they let the chips fall where they may. This might seem like a simple task, but games of basketball are emotional, and they're filled with swings and runs, triumphs and disappointments, bad calls and botched plays, and it takes a lot of maturity to stay businesslike throughout all that, especially when the stakes are high. The Spurs, however, have managed to foster a group mentality of being cool, calm and collected -- while playing extremely hard and executing at all times, of course -- and it's why they remain solid in the face of adversity and never overreact in the midst of success. They just keep rolling, no matter the circumstance, and the rest of the league suffers as a result.


Synergy is defined as "the interaction of elements that, when combined, produce a total effect that is greater than the sum of the individual elements, contributions, etc." In basketball, synergy is manifested on a team when individual players cooperate with their teammates, work together and make each other better each and every time they step foot on the court. It's created when they play to each other's strengths, cover for each other's weaknesses, and infuse trust and confidence into one another. If the end result of their collaboration far surpasses the sum of each individual's ability, then that's synergy, and for me, there's no team that demonstrates it more effectively than the Spurs. In addition to being extraordinarily unselfish and committed to team success, they also have the ability to cooperate with each other on the court in a way that makes perfect sense. From the backdoor cuts, to the pick-and-rolls, to the drives-and-kicks, to the rotations-for-charges, the way the Spurs work together and feed off each other elevates the group to heights that their separate abilities would never carry them. Again, it's a testament to the players' commitment to winning and to each other, but probably more so to Pop, who is no doubt a superior coach who has instilled these qualities in his team and earned their unyielding trust and respect. Talented people operating on the same page toward the same goal make synergy. Synergy makes wins. Accordingly, there's a lot of winning going on in San Antonio.

The Spurs have a rock in Tim Duncan, an elite point guard in Tony Parker, a dynamic wing scorer and facilitator in Manu Ginobili, a cast of committed supporting players whose skill-sets compliment their team's core, an unbelievable coach who demands and orchestrates the excellence he receives, and lastly, all of the intangible characteristics of winning that are listed above. The stars are aligning for them right now -- as if a nest of cashmere blankets and TempurPedic pillows awaits them for the nap of a lifetime -- and they're taking advantage of it. They're a special and sophisticated group -- the only one of their kind in the NBA -- and while they're not flashy or glamorous, they're a team, in the truest sense of the word, and it's what carries them through the ups and downs and makes them successful in the end.

For a basketball fan, it's a beautiful thing to watch, but that's not to say that they're a lock to win their fifth title in the Duncan era. It's far from certain, and it's quite possible that they won't get past the young and hungry Oklahoma City Thunder in their upcoming Western Conference Finals match-up. Whether they win or lose, though, the Spurs have already demonstrated the qualities with which the game of basketball should be played, for almost a decade now, and it's something that should never be forgotten. Their success has been amazing, their spirit is commendable, and their series with the Thunder is going to be a battle. I can't wait to watch it, and you better believe I'll be well-rested for the occasion, because the big dog likes his naps, and obviously, it takes a truly remarkable basketball team to keep me away from them.

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