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The Spurs play by their own rules

San Antonio and its players operate by their own set of completely valid ideals about empowerment.

The San Antonio Spurs have always existed on some remote plane of existence, separated from the rest of the NBA by both geography and temperament. There aren't many direct flights to South Central Texas from the coasts, and once one does make it down there, the Spurs aren't exactly opening up their practice facility and inviting you in for a chat. (A practice facility, incidentally, that lies in a nondescript office park off a nondescript highway in the middle of nowhere.)

All of that is fine, by the way. The Spurs are who they are and don't put on airs for anyone. Spend enough time down there, put in the work and they'll treat you in kind. There's a reason why the excellent crew of writers from the San Antonio Express-News are so diligent and why a handful of national writers have returned home with precious insight and great quotes. Effort and professionalism just come with the territory.

Taken individually, the Spurs are a delight to be around. Danny Green, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker (to cite three examples) are terrific interview subjects and engaging personalities. Gregg Popovich has more than his share of fans within the media contingent, thanks to his sarcastic, yet earthy intelligence. They're not really fun, but then fun isn't part of the bargain.

What they do, they do exceedingly well. They scouted Europe earlier and better than everyone else. They developed players and prolonged their careers by dealing with the schedule on their own terms, not anyone else's. They've been progressive on social issues without seeking adulation or praise. They've also been adaptable. After a string of good but not great seasons, the Spurs didn't just reinvent themselves. They shook up the whole league by incorporating elements of Mike D'Antoni's Suns into their trusted defensive framework and created a latter-day juggernaut in the process.

To be sure, they've also had an awful lot of luck. They struck it rich twice in the lottery, getting David Robinson and then Tim Duncan in a sport where you're beyond fortunate to get it right even once. There again, the Spurs play by a different set of rules. While every other small market team has nightmares about losing their young stars, San Antonio simply stayed true to itself. Not only did no one ever want to leave, they often took less money to stick around.

What they haven't done until now is play the free agency game, and it turns out they do that pretty well, too. Pop may not have been calling LaMarcus Aldridge at midnight on July 1, but he made sure his voice was the last one Aldridge needed to hear before making his decision. His pitch was direct and straight-forward. There was nothing else really to sell. Signing Aldridge was a coup that heralded a new path toward remaining competitive, but getting David West to take the veteran's minimum was something else entirely.

Like his new team, West operates by his own set of values. He takes care of his teammates on the court and off. His voice in the locker room isn't the loudest, but it carries the deepest authority, and his actions convey even more respect than his words.  West turned down more money from Boston to play with the Pacers and he left millions on the table to sign on for the minimum in San Antonio. There aren't too many players in the league who can do that and not be held up as a mercenary or even a naive idealist, but then again, there aren't too many players like David West.

This is a problem insomuch as the league doesn't operate by these principles. It's a zero-sum game where players are expected to get as much as they can, while they can, and hope that it all works out before their teams pull the plug and try to get as much back in return. Making life decisions based on anything other than the bottom line doesn't translate and frankly, isn't good business. The Spurs are an impossible ideal and wanting anything more than self-determination and sacrifice comes across as greedy avarice.

Yet, one can praise the Spurs and think highly of West's decision without lapsing into lazy sportswriting tropes. One can think that valuing a work environment above all else is as much a blow for individual freedom and control of the system as anything LeBron James is doing in Cleveland. San Antonio is an ecosystem unto itself and its players have empowered themselves as much as anyone by choosing this path of their own volition. There's a place for that in this league and it speaks to its uniqueness that there's only one.

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