Do you believe in fate? Do things happen because there’s a greater force involved, or is it simply by chance?
As complex as their success looks, there are two reasons the Spurs are the Spurs.
Whether you believe those two reasons are owed to fate or just unbelievable luck is a good indicator of the way you view the world.
In 1999, the San Antonio Spurs became the first ABA team to win an NBA championship. But 1999 also represents a fairytale ending that almost didn’t happen.
The Spurs began their much anticipated 1999 season 6-8. This was a mark that was less than satisfactory. Gregg Popovich had installed himself as head coach just a year and a half before and many people in San Antonio thought Bob Hill was still the best man for the job.
What happened next is debatable, but the gist is Spurs chairman Peter Holt, sensing that this championship caliber team was slipping away, nearly fired Pop.
If Pop is fired, none of this happens. Tim Duncan might have left San Antonio for Orlando in 2000, R.C. Buford is subsequently not empowered as the team’s general manager, they never draft Tony Parker or take a flier late in the draft on Manu Ginobili, and there’s no chance the Spurs land LaMarcus Aldridge on the 4-year, $80-million deal he agreed to over the weekend.
There are two reasons that the Spurs are the Spurs, the first is continuity at the top with Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford and the other is Tim Duncan.
Tim Duncan is the gift that keeps on giving. You probably already knew that Tim Duncan is the reason the Spurs were able to land Aldridge, but do you know why?
The greatest representation of Tim Duncan’s incalculable value to the San Antonio Spurs is rooted deeply in the organization’s ethos.
Selflessness as an organizational characteristic doesn’t mean anything unless Tim Duncan is there to exhibit those traits every day.
Pat Riley once wrote about The Disease of More. When a team is successful everyone wants more: More playing time, more attention, and more money. With Tim Duncan it’s the Luxury of Less: Less money, less attention, and less playing time; all attributes unprecedented in modern professional sports.
Would Popovich’s selfless, team-first basketball ethos carry any substance throughout the roster without Duncan?
In 2011, after losing to Memphis as the top seed in the West in the first round, the Spurs changed their offense. They moved away from Duncan and began to use Tony Parker as the catalyst. During the season, Duncan became a broken record, often calling the Spurs “Parker’s team” and asking the young point guard to “Put the team on his back.” That’s not selflessness so much as it is self-awareness. Professional athletes all want to win, but the majority of them want to be the reason for winning. Tim Duncan, one of the greatest players ever, took less money to accommodate better plays and stepped aside to defer attention away from him and onto his teammates.
Kobe Bryant just reportedly recruited Aldridge by telling him he could be his Pau Gasol.
For years Duncan took a backseat to Kobe Bryant’s successes, and yet like the tortoise racing the hare, slow and steady has won out. Kobe is viewed nationally as a pariah, meanwhile Tim is helping usher in a new era of championship basketball for the Spurs.
What does this all have to do with Aldridge and David West?
Every single domino had to fall precisely into place for the Spurs to be in position to get Aldridge. It’s Duncan that created the inertia for the dominoes to fall. Would Ginobili be comfortable taking less money and coming off the bench as a Hall-of-Fame player in his prime unless Duncan had done almost the exact same thing years before? When your main guy at the top, one of the five greatest players in the history of the league, is nearly devoid of an ego, you will field a roster of players devoid of egos. Teams take on the personalities of their best player.
LaMarcus Aldridge signing with the Spurs is unique in that he represents the latest championship window for the Spurs, perhaps the most important iteration, because it’s the one in clear view of their patriarch’s mortality. Duncan’s last gift to the Spurs is the ability to walk away and not leave the organization in complete ruins.
That’s not to say the Aldridge deal for the Spurs is not without consequence. The Spurs greatest asset over the rest of the league had been continuity, this deal changes that. The Spurs still need a back-up PG, as Patty Mills plays more of a combo role and is more valuable to the Spurs as a three point shooter. Ginboili’s minutes diminished greatly during the Clippers series because he was a major defensive liability. Is Tony Parker declining or has his production been hampered by injuries? Perhaps the greatest loss of all was Tiago Splitter, who played a valuable role in limiting the wear and tear on Duncan. Splitter’s minutes allowed Duncan to defend fours and not have to grind with the league’s imposing big men.
These are all welcome problems when you consider they’re all a product of signing Aldridge.
Success is fleeting; rebuilding is not supposed to be this easy. Last year we questioned the validity of tanking as a means for building a long term champion. The Spurs just re-upped in broad daylight, 18 straight postseason berths without an end in sight.
The Spurs operate with a standard that is perpetually reaching new heights. Everything they do has never been done before and there’s no end to that in sight.
If you were starting an organization from scratch in any sport you would look to the Spurs to model your franchise after and yet it wouldn’t work, because you wouldn’t have Tim Duncan.
The Spurs have done everything right. They drafted well, they developed well, they’ve established schemes over the years that cater to the greatest strengths of their individual players and none of it really means much without Tim Duncan.
Duncan’s lasting legacy will be how he actually did every possible thing he could for sustained success. Michael Jordan willed him teams to victory; Duncan did as much off the court as he did on it for championship glory
Years from now, perhaps after the Spurs window has actually closed, we’ll reflect on Duncan’s career and appreciate it for its true reach. Better yet, maybe we’re not supposed to. Maybe the true value of Duncan is that he’s meant to be hidden in plain sight.