As Spurs fans our relation with our front office is unique. No fanbase trusts their management as much as we do and no front office has earned as much trust as PATFO has. We love to think that our FO is smarter than everyone else's and we know that the Spurs are a strong character organization from top to bottom, starting with R.C. and the boys. But looking at the trade deadline and more importantly, the future, this idealization of our FO could lead fans into disappointment.
From the beginning of the PATFO era, the Spurs have been in win-now mode as any team with a player like David Robinson and later Tim Duncan should. During that time, the Spurs have been able to find gems at a much higher rate than most teams to compliment their stud centers, in part because of great scouting and understanding of what types of players they needed and in part because of sheer luck. Avery Johnson, Stephen Jackson, and Gary Neal (to name a few) are good examples that in the right system and with the right coach, players that were considered fringe starters or simply too flawed to play for a winning team can find a place and thrive; credit should be given to PATFO in those cases. At the same time, it's undeniable that the Spurs lucked into their core (and the only reason for their level of success) of Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili and to a lesser extent, Tony Parker.
I'll leave the tanking speculation for another time and just point out that the Spurs were lucky enough to be awful the year that a once-in-a-generation, can't-miss talent was coming out of college. Even then, they were fortunate to have ping pong balls fall their way to be able to snag the future GOAT PUFF. Manu was picked with the 58th pick of the draft simply because "he looked like a winner". Needless to say, no one was anticipating the kind of success he would go on to achieve.
Tony Parker was a little known prospect coming from a country with almost zero recent basketball history and was far from the "true PG" mold that was all the rage. The Spurs, after a couple of workouts, decided to take a chance on the Wee Frenchman and got one of the most talented and coachable players of the last 15 years. There's no denying the Spurs' coaching staff role in Parker's growth as a player, but without that breakneck speed and amazing handles, it would have been impossible to mold Tony into the top five PG he is now.
As much as the Spurs FO deserves recognition for finding complementary pieces, their recipe for building a perennial contender was predicated to a big degree on luck and timing that I'm afraid will be almost impossible to recreate. Every time someone mentions following the Spurs model (or lately, the OKC model), I can't help but feel perplexed. The Spurs model was grabbing one of the top ten players of all time and then lucking into two unique talents (Tony helped usher the era of scoring PGs, and Manu's style is just indescribable) at the perfect time and surrounding them with amazine role players. Again, I don't want to take anything away from PATFO but there's no way that qualifies as "a model" and they seem to acknowledge as much.
Teams like this are hard to come by.
Which (finally!) leads me to the point I'm trying to make: it would be crazy to expect a similar level of success from PATFO at building a team after the Big 3 depart, or to extend the championship window for much longer. Notice that I said "expect" since it's not impossible for this front office, which is without a doubt one of the best out there and always ahead of the curve when it comes to innovation (from advanced stats, to the use of the D League and the use of technology to analyse the game), to build a winner without going into a full rebuild, but it's not something we should think of as inevitable just because PATFO are great at their job.
A lot of Spurs fans seem to believe that somehow the front office will breach the gap between this incarnation of Spurs success with the next without much trouble and as potentially soon as the trade deadline or next off-season. Part of it can be attributed to the belief that the the Spurs' FO is not just really smart, but the that other GMs are irredeemably stupid. It's not uncommon for fans to come up with trade scenarios where the Spurs give up very little and get a lot of young, better talent and explain their reasoning with a hearty "PATFO can make it happen, after all X team GM is an idiot".
This idealization of the front office has led many to believe that the Spurs don't make mistakes. Wayne Vore, whose expertise in all thing Spurs I deeply admire, wrote this concerning the Spurs not picking up James Anderson's contract option in his fantastic blog The Big Fundamental:
I think we as fans have to approach the James Anderson Situation the same way Jules and Vincent Vega approached the Bonnie Situation. Let the smart man do his thing and just watch to see how things work out. The Spurs front office is The Wolf. I'm not sure who is Jimmie, the emotionally invested husband. I'm going to say it's Tim Varner. He's emotional, drinks coffee, and chills during the day in his robe.
When The Wolf does things, he does them for a reason. He's about fixing problems by minimizing risk and doing things that are smart. If you want to know why he does things, you have to be smart and figure them out. He isn't going to tell you.
That's what happens with the Spurs front office. They don't do things willy-nilly and they don't do stupid things. Just because a decision doesn't work out, doesn't mean it was stupid. Going all in pre-flop with a pair of aces in Texas Hold ‘Em is never stupid. But, you aren't guaranteed to win. In fact, heads-up you'll probably lose at least 10% of the time. I could go find the correct number, but I'm not going to waste my time. The actual percentage is irrelevant. When dealing in uncertainties, good decisions sometimes end in bad results.
When the Spurs make a decision, like not picking up James Anderson's third-year option, I think they do it for a reason. I also think it is probably a very smart reason. If you want to make sense of it, as I do, then the real challenge is whether or not you are smart enough to figure out what they are doing. If you can't understand what they are doing, it's not because they are dumb.
I think that is a fantastic way to start thinking about moves the FO make: let's assume they are right, after all they've earned that much. But if after exhausting every possible scenario something still doesn't make sense, then maybe, just maybe it was a mistake after all. The Spurs have actually screwed the pooch before with the Scola trade, letting Mahinmi go, and the Jefferson trade and subsequent resigning, to name a recent few. Fortunately for them and for us, those mistakes haven't had that much of a negative impact on the franchise because the foundations for greatness were already set by Pop, Tim, Manu and Tony.
The front office guys, despite how safe it would makes us feel otherwise, are not perfect; they are just better at their jobs than most. Once we accept that fact and realize they can't make trades for franchise guys happen unilaterally using Jedi mind tricks or pick someone like Manu in the second round whenever they feel like it, the future starts to look more uncertain. Without Duncan, every botched draft pick will count; every overpaid free agent will hurt flexibility. We can hope the Spurs will manage to limit those mistakes and build a winner, but we can't count on some Pau Gasol trade, Deux ex Machina moment that puts the team over the top this season and saves the franchise from the pains of rebuilding.
As much as it may look like it at first read, this is not a post bashing PATFO. On the contrary, what I'm trying to do here is lower the expectations to a reasonable level going forward. The Spurs, just like every team, will not stay a contender forever and will in fact most likely have trouble returning to the NBA elite. Mistakes will be made during that time, but it won't really be a sign that PATFO has lost it; those mistakes were always there, but there were fantastic talents to mask them. There will certainly be years when the Spurs are simply nowhere near good enough to compete for a title. We should consider ourselves fortunate that they are right now, so instead of day-dreaming of a crazy trade before the deadline or some free agent signing in the off-season, we should enjoy the contender PATFO (and lady luck) built while we can. We'll have time to worry about the future later.