Truth is a slippery fish. We have a strong desire to pin things down with understandable chunks of information. We want to give things a name to neatly define what they are. But things are complicated. We may not like it, but that's just the way the world is. Why is Europe's economy on the brink? Why did my girlfriend dump me? Why do Adam Sandler movies do so well at the box office? These important questions all require rather complex answers, but we usually feel much more comfortable with simple answers, smoking guns.
Why are the Spurs so good? I have read plenty of smoking guns on that one. It seems that lately everyone has their pet theory. Like any overly-simplified answer, there is an element of truth in each of them, but there really is no easy answer to that question. Like most really good things, the Spurs are kind of complicated.
The Spurs are so good because they've played together forever. Well, this is certainly true of Duncan, Ginobili and Parker. They have been playing together for a decade now, and for the same head coach and many of the same assistant coaches. The Spurs have had a great deal of continuity for a long time, and that is undoubtedly an edge few other NBA teams can claim. But, consider the following players: Gary Neal, Kawhi Leonard, Boris Diaw, Danny Green, Stephen Jackson, Tiago Splitter. None of these guys was playing for the Spurs just two seasons ago. Some of these guys are starters, all of them play a lot of minutes. Three of them, Jackson, Leonard and Diaw, weren't even Spurs until this season, and Green had only a handful of minutes as a member of the team for part of last season. One of them, Leonard, is a 20 year old rookie. Diaw and Jackson have been Spurs for two months. The Spurs actually have had to incorporate more new players than any team still playing in these playoffs. Corporate knowledge does not come close to fully explaining the success of this team.
Kawhi Leonard is the next Bruce Bowen. You know what? He isn't. Kawhi Leonard is Kawhi Leonard, and, my friends, that's a good thing. Yes, Leonard has the body and defensive tenacity. But he isn't Bruce. I am an unabashed fan of Bruce Bowen. He is my all-time favorite Spur. I remember when his name was first being thrown around as a player the Spurs were wanting to pick up, and thinking, Bruce who? But boy, did he plant himself in the consciousness of every Spurs fan in short order. I once stood in front of him in the check out line at Target. Remember me, Bruce? Good times. How absolutely awesome to have his number hanging from those rafters. I know I have been pining for the Spurs to bring another BB through that door. Well, there is only one BB. There is only one Gervin. Only one Robinson. Guys like that really never get replaced, do they? One guy that did walk through that door via a painful trade with Indiana is Kawhi Leonard. When your team has a history, there is the tendency to sort of squint and see a current player as the modern day version of one of the greats. But I think we really have to open our eyes and behold the player we have. This kid is... special. Every time I see him do something freakishly athletic and incredibly smart, every time I see him take the floor in our starting unit, every time I see him coolly knock down a shot, I think, Yeah I knew Kawhi would do that, immediately followed by, Holy crap he's a rookie! He doesn't even know what he's doing yet! Kawhi is a keeper, and he is one of a kind.
This is Tony Parker's team now. He is the head of the snake, the alpha dog. Tim Duncan has handed him the keys. Choose whichever cliche you prefer, the notion has sunk in that Tony Parker is the driving force behind this Spurs team. I can certainly see where this is coming from. Without question, this has been Parker's finest season as a player. He has been the most consistent individual player for the team the entire season. He is the only member of the Big Three who has not either been injured for long stretches or had his minutes restricted severely. For most of the season, he has not even had a reliable backup to spell him, but apparently he hasn't needed it. Opposing defenses have focused their energies to try and stop Parker, usually to no avail. His penetrations into the lane usually result in an easy basket for him, or collapse the defense to enable an open shot for someone else a pass or two away. His numbers in terms of points, turnovers, and assists are spectacular. His harrying defense is making it difficult for the Spurs' opponents to initiate their own offense. On the victory podium and at the sideline microphone, Parker has become the French-accented spokesman for the team. This season, Tony Parker is doing it all. On the other hand, can it really be said that this is anybody's team? Some NBA teams can quite accurately be described this way. The Lakers are Kobe Bryant's team; just ask Pau Gasol, or Mike Brown. The great Chicago teams of the '90s were Jordan's Bulls. But I don't think the Spurs work like that. There is no alpha dog, unless perhaps it's Gregg Popovich. We want to take a team and name an MVP, but this team puts up such a coordinated group effort, maybe the best we have ever seen in silver and black. The talents of Parker, Duncan and Ginobili have all kind of receded into the background, not because of diminishing skill, but because of the depth and consistency up and down the roster. Take away an option from Parker, and he gladly defers to others. Down the stretch, big plays may come from a Danny Green or a Kawhi Leonard as often as from Parker. This isn't Tony Parker's team. It's everybody's team.
The Spurs are great because of Pop's genius and his incredible system. Gregg Popovich has become, no doubt, one of the best coaches in the league, and one of the most successful coaches in the history of the league. Who among us isn't grateful to have the cranky sommelier coaching our beloved Spurs? But I think a lot of the stuff I read about Pop's impact on the Spurs focuses on his genius with the greaseboard, his offensive and defensive schemes. His Xs and Os. I would be willing to bet that Popovich himself would get a good laugh out of that. The thing is, the stuff that the Spurs run is not some magical, secret system. Popovich and his staff have cobbled together bits and pieces from all over the place to form their "system." They steal from everybody, with no ideological qualms. Remember when we used to deride D'Antoni's Suns? Or Nelson's Mavericks? Hey, look at the approach the Spurs are taking on offense these days, and it might look awfully familiar. Pop doesn't care. If it might work, he will try it. Phil Jackson had two factors common to every single championship he won: (1) overwhelming talent; and (2) the triangle offense. Popovich, by contrast, has adjusted his "system" to the talent at hand. There isn't some black magic going on here, just very sound basketball principles that have been around forever. The Spurs execute those schemes with a great deal of discipline, and that is also part of Pop's greatness. The Spurs play very cohesively and with a lot of camaraderie, and that is also part of Pop's greatness. The players trust each other on defense, they step up in big moments, they get over themselves, and these are also part of Pop's greatness...
With their layers of complexity, the Spurs are both maddeningly difficult to define, and endlessly pleasurable to watch. Like a symphony, or an exquisite dish whose ingredients you can't quite place. Like an amazing and beautiful person who you love but never fully understand. These Spurs are like that.