A common adage in the game of basketball is that a fist is stronger than five fingers. Yet, in professional basketball, audiences are often subjected to prolonged sequences of disorganized one-on-one with little semblance of team play. If those selfish plays and players are individual fingers, then the San Antonio Spurs are a fist.
The Spurs, over the last 16 years, have become the face of selflessness in the NBA, and, in the process, the most dominant franchise in all professional sports. Since 1997, when San Antonio drafted power forward Tim Duncan, the Spurs have won four championships and over 70 percent of their games. In a time when big t.v. market franchises like the Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks struggled to find success, the Spurs remained a model of consistency.
San Antonio’s winning ways began with the brains of the operation, Gregg Popovich. A former member of the United States Airforce, Popovich, has at times, come off as tight-lipped towards the media, but it has been his commitment and foresight that has driven the Spurs franchise to an unheard of period of excellence.
"Everyone in that organization survives at the pleasure of Gregg Popovich," said Dale Dye, head editor of Spurs-centric blog Pounding the Rock. "I’m a huge believer that organizations are successful from the top down."
Giving a head coach the autonomy to choose who works within an organization would often be considered a gamble. Seven NBA coaches have parted ways with their teams since November. Heavy turnover is the norm, not the exception. But Popovich is no ordinary coach: his ability to not only survive, but also adapt and excel in a rapidly changing game has set him apart.
In 2011, Popovich made a dramatic and surprising change to his coaching style. San Antonio began playing a form of run-and-gun, fast paced basketball that the Phoneix Suns had previously innovated.
"I would describe it as a lightning strike," Dye said. "Two years ago, out of nowhere, after spending over a decade with his hands stretched up to tell the team to slow down whenever they got moving too fast, in the preseason, after the sweep at the hands of the Phoenix Suns, Popovich is moving his arms like he’s waving home a baserunner."
Indeed, San Antonio’s pace, an advanced metric that counts the number of possessions a team plays in a game, has steadily risen from 90.7, or twentieth in the league in 2010, to 94.2, sixth in the league, in 2013. The Spurs have raised their offensive efficiency, another advanced metric that measures the number of points a team scores for every 100 possessions, from seventh in 2010 to first last year.
Popovich focuses on the number of wins, and how his system can be effectively utilized to maximize this number. Duncan is the heart of this system. His ability to create offense for himself and his teammates in a high percentage, low risk fashion is exactly what Popovich instructs.
"Ruthlessly efficient, and ruthlessly meticulous about the way the offense is run," Dye, who writes under the pen name J.R. Wilco, described of the Spurs’ system. "It’s preparedness beforehand in order to dictate the tenor of what happens on the floor."
Meanwhile, the Spurs have continued to breathe life into Duncan’s game through French point guard Tony Parker and Argentinian shooting guard Manu Ginobili. Together these three players have earned the nickname of "The Big Three," a homage to a similarly dominant Boston Celtics trio from the 1980s.
San Antonio’s affection for foreign born players is no happy accident, as Popovich and RC Buford, their General Manager, visit Europe each summer to evaluate players. More recently, San Antonio acquired their starting center, Brazilian born Tiago Splitter, after he won the 2010 Spanish league Most Valuable Player award.
"Every team in the NBA has the option to recruit international players, you can’t really call that an advantage or a disadvantage," said freelance writer and contributor for the Examiner, Scott Barretto. "Since the Spurs drafted Duncan there has been a lot of international players added to the team. Popovich took his chances multiple times with a cheaper price tag, and hit the jack pot twice, with Parker and Ginobili."
The Spurs’ system works in such a way that complimentary players can be plugged in and replaced cheaply. Thanks to San Antonio’s advanced scouting and player development, these players, like starting shooting guard Danny Green, will continue to be replenished.
"We can plug in these high production, low salary guys who work around our Big Three, our skill players, and, as a result, what that will net us is a whole bunch of people who know exactly what to do with the ball under all circumstances," Dye said.
However, no road to glory is unbloodied. Health has been a major obstacle for San Antonio. Through the years, a myriad of injuries during playoff time has inhibited the Spurs. In an attempt to mitigate this, Popovich has begun to periodically sit his starting players out during the regular season.
"Popovich is a straight-forward kind of guy," Barretto said. "He manages his team strategically and knows when to rest his players. This is why Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili, despite their injuries, are able to dominate during regular season and the playoffs."
This strategic management of minutes has been the source of controversy and drawn the ire of league officials. Popovich was fined $250,000 last November for holding all of his starters out from a nationally televised game against the Miami Heat. Despite this, Popovich sees no reason to change his mentality.
"What I do from my perspective is from a coaching perspective," Popovich said in a public statement when asked about the fine. "And I think the league operates from a business perspective. And I think that’s reflective in the action that they took."
The mastery of a craft is a rare, near impossible task, but Popovich appears to have come as close as humanly possible. The Spurs, having swept the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday, are one of the favorites to return to the NBA finals out the Western Conference. Each time San Antonio has reached the NBA Finals, they have won the championship. Can the team knock out a fifth?
"Assuming health, I give them their best shot in years," Dye said.
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