Over the last few years, comparisons between the San Antonio Spurs and the Boston Celtics were not hard to find. Both teams had their Big Three, both had a Hall of Fame power forward anchoring their defenses and both were considered old and with a rapidly closing window. The Cs had gotten to the NBA finals more recently than the Spurs, and seemed to have a brighter future ahead thanks to the emergence of Rajon Rondo as a bona fide star. Both teams got to the Conference Finals last season and were expected to be a threat this season, despite not being thought of as favorites.
Now that the season is underway, the Celtics find themselves barely hanging on to the 8th seed in the weak East, while the Spurs have the best record in the league. How is that possible? It all starts with how the teams were assembled.
I'm not against players changing teams and joining other stars to create the so-called super teams. It's a player's prerogative and usually happens after a front office shows incompetence in putting together a winning team. Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett joined Paul Pierce in Boston after Danny Ainge cleared enough cap room and hoarded enough assets to make it happen. Allen was on a team going nowhere in Seattle, and KG was toiling away in Minnesota, struggling to carry a team to a lower seed playoff appearance. It was exciting seeing these guys, that for whatever reason never had the privilege to play alongside another superstar, get together and kick ass.
The problem with this completely legitimate team building approach is the need for strong leadership from both the front office and the coaching staff to give the new team an identity. All the guys may know each other, but being on a team is different. When you add the younger guys that have been together for a couple of years already, building chemistry between all the new pieces is imperative. Fortunately for the Celtics, everything clicked that first season. The team rallied around Doc Rivers' Ubuntu motto, Kevin Garnett took Kendrick Perkins under his wing to form a scary defensive duo, Rondo started to emerge as a star, and Allen and Pierce were their usual excellent selves on offense. That was enough to bring championship number 17 to Boston.
What the Celtics probably didn't foresee was their move affecting the very fabric of the league. You know how it went. The Lakers traded for Pau Gasol. The Spurs traded for Richard Jefferson in a failed attempt to keep up with the arms race. One-star teams were a thing of the past, leading a lot of small market superstars to leave their franchises and looking to team up with other stars. After getting together and winning their ring, the Celtics basically stayed the the same for a couple of years, as did the Spurs.
However, instead of staying the course and riding their core until the wheels fell off, Danny Ainge decided that re-signing defensive center Kendrick Perkins to a sizeable extension was not something he was prepared to do. He traded Perkins for Jeff Green, a tweener forward with no defensive acumen, only to delay the inevitable, and extending Green for the type of money he could have given to Perkins. But the problems didn't stop on the court. While the Celtics were still great defensively, chemistry (always fragile on teams assembled the way the Cs were) was affected. Perkins was Rondo's best friend on the team, the only other young core player. Perkins was overrated defensively, but his chemistry on that side of the floor with Garnett was undeniable.
Rondo wasn't happy with the changes, and when such a mercurial player isn't happy, things get ugly. He clashed with Ray Allen, who was present in every trade rumor for a couple of years before ultimately deciding to jump ship and join the Heat. Allen had already left a team with which he had deep ties and simply did it again. Without one of the core players of the championship team, the Celtics struggled at the start of this season. The defense wasn't there anymore. They didn't have the size to bully other teams. Arguably the best shooter in the history of the game left, and the players designated to fill his shoes couldn't. Then Rondo suffered his knee injury, and now there's a legitimate possibility the Celtics don't make the playoffs and have to jump start the rebuilding.
The Spurs, on the other hand, have a strong chance of finishing with the best record in the West. The era of the super teams was supposed to make the Spurs obsolete, but instead ended up validating their approach. By building slowly around an (admittedly) franchise-altering player in Tim Duncan, the Spurs set themselves up for lasting success instead of ephemeral relevance. Of course there was luck involved - never more than when the ping pong balls awarded the Spurs Duncan. Yet, there is a sense of continuity and synergy within the Spurs that Pop and R.C. Buford developed and is the difference between the Spurs and teams like the Celtics or the 2013 Lakers.
Save from the "getting your stars together" step, building a team consists of subtle things like getting the role players with the right skills but also the right attitude. Players like Darko and Von Wafer are not the answer. Understanding that continuity is more important than potential is key. That is what the Celtics failed to realize with Perkins and Green. The Spurs made a somewhat similar gamble when they traded George Hill for Kawhi Leonard, but the move, while difficult, was never a threat to alter team dynamics. Loyalty is a two way street, and the Celtics failed to show their players that loyalty. The Spurs would never have allowed Ginobili to be the topic of endless trade rumors; that's why Manu is not worried about his contract status. They only pulled the trigger on a cost-slashing, mid-season trade (RJ for SJax) because it had the potential to improve team chemistry. That's the exact opposite of the Perkins trade.
By now I sound like a smug Spurs fan explaining how much better our franchise is at everything, but I don't mean to do that. Really. Luck plays a huge part on success and the Spurs have been extremely lucky. But to see the franchise that changed the game fall so quickly from grace weirdly feels like the end of an era, and this makes me appreciate the subtler aspects of the Spurs' approach to team building even more.
Players will continue to join one another in some select teams; they always have. The Heat are experiencing success, probably because they learned from the Celtics, while the Lakers have made a mess by trying to emulate their formula. Teams that have tried to build through the draft have failed too. There is no right or wrong way to build a team; it's all about execution. And just like on the court, execution is what sets the Spurs' front office apart from all others.