In our exhaustive (and exhausting) look at the culture of the Spurs, in direct response to ESPN.com's Kevin Arnovitz's article, we've covered David Robinson's rise and fall, how that led to and influenced Tim Duncan, who then gave Gregg Popovich the mandate to build the franchise just how he wanted.
By now I'm sure you've heard various analysts and pundits wax poetic about the machine-like, almost robotic, exacting precision of the Spurs, particularly on offense. There is so much praise about the synchronization of the five men on the floor who wear the black and white that the layman is left to ponder, "Huh, that's odd. 'Popovich' doesn't sound like a Swiss name."
While there's no doubting the fact that Pop drills his charges through their paces long and hard to master their intricate offensive and defensive playbooks, we need to put to bed right this second the silly notion that this dynastic franchise which has won four titles and come oh-so-close to at least four more (2004, 2006, 2012, 2013) was put together through some intricate, carefully orchestrated plan that we mere mortals couldn't possibly grasp with our puny brains.
Au contraire, mon frere. As with nearly everything that happens in life good or bad, a lot of it had to do with plain old dumb luck. Draft picks made because others didn't have the foresight to make them. Free agents who spurned San Antonio when signing with the Spurs would've been ruinous. Injuries. Trades. Terrible coaching moves. You can't imagine how many butterfly wings had to flap in Fiji for all this typhoon of awesomeness to wash over you. Let's count them off together.
(I'm sure I'm gonna miss, like, fifteen things so you can remind me of my outrageous ignorance in the comments.)
1. Dennis Rodman proves to be such a disruptive force and a pain during the playoffs during his second season that Pop is left with no choice but to deal him for Will Purdue instead of re-signing Rodman to a contract extension. There is no long-term solution at power forward on the roster. (1995)
2. Since there's no power-forward to slow down Karl Malone (and also because Sean Elliott was injured), the Spurs go down meekly to the Utah Jazz in the playoffs the next year for the umpteenth straight time, with Robinson in particular really struggling in the elimination game, a non-factor because of foul trouble. Robinson receives the harshest criticism from the national media of his career (some even from Pop) and the team's insipid performance in the road games just about cinches it in Pop's mind that he's got to get rid of coach Bob Hill. (1996)
3. David Robinson (and a host of others) starts the season injured, causing the Spurs to start the season 3-15 and opening the door for Pop to fire Hill. (1996)
4. Six games into Pop's maiden voyage as the top whistle, Robinson breaks his left foot. Since his realistic return would come so late in the season and with the team already so far behind in their W-L record, tanking is the only logical course of action, especially because... (1996)
5. Tim Duncan, a once-in-a-generation, franchise-altering superstar, was the surefire first overall pick. A player of Duncan's caliber choosing to stay all four years at school is unthinkable in this day and age, and the last player of similar talent who did so, under different circumstances, was Robinson. (1997)
6. The Spurs win the Duncan lottery, despite having just the third-best odds to do so, at just over 21 percent. You'll recall that the Boston Celtics, too, blatantly tanked, and that Rick Pitino took over as their coach and GM that off-season under the assumption that they'd have Duncan. I bet if you gave him sodium pentothal right now, Pitino would tell you that he figured the draft was going to be rigged so the historic Celtics franchise, so important to the league and located in a major market, could be built up again.
A list of the top picks from 1994 to 2001:
1994: Glenn Robinson, SF, Purdue
1995: Joe Smith, PF, Maryland
1996: Allen Iverson, PG, Georgetown
1997: Tim Duncan, PF, Wake Forest
1998: Michael Olowokandi, C, Pacific
1999: Elton Brand, PF, Duke
2000: Kenyon Martin, PF, Cincinnati
2001: Kwame Brown, PF, kindergarten
Six of these eight picks are so self-explanatory we don't need to discuss them any further. The seventh, Iverson, is a Hall-of-Famer, certainly, but a 5-10, 165-pound gunner who had a few issues, with uh, practice -- probably wasn't going to be a good fit for Pop in the long run.
So, if you're scoring at home, the Spurs had a 21.4 percent chance to win the top overall player worth drafting just 12.5 percent of the time. That's a cool 2.6 percent rate of something not awful happening. You know, about how often playing defense with Boris Diaw as your center will work. (1997)
7. There's a massive lockout, casting real doubt about whether the season will be played at all. Only the most stable, veteran-laden teams bother training and holding informal workouts together, so 80 percent of the league is out of shape for the truncated, 50-game regular season. One, in which, the three-time defending champion Chicago Bulls decided to break up their team, with Michael Jordan retiring for the second (yet not final) time. (1999)
8. Kobe Bryant misses two free throws that would've iced Game 2 of the second-round series vs. the Lakers. If the Spurs lose that game, they go to LA with the Lakers having home-court advantage... (1999)
9. This, obviously, against Portland, with similar consequences, only in the Western Conference Finals this time
10. Patrick Ewing hurts his leg in the Eastern Conference Finals, making the Knicks eminently more beatable. I mean, the Spurs probably would've won anyway, but this cinched it. (1999)
11. In the ensuing lottery, the Spurs happen to draft the best player of the 1999 draft class with the 57th pick. Rest assured, if they thought Emanuel David Ginobili was worth a damn, they would've taken him, and not high-school bust Leon Smith, with the 29th pick or maybe not bothered trading for Gordan Giricek, with the 40th pick. (1999)
12. Duncan hurts his knee a few games before the playoffs start, and Pop shuts him down for the season. Really, this wound up being a good thing. (2000)
13. Dallas' Juwan Howard injures shooting guard Derek Anderson with a cheap shot during the second round of the playoffs, rendering Anderson completely ineffective for the Western Conference Finals and putting a big dent in the team's plans of re-signing him to a long-term deal and looking for alternate solutions at shooting guard. (Or maybe Portland just threw too much money at him.) (2001)
14. Somehow a point guard rotation of 37-year-old Terry Porter, 35-year-old Avery Johnson and 37-year-old Steve Kerr cannot spearhead the offense past the best Lakers team of the past 30 years. Huh. Perhaps new blood is needed at this position. (2001)
15. R.C. Buford convinced Pop to give Tony Parker, who spectacularly bombed his first Spurs workout, another chance. Pop, highly skeptical of foreign guards back then, relents. Parker passes the second workout with flying colors. (2001)
16. The Celtics, who'd promised Parker that they were going to draft him with the 21st pick, renege on that, going with UNC's Joseph Forte instead. Sadly for them, "being terrific at basketball" was not Joseph's (Ahem) forte. (2001)
17. The Spurs draft Parker, either the best or second-best player of the 2001 draft class -- depending on your view of Pau Gasol -- with the 28th pick. (2001)
18. Duncan decides to stay in San Antonio despite being tempted to leave the Spurs as a free agent for Orlando and the chance to play with Grant Hill. (2001)
20. Pop takes a flyer on a couple of wing players of little renown who had worn out their welcomes with their clubs: Miami's Bruce Bowen (who shot 36 percent for the Heat in 2001) and New Jersey's Stephen Jackson, who you may have heard had a bit of an attitude problem. (2002)
21. In light of Anderson's departure, the Spurs' big move is to sign veteran All-Star Steve Smith, then 32-years-old. He proves to be spectacularly underwhelming, averaging less than 12 points-per-game. Plus, his defense is so poor that Pop puts him on the floor less than 29 minutes a night, less than his 19-year-old rookie Parker. The Spurs get waxed by the Lakers in five games in the second round and still need an athletic shooting guard who can compete with Kobe. (2002)
22. Ginobili becomes a star in Italy, leading Kinder Bologna to the Euroleague title (they also won their domestic league) and winning the Final Four MVP in 2001 and losing in the Finals in 2002 (but winning the Italian Cup) after a Euroleague campaign in which he cracked the first-team. Giricek, meanwhile, can't lead his CSKA Moscow team past the quarterfinals of the Euroleague and they finish a miserable fifth place in Russia, an unheard of failure for a squad that won the league nine straight times from 1991-2000 and every year from 2003 on. The Spurs trade Giricek's rights to Memphis in June, having come to the conclusion that Ginobili was superior. (2002)
23. Shaq and Kobe are juuuuust sick enough of each other by this point to open the door a crack for the Spurs to bust through. After storming from a 25-point third-quarter deficit in Game 5 of their second round series, the Spurs just hang on when Robert Horry rims out a wide-open three. He never misses wide open high-pressure threes in the playoffs. (2003)
24. After winning Game 1 on the road thanks to a 49-of-50 display at the free-throw line, the Mavericks lose their best player, Dirk Nowitzki, to an ankle sprain in Game 3 and he misses the rest of the Western Conference Finals.
25. And at the 25 slot, we have No. 25, Steve Kerr, who sent the Spurs into the Finals by going into God-mode one final time in his career, burying four three-pointers in the fourth quarter in Game 6 at Dallas. The Spurs would go on to thump the over-matched Nets in six games for their second title. (2003)
To be continued...