Jesus had a typically brilliant column Friday morning about the Lakers and their bleak current circumstances and the parallels we could make to the situation the Spurs will soon find themselves in once Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili hang 'em up. He rightly raised salient points about the San Antonio having never been a sexy or ideal free agent destination, with or without Tim Duncan, and questioned whether, on a somewhat smaller scale, if the demanding, no-nonsense Gregg Popovich doesn't scare off some free agents the way Kobe Bryant supposedly does.
So, the question of the day is simple: Should we worry about the future of the Spurs?
I say no, for several reasons, but I must point out that I don't think the Lakers will be irrelevant for long either, and though the two organizations have operated in different ways over the years, the single biggest thing they have in common is a shared long term track record of success. It's in their franchise DNA to win, and both teams have done it for so long, with such short-lived anomalous valleys in between the sustained stretches of greatness, that after a while you can't just chalk it up to dumb luck or coincidence.
The Lakers will be fine. They're always fine. They were supposed to be doomed when Magic Johnson retired prematurely because he tested positive for HIV. They wound up missing the playoffs for all of one season and took best Spurs team of the David Robinson Era to six games in the second round with a starting lineup of Vlade Divac, Elden Campbell, Cedric Ceballos, Eddie Jones and Nick Van Exel. A couple seasons later they signed Shaq in free agency and traded for the rights to a kid named Kobe Bryant, the 13th pick of the 1996 draft (and you thought the Spurs getting Kawhi Leonard was a coup).
The lure of the weather, women and celebrity of Los Angeles, not to mention the legacy of the Lakers is too great and has been established for way too many years to be permanently destroyed just because Bryant is hard to work with. He'll retire sooner rather than later and the Lakers will use their considerable resources to sign a couple of premiere free agents, whether it's Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Anthony Davis, whomever. The idea of this Jahlil Okafor from Duke falling to them in the next draft lottery is terrifying. Regardless, they've got ownership that's shown a willingness to spend as much as it takes, a proven record of being loyal to their guys and a general manager in Mitch Kupchak who knows what he's doing. If you don't think he absolutely knew this Lakers team would be abysmal when he put it together, you're kidding yourself. Once Carmelo Anthony rejected their overtures, the plan to tank went full steam ahead, no matter what Bryant thinks. You don't sign people like Carlos Boozer or trade for Jeremy Lin because you want to be good. Teams just aren't that dumb in 2014.
The Spurs, on the other hand, need a slightly different strategy. They've enjoyed a 25-year run that was similar in scope and results to what the San Francisco 49ers had with quarterbacks Joe Montana and Steve Young, with a few seasons of overlap in between where one learned from the other. The only difference, really, is that with the Spurs their Joe Montana came after their Steve Young (my favorite part of this analogy is that Duncan and Montana are both right-handed and that Robinson and Young are both lefties).
The easy, lazy, wiseguy thing to do would be to cynically predict that once Duncan retires the Spurs will do their best Philadelphia 76ers impression, finish with a record around 20-62, win the lottery and draft another once-in-a-generation big man to carry them for another 15-year run. It's already worked twice, right?
I don't think it's going to be quite that easy. The odds are strongly against the Spurs literally winning the lottery a third time. If it was that easy to acquire once-in-a-generation players, they wouldn't be labeled once-in-a-generation players. Sure, in theory injuries could befall Leonard and Tony Parker --neither of whom have proven to be especially durable the last couple of seasons-- but it's unlikely that the team will ever be bad enough while they're around to have a puncher's chance of winning the lottery. Actually, I don't think the team will even miss the playoffs as long as Parker is still a credible starter, even in the stacked West. The Spurs have shown that they're too good at finding role players and under-utilized guys elsewhere and fitting them into the system for it to ever descend into moribund cellar-dwelling.
The truth is I'd be a lot more worried about the Spurs future if all this were happening ten years ago. Back in 2003-04 they had some wild swings in free agency, chasing Jason Kidd and signing Rasho Nesterovic. More recently, there was the disaster with Richard Jefferson. For the most part though I think R.C. Buford and Pop have grown wiser over the years, both in the draft and in free agency, and now have a better idea of what works, what doesn't, and what they're looking for.
I just don't get the sense that this will ever be an organization like the Knicks where they found themselves flush with cap space in 2010 and when their first three choices (the guys who went to Miami) all rejected them, they panicked and threw all that money at Amar'e Stoudemire just because they had to get somebody. For example, if and when Marc Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge reject the Spurs this summer, I don't think they'll react by signing DeAndre Jordan to the max, just to say they got somebody. Instead I'd expect them to go after second-tier guys like Paul Millsap or Goran Dragic, maybe make a run at a restricted free agent such as Draymond Green or look to swing some trades. If they can't get anyone they like, they won't overpay for mediocre talent. They'll just roll over their cap to the next year and happily suffer a down year and the opportunity to draft a difference-maker. They won't tank, but won't turn down the chance to lose, either. I sure don't picture them foolishly dealing away first-round picks like we see so many Eastern teams do.
The vision I have for the Spurs is that they're going to try to replicate what they did when the franchise first gained national relevance, getting the Eastern Conference Finals in 1978-79. That team had one real star in George Gervin, a few other good players in Larry Kenon, James Silas and Billy Paultz and some role players. They contended for a number of years in the early 80's before the bottom dropped out. To give you an idea how times have changed, the season after they won the Robinson lottery (remember, they had to wait two years for him to fulfill his Naval commitment) they made the playoffs with a 31-51 record in the West.
They've shown that it is possible to win and win big without anyone playing like a LeBron James-level superstar. They've done it and the Detroit Pistons have done it. It's hard and you need to catch some breaks, but a team of players ranging from "B+" to "C+" can beat an opponent that has two "A"s and a bunch of "D"s. You just need everyone to buy in, to work together and all of them have to be a threat to score in today's NBA. You can't have any perimeter players that the opponent doesn't feel they have to guard. That screws up the spacing and makes it easy to crowd the paint.
Like Jesus said, the Spurs have built a culture. It won't end just because Duncan retires. If some players find Pop's style too abrasive, then it's a hidden blessing. That guy probably didn't prioritize winning and being a part of a team in the first place. He hasn't "gotten over himself." Just like we see Leonard being groomed to take the torch from Duncan, the same thing is happening from the coaching side from Ettore Messina. The philosophy and values won't change.
The bottom line is that the Spurs have won too many games over too many years without Duncan to buy into Pop's modest claims that everything has to do with Duncan. At some point, the franchise's long track record of consistent winning has to be accepted on its face, just like we do with the Lakers, the Detroit Red Wings in hockey, the Pittsburgh Steelers in football and so on. I just can't fathom the concept of the Spurs as a perennial loser.