We interrupt our coverage of the playoffs for some musings about the concept of validation. We'll resume our regular programming soon.
Award season has wrapped up and it has been kind to the Spurs. Pop and R.C. got some hardware, Kawhi Leonard and Tim Duncan received some votes for Defensive Player of the Year, Patty Mills was considered for Most Improved player and Manu Ginobili finished third in Sixth Man of the Year votes. We can't complain about the media not respecting the Spurs. And as the Executive of the Year award shows, front office people are aware of how commendable the success the Spurs have had with limited resources really is.
So I'm not mad about the results. But after fretting about the perceived injustice of past seasons, this year a rare moment of clarity struck me and now I don't care about those awards anymore. Not because I think they mean nothing but because the Spurs are such an anomaly that they can't possibly be interpreted correctly by that type of commendation.
Let's start with Coach of the Year. After Mark Jackson was fired, Tom Ziller penned a very interesting article for SBNation noting that the average coaching job in the NBA lasts around two years. Coach turnover in the NBA is extremely high, mostly because it's cheaper to fire a coach than rebuild a roster completely. And a coach's tenure length is directly tied to expectations. If someone exceeds them, they are untouchable. But then those expectations go higher based on that past success and the luster wears off. That's why so many COY winners get fired soon after.
Now consider Pop. The expectation from his second season onward was to contend for a championship. Because he had tremendous success early on, he earned a lot of leeway. His ability to deliver wins consistently and his relationship with Tim Duncan has made him the coach with the most job security in the league by far. So the thing most often used to recognize a great coaching job (exceeding expectations) was never something Pop could do, at least not at the level of other coaches because the expectations have always been sky high. And Pop was not affected by the one thing every other coach seems to have to keep in mind at all times: job security.
The result has been a situation unlike any other. Pop is asked to keep the Spurs on the upper echelon of the league and has done exactly that. But because he has such a great deal of job security, he doesn't feel the need to create a perception of over achievement other coaches absolutely need to stay employed and which, coincidentally, wins awards. So he keeps players' minutes down, gift wraps some schedule losses and doesn't concern himself with media perception. He plays by a completely separate set of rules.
That doesn't mean he is not the best coach in the league or that he hasn't done a tremendous job this season. It means he could have won the award most years or never and it would have been equally fair because the factors often considered important to winning it are at the same time always present but not in the forefront of what Pop does. He gets to focus on the process. And processes pay off only after a number of years.
Something very, very similar happens with R.C. Buford. He won his first Executive of the Year award after an off-season in which he re-signed Ginobili and Splitter to contracts that were considered too high at the time and made arguably a lateral move in signing Marco Belinelli and Jeff Ayres to replace Gary Neal and DeJuan Blair. If you go over the list of former Executive of the Year winners you mostly see front office guys that changed the roster dramatically, either by signing a star or two (Pat Reily, Danny Ainge) or by getting together a group of solid players and exceeding expectations (Masai Ujiri, John Hammond).
Buford did neither. He just stayed the course and made little tweaks to the roster he had been building for years. As Paul Flannery put it, this was a lifetime achievement award for R.C. Don't get me wrong, he deserves it. But the fact that he is getting the award this year shows that the league has no idea how to evaluate the Spurs because they seem to exist on a separate plane. The parameters used to judge performance on the rest of the league just don't apply to the Spurs' coach and front office. So every once in a while they will give Pop and R.C. an award because it feels it's been too long since they did and they should get one.
As for the players, that steadiness and process-oriented thinking hurts their chances. One of the NBA's great injustices is that Tim Duncan, one of the best defensive players ever, hasn't won a DPOY award. But consider this: DPOY usually goes to big men who put up ungodly rebound and block numbers thanks to not having a lot of competition from teammates (Dwight Howard, Marcus Camby) or are the anchor for an overachieving defensive team (Joakim Noah, Tyson Chandler). The Spurs have always tried to surround Timmy with defensive-minded centers and wings (D-Rob/Rasho/Nazr/Oberto and Bowen then, Splitter and Leonard now) to ease his burden. He won't ever get the numbers or the glory by settling for a role - a very important one, but one of many - on a great defense.
Patty Mills would have probably finished higher on Most Improved player had he showed up in shape to play for an offensively starved team who gave him the green light to gun instead of one that has a system and a hierarchy already established. He might have even shot up the board on Sixth Man of the Year votes had the Spurs decided to do what most teams do and start one of their best players instead of have him coming off the bench. Boris Diaw and Marco Belinelli might have gotten more consideration as well.
You've probably noticed I didn't even mention MVP. That's not only because it's a two man race and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. The Spurs simply don't have that dominant player that puts historic numbers while playing a ton of minutes anymore. That is undeniable. And yet they are still serious contenders. How do they do it? By relying in a coach and front office combo that doesn't concern itself with immediate returns and focuses instead in the process. By choosing a team approach to both offense and defense. By employing players that are not concerned about coming off the bench or getting their touches, their numbers be dammed. The very thing that has allowed the Spurs to stay successful after Tim Duncan's decline is what makes them impossible for outsiders to properly honor.
Watching Kevin Durant's acceptance speech confirmed what everyone has always known: getting individual awards is exciting even for the most accomplished of players. And I'm sure any of the Spurs' players would be honored to receive one. But the Spurs made a decision years ago that they wanted (and needed) to be a team first and foremost and not a collection of individuals. And the only award that can validate that decision is handed out in June.