clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How the Spurs front office can keep beating the house

San Antonio has a history of seeking out unique advantages, both on the court and off, by playing the margins of the game. With the team and league amid a period of transition, the Spurs' next competitive edge may come from going off script and stepping into the light.

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Venture capitalist and blackjack virtuoso Joe Lacob boasted in April that his Warriors were "light-years" ahead of every other franchise "in structure, in planning" and how they "go about things", but over the past two decades it's a team in south Texas that's consistently outperformed Vegas odds on its way to five titles and an active winning record over the rest of the league. A number of factors play into that kind of dominance, and the Spurs' organizational approach is a big part of it.

Under Gregg Popovich, R.C. Buford and Peter Holt, the Spurs have beaten the house by shrewdly operating along the fringes of the NBA game. When they weren't scouring the corners of the globe for unheralded draft prospects, they were spotting up on the corners of the court for underappreciated three-point baskets. In the spirit of continuity, they've generally shied away from big personnel moves, prioritizing intangibles like character, team culture and sense of humor while opting to bring in peripheral pieces that complemented their future Hall of Famers' skills and sensibilities. They were ‘built, not bought', mavens of the draft-and-stash, pioneers of the hack-a-whomever and champions of the tactical DNP.

Economists and gamblers would call much of what the Spurs have done simply exploiting ‘market inefficiencies': mining the league landscape for untapped value. It's a sly, sinuous approach that's afforded PATFO the perfect amount of control and insulation, helping them sustain one of the most impressive stretches of success in American professional sports.

But the game has changed, both on the court and off. Opponents have embraced analytics; there's better international scouting all around; and the small ball revolution continues to ceremoniously roar forward, through this year's NBA Finals. Most importantly, though, the core of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker simply got old.

Even as the fiesta-tinted light dims on the Big Three era, the pressure to win doesn't relent. From July 1st when free agency opens, we'll begin scrutinizing how they best position themselves to continue the Race for Seis. The question then becomes: how can the smart guys in San Antonio once again outsmart the smart guys in 29 other front offices? The answer may lie in embracing the volatility of their new circumstances and, for the purposes of this narrative, stepping further out of the shadows.

In some ways this has already begun. The Spurs broke character last summer in their pursuit of prized free agent LaMarcus Aldridge, a move which threatened to disrupt chemistry and jar continuity. Despite losing to the Thunder in the conference semifinals, Aldridge's first season with San Antonio can't be seen as anything less than a success, as he and Kawhi Leonard galvanized as the new Big Two in town.

Aldridge's assimilation also heralded a shift in style, one that better suited both his and Leonard's skill sets and moved away from the three-point-happy attack of years past. There were legacy moments throughout the season -- echoes of The Beautiful Game witnessed throughout their 2014 title run -- but the general feeling is that, as Ginobili retires and as Parker and Boris Diaw slow down, the nuanced read-and-react system will likely take another step back as the team looks to breathe new youth and athleticism into the roster.

Even if it's still mostly a pipe dream, the addition of a third young star seems a little less audacious already. We've heard names like Mike Conley and Kevin Durant reportedly on the team's radar, but it would take some deft cap gymnastics to make that kind of move possible. Still, the perception is that the Spurs would be interested in doing business if they could, even if it means another major shakeup.

Then there's Pop, whose relationship with reporters gained more attention as his sideline and post-game interviews became the stuff memes were made of. Never one to willingly feed the press' hunger for sound bytes and token quotes, his profile -- and the franchise's -- could have a more elevated, media-friendly feel to it in 2017 when he assumes the reins of Team USA.

If that feels like a reach, try this: the connections made between the Spurs coach and national team players could also serve as a low key recruiting tactic. Sure, the willingness to manage complex, Type-A personalities has not always been a part of his profile, but as guys gravitate towards "players' coaches" like Steve Kerr and Brad Stevens, it wouldn't hurt for Pop to build a rapport with the league's rising superstars, would it?

As the salary cap appears set for at least one more huge jump in 2017-18, there is a bit of urgency, however transitory, for San Antonio to get into the mix and find another elite talent that fits into the Aldridge-Leonard championship window. That requires a certain openness to new styles and personalities, a risk the front office had the luxury of largely circumventing in the past. Duncan and Ginobili's retirement decisions notwithstanding, there is volatility on the horizon for this team, and it looks like it is positioning itself well to not only weather the storm but thrive in it.

This isn't to suggest the Spurs are explicitly -- or implicitly -- changing what they value as an organization. A premium will always be placed on low-ego guys; culture will be nurtured however possible; and who knows what advanced data may further inform their decisions. Plus, they'll always be on the lookout for the next market inefficiency to attack.

What's funny is that their greatest competitive edge at the moment may no longer be something intangible like character, team culture or something on a spreadsheet, but rather a handful of raw numbers -- wins, playoff appearances and the rarest resource of all, championships -- that could attract that next big fish. It worked with Aldridge, brought David West over on a discount, and it could be that chip that the Spurs once again cash in as they continue the transition to a new era.