We constantly hear in the media about the vaunted Spurs’, “system.” You know, that magical system that has allowed them to win at least 50 games 18 out of the last 19 years, win 5 championships, and make something out of nothing when it comes to players. I put, “system,” in quotes because, to myself and other fans, it is often seen as a way for the media to take a jab at San Antonio. Remember how everyone reacted when Kevin Durant called Kawhi Leonard a system player after the most recent championship?
I would argue that the Spurs’ system is actually more of a mentality than an actual SYSTEM of playing the game of basketball, and it has been on full display the last few days with the Kawhi Leonard trade. PtR’s Editor-in-Chief, J.R. Wilco, made an appearance on SB Nation Radio yesterday with Joe Spano and talked about a lot of the things I’ve been thinking about since the trade went down about how the Spurs operate. While you can listen to the entire interview at the end of this post, here are the points that stood out to me
1. If you don’t want to be in San Antonio, you don’t play there
This is probably the most important thing the Spurs mentality is about. How could they operate with someone who is not fully bought into the way they run their operation, which is character and team first? Per Wilco:
“The Spurs are an interesting bucket of fish, man. If a player says they don’t want to play there, they don’t play there. They don’t want them there if they don’t want to play there. Locker room cohesiveness is such a priority in San Antonio. You gotta have all the guys pulling together. If they’re not gonna pull together, the guy is gone.”
If guys are not on the same page with one another, there is no way they can go out together on Rodeo Road Trips, work out in practices, and go to battle for 82 games every season. The Spurs, as much or more any other team, will not tolerate locker room tension. Sure, they could have kept Kawhi and had him play out the last year of his deal, maybe even making a deep playoff run, but that discord is a distraction they put up with all season long. As good as Leonard is, there was no way the they were going to hold onto a guy for another campaign that had no desire to be there and create more distractions.
2. The front office has a “winner’s mentality”
Because the Leonard trade failed to bring back a consensus Top-5 player, some have felt that maybe it was time for San Antonio to go full-out with a youth movement and have sort of their own, “Trust the Process,” rather than settle for a very good player to pair with another very good player. J.R. laid out the club’s approach not just to this season, but to every season:
“When Pop had his presser after the trade, he directly spoke to the idea of rejecting a rebuild. ‘We’re continually building, and the desire of the club is to remain relevant.’ So the whole crashing out, not necessarily tanking, but going young and letting whatever wins pile up happen, is just not something that the organization has any kind of an appetite for, it honestly doesn’t cross their mind.”
The Pop-Buford run Spurs have had an unprecedented run of success since 1997, as we are all aware of. They do not have what some would describe as a, “loser’s mentality,” I believe, because of this success. When you have a club that has stayed at or near the top consistently for 20 years and have 5 championships to show for it, I don’t think that the word, “tank,” is in their vocabulary. However, this mentality is NOT to the detriment of their future, because...
3. They develop their young talent AND believe in it
The purpose of tanking is to be able to get high draft picks that will ultimately lead to the supposed best young prospects. Throughout the history of their franchise, San Antonio has managed to draft within the top 10 a grand total of 4 times. Within that span, they have missed the playoffs a total of 4 times, and they have only missed the playoffs one time since they drafted David Robinson in 1987. Their highest draft pick since they drafted Tim Duncan was this year, when they used the 18th overall pick to draft Lonnie Walker IV.
In that span, check out the names of some of the guys that they’ve drafted in the later parts of the Draft: Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Tiago Splitter, George Hill, Dejuan Blair, Cory Joseph, Kyle Anderson, Dejounte Murray. In San Antonio, many of these guys were developed and allowed to realize their potential, with a famous couple of them being future Hall of Famers, because the Spurs dedicated time into their development and showed enough trust in them to allow them to showcase it.
The stories of Pop pushing Parker are legendary at this point, but it’s a key aspect of their thinking: if a guy is a bit raw but has the right stuff to play, they can mold them and bring out the best in them. That way, they’ll be a player for them in the future that can contribute. Wilco made the point that the Spurs already believe they have the guys that will make up their group going forward beyond this year:
“That [thinking that the Spurs will max out around 50 wins over the coming years] assumes Dejounte Murray doesn’t develop, that Derrick White is a non-entity in the NBA...They’ve got this system of bringing guys through where they always have somebody in the hopper, as it were, and instead of thinking, ‘Hey we gotta go out and get somebody,’ they’ve already got the somebodies that they’re expecting to be able to have in 2-3 years when LaMarcus’ production drops off and DeRozan ages as well.”
Of course, not everyone they draft pans out. For every Tiago Splitter, there’s a Nikola Milutinov who does never experiences the Spurs firsthand. However, the guys that do succeed give them the benefit of the doubt when it comes to drafting and developing players. Their most recent success story, Dejounte Murray, just became the youngest player to make an All Defensive Team in NBA History and has been pegged as their next potential homegrown star.
As long as Pop and RC are at the helm in San Antonio, I think it is safe to say that the way they operate will remain as consistent as it has ever been. Kawhi Leonard is, when healthy, arguably a Top-5 player in the NBA, and he very clearly wanted out of San Antonio. His trade was all you had to see to know that the Spurs’ mentality was not about to be compromised, no matter who the player is.
But that’s not all J.R. discussed with Spano on Saturday. Check out Wilco’s entire interview below or by clicking here: