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The most underrated Spurs of all time

The stars get all the attention, but the Spurs would not have been as successful as they have been without underrated role players.

NBA: Golden State Warriors at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs have had their share of superstars over the years, but what differentiated them from more fleetingly successful franchises was their ability to find good role players to flank their cornerstones. Those guys didn’t have glamorous jobs, but they played key parts on teams that went on deep playoff runs.

Some of those role players are beloved by fans and remembered fondly to this day, but some don’t necessarily get the love they deserve from the Spurs’ faithful or basketball fans in general. Let’s give them an opportunity to shine.

Who is the most underrated Spur of all time, in your opinion? (Ideally no one who’s had their jersey retired, is in the Hall of Fame or will surely be inducted in the HoF)

Marilyn Dubinski: I think it comes down to either Patty Mills or Danny Green, but I’ll go with Green if for no other reason than both will see debates over whether their jerseys should be retired, and Green having his career with the Spurs cut short due to the Kawhi Leonard trade will put Mills slightly ahead of him in many eyes. That being said, he was arguably the Spurs third-best perimeter defender of all time behind Leonard and Bruce Bowen and played a huge role in the Spurs maintaining a top defense in 2017-18 despite missing Leonard most of the season. Yes, his shooting was Icy-Hot, but his defense made up for it. He was quietly San Antonio’s most important role player during their peak 2010’s seasons, whether he’s remembered that way or not.

Bruno Passos: Malik Rose played on two championship teams, was routinely asked to guard peak Shaquille O’Neal, dunked on a 37-year-old Dikembe Mutombo in the 2003 Finals, actually finished 4th on that 2003 squad in win shares, and was overall a delight to watch scramble around the floor. On a nightly basis he was at a physical disadvantage against the guy he was matched up with and still found a way to make an impact for most of his 7 12 years in San Antonio, mostly through pure effort and gumption.

Mark Barrington: His jersey hangs from the rafters, but I’m still going to go with the perennially underrated Avery Johnson. He was the key leader of the 1999 championship team, and the heart of that group. He never averaged more than 13 points per game, but they would have never won that title without him. He played all 50 games that strike-shortened season, but left the team in 2001 in free agency to join the Nuggets. The Little General wasn’t ever the most talented player on the floor, but he was the toughest and most intense.

Jesus Gomez: Tiago Splitter. The Brazilian big man averaged over 10 points only once in his San Antonio tenure but he was one of the best defensive players in the league when healthy and got minutes thanks to his ability to guard both power forwards and centers. Because Tiago was so versatile on that end, Gregg Popovich could start him alongside Tim Duncan while also using him as a backup center who could hold the fort when Big Fun rested. He was also a solid, if unspectacular, offensive player who could set fantastic screens and roll for either below the rim finishes or quick passes to the corner.

Splitter’s game was well-rounded, at least for an era in which not many centers where firing threes, but his most underrated attribute was his seamless fit with the franchise’s culture. Tiago didn’t cause drama when he sat, did what was asked of him when he was on the court and seemingly played a big part in building the off court camaraderie that characterized the Beautiful Game Spurs.

When it comes to talent or charisma, Tiago pales in comparison to some of his Spurs teammates, but his impact is downplayed all too often. It’s a shame an injury forced him to retire soon after leaving San Antonio, because if he had stayed healthy he definitely would have proved his worth outside the Spurs system and gotten a lot more respect.

J.R. Wilco: (I thought I was going to have to make a difficult choice, but Bruno highlighted Rose, freeing me from having my head and heart fight it out over my decision.)

My pick is Fabricio Oberto. Don’t be distracted by his career averages (3.2/3.5/0.9), his best statistical season (4.8/5.2/1.9), his relatively short stint in Silver and Black (4 years, 1 ring), or the fact that he only played in 82 games once in his career (true for Malik as well by the way). Don’t be bothered by his lack of speed, quickness and athleticism (he entered the NBA at 30 years of age) or possibly the world’s most pedestrian highlight reel of all time.

Ignore all that.

Focus instead on the way San Antonio played because of him: selflessly, intelligently, tactically. Oberto was the king of the single step to the side that kept a recovering defender from challenging a corner three. He was the master of cutting behind the defense to stand under the basket, wide open, waiting to receive a pass no opponent was expecting. He wasn’t just an expert at screen-setter, he was also elite at slipping a screen to find himself without a defender within seven feet of him as he barreled toward the rim, received a pass, and laid it in. And all that’s without even mentioning his defense.

Which is just as well, as his D was ... about average.

But the 2006-07 Spurs didn’t need more elite big men defending the paint next to still-peak Timmy, but a team can never have too many Argentines who play like they have eyes in the back of their head. Oberto, like his countryman Manu Ginobili, was always in the right place at the right time — ready to move, score, or keep the ball moving, and my only regret about him is that he didn’t make it to San Antonio earlier so we could have had more years to enjoy him.