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How the Spurs leaned on their core values to persevere through a tough season

Teamwork has always been a defining characteristic of the Spurs under Gregg Popovich

Impeccable teamwork has always been a defining characteristic of the San Antonio Spurs since Gregg Popovich took over as head coach midseason in December of 1996. Perennial MVP candidate Tim Duncan was the franchise cornerstone that brought five championships trophies to Alamo City, but star sidekicks and an equally important supporting cast always aided his cause.

Being an exemplary teammate, regardless of the circumstances, is one of the many classic hallmarks of being an outstanding San Antonio Spur. The front office avoids players with lockerroom issues and actively seeks out draft prospects and free agents who are quote-unquote over themselves. If you want to earn your way onto the hardwood for coach Popovich, you won’t have much success if your game is predicated on a me-first approach.

Perhaps nobody better illustrated that quality of selflessness than Lonnie Walker IV. Popovich routinely put the second-year guard through the wringer in front of the media, and Lonnie always responded by taking the criticism in stride and trying to make the most of his limited opportunities. Even when he continued to come off the bench despite outplaying Marco Belinelli and Bryn Forbes on both ends of the floor, Walker never pointed fingers and always took accountability for his own shortcomings.

For all the turmoil and turnover from the last couple of years, players largely remained positive, praised their teammates, and followed Pop’s lead. Rookies Luka Samanic and Keldon Johnson could have voiced reasonable annoyance at spending virtually all of their first go-round in the G-League while their peers gained valuable NBA experience, and the same could be said for sophomores Drew Eubanks and Chimezie Metu, but they never did.

By the time the young guys finally got a genuine opportunity to showcase their abilities upon the arrival of the NBA restart, the same veterans who stood in the way of them earning minutes earlier in the season moved aside without a hint of objection. Forbes and Belinelli, and to a lesser degree Patty Mills, willingly sat on the sidelines in the face of operating on expiring contracts and not knowing where their next NBA payday might come from.

Sacrificing for the sake of the team went far beyond seasoned veterans relinquishing minutes for the development of their baby-faced counterparts. DeMar DeRozan and Dejounte Murray ceded a wealth of playmaking responsibilities to Derrick White once he joined them in the starting lineup for the seeding games, and their lower usage and readjusted roles allowed for a resounding bubble breakthrough for the third-year combo guard.

And perhaps no one in the league had less to gain and more to lose by leaving the comfort of their home than Gregg Popovich. As the oldest coach in the NBA, the 71-year-old playcaller was especially susceptible to contracting COVID-19. Still, the lovably terse greybeard displayed undying loyalty to the organization, traveling across state lines to an epicenter of the global pandemic to direct a Spurs team with little hope of qualifying for the 2020 postseason.

This altruistic approach permeated just about everything the Silver and Black did this season, and it was especially prominent during their time in Orlando. Without frontcourt starters LaMarcus Aldridge or Trey Lyles, San Antonio leaned on a small-ball lineup full of inexperienced early-twenty-somethings to replace the depth and production left in the wake of their injuries.

Although a 5-3 record in the bubble wasn’t good enough to keep their 23-year playoff streak alive, nearly everyone stepped outside of their comfort zone to play out of position for the benefit of an unconventional scheme. And had they hung onto a late lead against the 76ers, San Antonio might have had a reason to play in the final game of the restart and possibly finished 7-1. Shoot, the fact they came so close to accomplishing the improbable with such a rag-tag ensemble is a testament to how strongly they bought into a new system.

As much as their horrific defense dragged them down, the Spurs’ offense was one of the best at scoring and sharing the ball while limiting turnovers. They ranked 8th (114.1 PPG), 13th (24.7 APG), and 1st (12.6 TOPG) in those respective categories during the regular season, and with eight players averaging at least 9 PPG, San Antonio was well accustomed to spreading touches by implementing a team-oriented attack.

While the roster construction was far from perfect in 2019-2020, it was refreshing to see how much the guys genuinely gelled off the court. From flattering interview quotes about teammates to delightful coffee gang selfies, it was simple to see why this group continued backing each other amid a historically fruitless campaign. And their support extended far beyond themselves and the game of basketball.

When Australia fell victim to rampant wildfires, Patty immediately responded to the crisis with charitable efforts and heartfelt words of encouragement. And when San Antonio joined in on the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality, Lonnie Walker IV and Bryn Forbes didn’t hesitate to march alongside the citizens of their adopted community. The duo also participated in downtown cleanup efforts the next morning following the vandalization of public property.

Whether in or outside the baselines of arenas across the country, the San Antonio Spurs stayed true to the values that have characterized them for more than two decades. No matter how bleak the season became, no matter the headlines, and no matter the extenuating circumstances, the Silver and Black acted as a singular cohesive family unit. And that’s exactly why they’ll endure as one of the premier model franchises in an ever-changing NBA landscape.

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