Why The Champion Spurs Are Impossible To Duplicate

The 2013-2014 NBA Champion San Antonio Spurs made you believe. In experience, in persistence, in togetherness, in quality depth, in pounding the rock, in the value of adhering to a strict set of organizational ideals from top-to-bottom. More than anything, these Spurs just made you believe in basketball. Not just any brand of basketball, either, but this amazing game as it was explicitly meant to be played. There’s never been anything like it, and unless they can somehow repeat it over the next couple years, there never will be again.

Since the Finals ended on Sunday night, there’s nearly been as much adulation for San Antonio as encouragement for the Miami Heat. That’s refreshing in so many ways. The Heat, like all runners-up in the league, deserve praise for winning their conference and having a chance to play for a title; that they were the first team to do so for the fourth consecutive season since the 1987 Boston Celtics only furthers the gravity of their awesome accomplishment. Any time LeBron James – who put up a cool 32.2 PER against the Spurs, by the way – receives a merely due amount of criticism, warranted or otherwise, it’s certainly a step in the right direction.

Except the other side of commending Miami doesn’t ring true, no matter how much we want to believe it. The Spurs blitzed the Dallas Mavericks, Portland Trailblazers, Oklahoma City Thunder, and Heat to the tune of an 11.6 net rating, a number more than three points per possession better than every champion since the record-setting 2001 Los Angeles Lakers, who went 15-1 in the playoffs en route to a mind-boggling +13.5 rating of their own. Point being, San Antonio is an all-time great even though we only fully realized it in the last 10 days.

We know why – an incredible amalgam of effervescent culture, elite two-way coaching by Gregg Popovich and his staff, and a roster littered with uniquely talented players from Tim Duncan to Jeff Ayers. Nobody is debating that. It’s clear. The Spurs are one-of-a-kind.

Which makes the growing notion that the Heat, or any other team in the world, can develop San Antonio’s exceedingly rare, all-encompassing identity so far-fetched. LeBron, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh can take pay-cuts so Pat Riley can surround them with a better supporting cast. Erik Spoelstra can stress ball movement, scheme commitment, and relentless devotion to process more than he ever has. Miami can internally improve on the court and off of it, espousing new organizational ideals that ensure a vision completely aligned.

And none of it would matter because the Heat still wouldn’t be these Spurs, honed as an organization since 1998 through success, allegiance, patience, change, heartbreak, and growth that simply can’t be duplicated. It’s a disservice to San Antonio to say any differently.

But that hasn’t stopped us from thinking its possible for not just Miami, but the NBA at large. Even Manu Ginobili has bought into the narrative. Discussing his team’s heretofore unseen ability to pass the ball at yesterday’s exit interview, “El Contusione” was hopeful that style would rub off on the rest of the league:

“I think it can potentially be a game-changer,” Manu said, “for other teams that don’t have a Kobe or Durant or LeBron.”

But the Spurs have a Duncan, Ginobili, Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard, Boris Diaw, Tiago Splitter, Danny Green Patty Mills, and Marco Belinelli. They have three-time Coach of the Year Gregg Popovich, first-time (but long overdue) Executive of the Year, GM R.C. Buford, and owner Peter Holt. They have the city of San Antonio. They have history, luck, ability, intelligence, experience, and love.

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As heartening for basketball purists as it is to believe all the Spurs encompass can be had, the truth is it’s not close to that simple. Both Spoelstra and Popovich preach ‘process over results,’ a mantra increasingly and logically common in the current basketball world. Its core principle is one evocatively conveyed by a quote from 19th century social reformer Jacob Riis that Popovich posted in the Spurs lockerroom in the 1990s. After San Antonio’s fifth title, you’ve no doubt heard it by now:

When nothing seems to help, I go look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.

What’s conveniently left out of the ‘Be the Spurs!’ narrative is that they’ve been pounding that stone, watching it split, and doing so again and again since Popovich the General Manager fired Bob Hill and named himself Head Coach in 1997. It’s a task that began 17 years ago when Duncan was still at Wake Forest, and it’s been started, and started, and started, and started, and will soon start again even though it’s never stopped.

Such relentless, continuing effort can’t go discounted in assessing this team’s incredible success, but it’s easy to do so because of the changes San Antonio has made throughout this historic five-championship stretch. Popovich and Duncan seem the only constants, but the culture has been there forever.

It’s why the Spurs won 53 games after David Robinson retired, never flinched when Jason Kidd spurned them in free agency in 2003, and won their second championship with some of the best defense basketball’s ever seen two years later. Parker – almost replaced by Kidd four years earlier – won Finals MVP at 25, and Popovich developed his team into basketball’s most ruthlessly efficient offense as his core players aged.

It’s why Leonard has developed into basketball’s best young two-way wing after falling out of the lottery. It’s why Diaw fit so seamlessly after being released by the pathetic Charlotte Bobcats, why Green was released by the Spurs three times and has starred in the Finals for them twice now. It’s why Splitter had just two turnovers in the last four games of the 2014 Finals, why Mills lost 20 pounds and emerged as the league’s preeminent bench spark-plug, and Belinelli finally lived up to his pre-draft billing as an elite three-point marksman.

A nearly two-decade process necessitated the result of San Antonio’s breathtaking 2014 title. Fake or not and despite crucial lack of context, the nuanced take from the “Built VS. Bought” billboard that pitted the Spurs versus the Heat didn’t just apply to this Finals rematch, but the Spurs against the league at large. You can’t learn continuity, comfort, and trust at San Antonio levels without an unbreakable foundation that’s been a bedrock for so, so long.

It’s pretty to think differently, that these Spurs have inspired players and teams across the world to such an extent that ball and player movement like this will suddenly rule the day:

But that’s naive. We’ve never seen basketball played this way not because we don’t know it’s ideal, but because no team has ever had the sweeping, necessary means to consistently do so. The Spurs did, and while this group’s collective talent level will be forever underrated, it’s the always-emanant San Antonio Way that ensured it reached that incredible peak.

The Spurs’ latest championship has served as a vehicle for assessing the state of basketball as a whole. That’s unfair, and an injustice to not only San Antonio’s players, but the unflappably brilliant organization that coaxed every ounce of ability from them and brought them together. These Spurs weren’t about talent, system, or even culture alone; it took absolutely everything to make them the champion they are.

That’s depressing because it means we may never see something like San Antonio again. But far more important is that we remember to give the Spurs proper due when it’s so fresh in our minds. Their championship wasn’t some referendum on basketball, it was a referendum on them. That it’s so easy to confuse the two speaks to just how historically great San Antonio was.

Where do you think the Spurs rank all-time?

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