In May of 2009, I sat and watched the San Antonio Spurs survive only five games of the Western Conference against a recently Pau Gasol-infused Lakers team. Though three of their losses in the series came by combined 14 points, I remember walking away from that series believing I had seen the beginning of the end of the Duncan-Popovich reign in the Western Conference.
The signs were there. Tim Duncan had just turned 32. Their supporting cast (Bruce Bowen, Michael Finley, Fabrico Oberto, Kurt Thomas, and Brent Berry) had quickly dried up (average age of 35), and was clearly unable to ease the transition past Duncan’s prime. Perhaps most damning of all, Pau Gasol was somehow suddenly a Laker, Chris Paul and Deron Williams had just carried their teams to 56 and 54 wins before turning 25, and a new Big Three was kicking ass and taking names across the coast. The league’s power balance had appeared to shift overnight and slip from the defending champs’ grasp. The newlook Lakers displayed an extra gear in those five games that the Spurs could no longer match, and this was now the part when they’d go away.
Long live the Duncan-Popovich dynasty.
That was the narrative.
And I believed it.
And I hate myself.
A lot has happened in the five years since the 2008 playoff shortcoming, but the resurgence and sustained success unquestionably began right where the dynasty started in 1998.
As the final seconds of their 2008 season ticked down, Tim Duncan looked any aging athlete does when they are coming to grips with their atrophying athleticism and lost vigor. He had just turned 32 and appeared headed into a different phase of his career, one that would no longer offer us the greatest power forward that ever played, nor include anymore June basketball.
His gradual erosion subsequently ran to script the following three seasons. By 2011, his per-game averages had dipped from 2007’s totals of 20 points, 11 rebounds, and 34 minutes to 13/9/28. When the top-seeded Spurs (and specifically Duncan) suffered a thorough pounding in the first round of the playoffs from the 8th seeded Grizzles, the clock began ticking and the end of an era seemed as imminent as ever.
The Spurs season was once again ended by the bully on the block, and they walked away looking like a heavyweight boxer on the ropes.
You know the rest from there.
The Spurs finished the following regular season with their best winning percentage (.758) in six seasons, and carried that dominance into the post-season (had won 19 straight games!!), before the kids up in OKC grew up Disney-style before our eyes, and had one of the best four-game stretches offensively that you’ll ever see.
But a historical regular season and a 12-4 playoff record wasn’t what a determined Timmy Duncan had in mind in this stage of his career.
For the fifth consecutive year, the Spurs had failed to reach the Finals, this time finding their kryptonite to be a little youth and a long beard.
Tim Duncan wasn’t getting any younger (at least that’s what I heard), but he sure as hell wouldn’t be going anywhere.
This past offseason, 36 year old (HAVE I METENTIONED HE’S OLD?) Duncan rededicated himself to the goal he had spent 15 seasons chasing, and set out to put the newborn Thunder dynasty on pause. He lost fifteen pounds to improve his mobility and alleviate any additional strain on his already deteriorating body. He sought an additional edge and by working out with a former champion boxer to improve his conditioning. And, a free agent at the time, Duncan sacrificed finances and opted to resign with San Antonio for half of what he had been paid the prior season, allowing the front office more flexibility to bolster the championship roster.
The Virgins Island native had a season that we have never seen before and unprecedentedly went on the upward at age 36, having (by any measure) his best season since the 2008 playoff loss (1st team All-NBA this season after just one 3rd team appearance in past three years).
(Semi-relatedly, he is somehow performing at this level in the midst of a messy divorce.)
As fate would have it, Duncan would not get a chance to avenge last year’s playoff loss to Oklahoma City. Instead, he found himself up against the team up whom he reached the low point of his career against just two years prior.
His rededication this past offseason proved to paid off. Skinny Tim Duncan was more than nimble enough to defend the Grizzles’ pick and roll game, and his off-season conditioning allowed him the endurance to seal a Game 3 victory vs. Memphis in overtime
(I can’t say that the 2011 embarrassment was the impetus for Timmay’s resurgence, but it sure makes for a better narrative, damn it.)
Although Duncan has been its rock and guiding wind since 1998, the Spurs organization has clearly never been about one man.
Tony Parker, who Duncan has since handed the offense over to, ascended from a borderline franchise player in 2008 to the league’s best offensive point guard today. Manu Ginobili (who at 34, has also had to battle father time) has finished the past two seasons healthy (knock on wood) and continued to do just enough “Manu Ginobili Things” along the way.
And I would need a whole ‘nother 1,500 words to tell you about the coaching job Greg Popovich has done in this time (he should really win NBA Coach of the Year every year until he decides to retire).
So, Duncan is basketball’s Benjamin Button. Popovich, Parker, and Ginobli haven’t gone away either. And water is wet.
But what has truly pushed this Spurs team past the post-season brink have the pieces working around the four future Hall of Famers.
After the 2008 season, Popovich and general manager RC Buford looked at the rosters they had constructed that failed to win a title and concluded they could no longer surround their aging stars with savvy vets as they previously had (players like Robert Horry, Bruce Bowen, Brent Barry).
They needed to restock their stable with younger legs that could spell Duncan and Ginobili minutes as they continued to age.
So that’s what they did. They got younger.
The best scouting department in the league went to work and work, finding misfits and passed-over players and developing them into championship basketball players.
When the Cavaliers found no use for 15th man Danny Green, the Spurs dug through the garbage and found their starting two-guard. When 29 other teams passed on selecting 6’6 DeJuan Blair with no ACL’s, the Spurs dared to groom him into Tim Duncan’s partner in the paint. At the 2007 Draft, San Antonio’s oversea scouts hit once again at 27 with Brazil’s Tiago Splitter, and followed that up the next draft by selecting Geroge Hill (who they were later able to flip for Kawhi Leonard) 26th overall (behind Alexis Ajinca, Kousta Koufus, and, wait for it… Joe Alexander).
The Spurs stayed true to what founded their success from the start – building through the draft, player development, and a cyclical team-first attitude. Boring or not, it is the archetype of how a sports franchise should be run in 2013, and this post-season run serves as a testament to the core values – patience, selflessness, commitment – that the Spurs Way has embodied.
(Interestingly, the “Spurs Way” has always served as a stark contrast to my beloved Lakers’ constant spectacle over the past 15 years that I’ve grown to appreciate.)
After clinching his fifth Finals trip in 15 seasons Monday, coach Greg Popovich explained the philosophy and overriding patience that has carried him back to the pinnacle.
“I think a lot of people think the grass is greener on the other side,” Popovich said, “and if we change this coach or trade these guys, it’s all going to be nirvana after that. I think if you stay the course and you’ve got leaders who are quality character people, you follow them as long as you can.”
“It’s tough to do, to maintain something that long.”
Maintained they have indeed.
Since the Spurs hired Greg Popovich in 1996, 129 different NBA head coaches have been hired and fired. In the last four seasons years alone, upwards of 15 All Star players have been traded or changed teams in hopes of winning a championship (James, Paul, Anthony, Howard, Harden, Stoudemire, Williams, Bynum, Johnson; I could keep going). In a league of impatient ring chasing and myopic, “win right now” GM’s and franchises, the Spurs have stayed the course, been as consistent as Duncan’s 17-foot bank shot, and have won four championships to show for it.
It’s not boring. It’s something to stop and truly appreciate in 2013, and something we may never see again in the NBA (or pro sports) in our lifetimes.
15 years after the title run that started it all, and five seasons after a seemingly fatal Conference Finals defeat, the Spurs are back in the Finals, cast as the ugly ducking from a smaller market, and matced against a celebrated opponent with brighter stars and spryer legs.
The contrast between the two teams’ construction is stark, as are the odds against the Spurs.
I have no clue who Popovich can throw at LeBron for 45 minutes aside from Kawhi Leonard (who will be giving LeBron roughly 30 pounds anyways). I’m not sure if San Antonio will be able to exploit Miami’s glaring lack of interior size and strength. Neither of us know whether Dwyane Wade’s knee will allow him to travel back in time, or if Manu Ginobili has enough left in the tank for one last big game performance. And, per usual, it is hard to forecast the Finals while accounting for its ridiculous 2-3-2 format.
(Quick compulsory tangent: We’re looking at the most intriguing Finals matchup since 2008. How many times do we get to watch yesteryear’s dynasty take (possibly) one last shot at a title against the present day reign? This matchup is sports movie stuff. The 1991 Finals (Jordan wining his first title by beating Magic in his last Finals) is the NBA’s only historical precedent.
This series will feature the following: the two best teams in basketball, two of the 10 greatest players ever (possibly guarding each other at times).. up to nine total Hall of Famers (Spoelstra qualifies if he wins three titles).. tons of historical ramifications (for Wade and Parker especially).. tons of future implications (How does a Miami loss affect the Summer of 2014? Does Duncan retire if he wins?).. all of this.. every possible contrast between the two teams.. and to ice the cake, you have the delicious irony of David Stern trying to tell Greg Popovich how to run his team back in November.
And if you still want Thunder-Heat, then here… watch First Take re-runs.)
Time (and Joey Crawford, of course) will tell how history will write itself.
But I am sure of two things:
The Spurs haven’t gone anywhere.
And I’m certainly not counting them out again.
(Spurs in 7.)