Andrew A. McNeill of 48 Minutes of Hell posted a fine piece earlier today
taking a deeper look at what sets the Spurs apart from the crowd, a fitting discussion considering they just finished in the top 10, again, in ESPN’s annual ultimate franchise rankings.
Or more accurately, San Antonio’s “program,” as coach Gregg Popovich so quaintly refers to the $418 million franchise
he’s helped build, as if he were a high school football coach.
From my vantage point, it boils down to three things:
* Great management.
* Great coaching.
* Tim Duncan and, to a lesser degree, David Robinson.
In that respect, the Spurs are virtual clones of the Bill Russell/Red Auerbach Celtics referenced briefly in one of the pieces McNeill built his own around, written by the great Bethlehem Shoals
of the now-defunct Free Darko blog. (A quick plug: If you call yourself a basketball fan and you haven’t read one of their quirky and insightful books
, you owe it to yourself.)
The parallels are striking. Both had outstanding management adept at identifying and securing talent, and a coach able to meld it into a cohesive, flexible unit. (In Boston’s case, Auberbach; in San Antonio’s, Popovich and R.C. Buford.) Most important of all, both had elite, team-oriented big men who favored winning above all else.
And therein lies my personal rub with the notion of a “program” with the Spurs, and professional sports in general. It’s a simple equation, one that Popovich, to his great credit, readily acknowledges: If you have talent, you win. If you don’t, no amount of sideline strategizing, salary cap management or clever catchphrases matter.
This has been proven time and time again, in every sport. The Celtics, Green Bay Packers and New York Yankees are the most successful teams in their respective leagues, but even they went through lengthy title droughts at various points — 22, 29, and 18 years, respectively. The Montreal Canadiens won the Stanley Cups 24 times in their first 84 seasons, but haven’t done it once over the past 19.
Why? Because their teams, for the most part, sucked.
This might sound like an overly simplistic conclusion, one that would likely make Shoals gag.
But this is the cold, hard reality of professional sports. Talent, more so than at any other level, is king.
Which is why the cynic in me indulges in the occasional eye roll whenever I hear the Spurs’ approach put on a pedestal, especially their emphasis on building around quality individuals.
Make no mistake — they deserve more credit that you can probably dole out for building one of the most successful franchises in North American pro sports in one of its smallest markets. It is a success story for the ages. Look no further than this year’s Boston Red Sox to see how quickly a seemingly well-run franchise can lose its way.
But let’s be very, very clear that the Spurs didn’t draft Robinson and Duncan, the cornerstones of everything they’ve achieved, because of their low-key personalities. They chose them because they were potential superstar 7-footers, the type of players who would have gone first even if they came with rap sheets a mile long.
That both not only didn’t mind playing without the spotlight but actually preferred it was merely a bonus — and an incredibly fortunate one, at that. Orlando only wishes it could have had that kind of luck with Shaquille O’Neal and Dwight Howard.
With that in mind, I couldn’t disagree more with Shoals’ statement that even Duncan isn’t essential to San Antonio’s success. To say so renders him as some disposable part. And the Spurs are going to find out very soon that Hall of Fame big men, of which they’ve had at least one for 23 seasons and counting, are anything but.
So for me, as great as Popovich and Buford clearly are, we won’t be able to truly judge just how good their “program” is until that day comes. Auerbach proved himself again and again, rebuilding around Dave Cowens in the 1970s and Larry Bird in the 1980s. Let’s see if the same magic acts can be executed in San Antonio. Spurs Nation