For years, the knock, if you want to call it that, against the Spurs' success was that it was built upon lottery luck. Twice, the slot machine came up all cherries for San Antonio, with David Robinson and Tim Duncan sliding out into the change catcher. Well, Robinson has been retired for years and Duncan is old, or at least that's what one Gregg Popovich box score entry claimed. Yet San Antonio finished with the league's best record, reeled off a record 20-game winning streak and may be on the cusp of the fifth championship of the Popovich-Duncan era. Clearly there is more going on here than lottery luck.
You can't win championships without a championship foundation, and Duncan has provided that for the Spurs for 15 years now. He may be the most consistent player of all time, with last year's PER of 21.9 being his career worst. Only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has more seasons (17) with a PER of 21 or better. And even those numbers don't do Duncan justice because they don't fully encapsulate his year-in, year-out brilliance on the defensive end. When you're talking about sustained excellence, almost no one in league history has done it as well, for as long, as the implacable Duncan.
Nevertheless, it's been San Antonio's ability to surround Duncan with complementary talent that has kept the Spurs on top of the heap. San Antonio's success is proof positive that the top-to-bottom scouting machine headed up by general manager R.C. Buford is the game's best. Building an NBA roster is not just about finding the 12 most talented players you can unearth. It's about having an idea of what kind of basketball you want to play, then locating the pieces to execute that style. Obviously, Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili could fit on any team in the league. But beyond the core trio, you have a lot guys that might not be difference makers in other NBA markets, but flourish in Popovich's system. It starts with Pop himself, of course, because it's his vision that the organization follows and it's his on-court scheme that players have to fit into.
With the draft and free-agent season looming, the Spurs provide a model that the rest of the league would do well to study. Too often, teams just collect players and hire coaches willy-nilly with no real guiding philosophy. (See: New York Knicks.) Think about how often NBA teams change head coaches, as if they were interchangeable chattel. Most often, these jobs go to former players who have generally served some kind of apprenticeship as an NBA assistant. True, some of the game's best coaches have been former players. Phil Jackson springs to mind.
But it's telling that the two best coaches in the league today--Popovich and Chicago's Tom Thibodeau--never came close to playing professional hoops. These guys aren't just successful because they have good players. They also coach specific brands of basketball, get consistent effort and convince their players to stifle their individual egos in service of team play. Perhaps the notion of "professional coach" is one that needs to be given more consideration. Teams scramble to obtain the next superstar player, but maybe they should be trying to discover the next Popovich. It's the first step most organizations never take.
Popovich's system isn't easy to summarize because it's so complex and detailed, and it's highly adaptable. When Popovich moved the Spurs' emphasis away from the plodding Duncan and towards the speedy Parker, he pulled off what few have ever even attempted: He changed from a defensive to an offensive style of play with the same core group of talent. It's worked because as an organization, the Spurs place value on intangible traits like intelligence, toughness and unselfishness. Parker, Ginobili and Duncan have played together for a decade now, and the continuity has allowed the Spurs to maximize Popovich's system of motion, ball movement and constant reads.
Popovich's blueprint has allowed Buford and his staff to more easily swap out the supporting cast to fit this new style. It's been five years since San Antonio's last title. Consider the seven players who filled out Popovich's playoff rotation beyond the big three that year: Michael Finley (33 years old), Bruce Bowen (35), Fabricio Oberto (31), Robert Horry (36), Francisco Elson (30), Brent Barry (35) and Jacque Vaughn (31). Not a twenty-something in the bunch, and all of those players are now out of the league.
Now let's go through the bottom of this year's roster:
Danny Green (24 years old): A second-round pick who was waived before last season by a Cavaliers team that went on to lose 63 games. Now he gives Popovich deadly catch-and-shoot ability from 3-point range and the defensive versatility to effectively guard both backcourt positions. This saves Parker from getting overworked when he's going toe-to-toe with other elite point guards, such as Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook. His emergence has allowed San Antonio to withstand Ginobili's ongoing injury-availability issues.
Kawhi Leonard (20): The Spurs landed Leonard on draft day last year in a trade for George Hill. Hill was a valuable member of the Spurs' rotation and became the starting point guard on a very good Pacers squad. However, part of the Spurs' success has come from knowing when to let go. Leonard has the makings of a more skilled version of Bowen. He's a ferocious perimeter defender. On offense, he can run the floor and shot 46 percent on corner 3s. Small forwards have to be able to make that shot in the Popovich system.
Gary Neal (27): Neal represents another feather in the cap of San Antonio's scouting department. Neal wasn't drafted after playing his college ball at Towson. He then played all over the world before signing with the Spurs before last season. He's another lockdown perimeter defender and 40-percent 3-point shooter. However, Neal has more shot-creation ability than Green or Leonard, and has proven to be a solid enough ballhandler to suck up the few point guard minutes that Parker's can't play. He's also one of San Antonio's top clutch options. Only Parker scored more fourth quarter points for the Spurs this season.
Tiago Splitter (27): No team has exploited the international market with more success than San Antonio and that's been the case for a long time. Splitter was drafted towards the end of the first round in 2007 and ripened for a few years before finally joining the Spurs last season. He gives the Spurs a legitimate post scorer when Duncan sits, but also the option of going big in occasional double-post sets. He shot 71.5 percent from five feet and in this season.
Boris Diaw (29): Diaw floundered through much of the season, reporting out of shape after the lockout and posting awful numbers for one of the worst teams in NBA history. Finally, the Bobcats bought him out and were glad to be rid of him. The Spurs quickly pounced, and he's been another valuable bench piece for Popovich. His passing ability is a perfect fit for San Antonio's offensive system and he provides solid midrange shooting. His true shooting percentage in 37 games for Charlotte was .461. In 20 regular-season games for San Antonio, it was .650. He was a problem in Charlotte, but a solution in San Antonio.
Stephen Jackson (33): Jackson returned to the Spurs after a nine-year absence. He began the season in Milwaukee, but couldn't get consistent court time as he chaffed under Scott Skiles. He was then shipped to Golden State, part of the price the Warriors had to pay to land Andrew Bogut. But Golden State didn't want him either, so the Spurs were able to unload Richard Jefferson--one of their few bad signings over the years--and bring back Jackson in a March trade. Jackson provides toughness and clutch outside shooting. He's hit 15 of 27 from 3-point range in the postseason. He might not quietly accept a bench role for many teams, but he's gladly done so for Popovich.
Matt Bonner (31): There are few true stretch fives in the league, but Bonner does it as well as anyone. To fill that role, you not only have to be able to step out to the 3-point line, which Bonner does as well as any player at any position, but you've got to be able to guard a big on the other end. Bonner's ability to do that allows Popovich to space the floor and force other teams' big men out of their comfort zones. So Popovich can get the benefits of a small-ball lineup without actually sacrificing size. Oh, and Bonner was another second-round draft pick, whom the Spurs landed in a trade with Toronto after the Raptors drafted Andrea Bargnani, making his presence there superfluous. Don't sell opportunism short as an element of a team's success.
DeJuan Blair (22): Diaw's acquisition has meant a serious playing time cut for Blair, but he still fills a specific role: He's the Spurs' best percentage offensive rebounder. San Antonio's offense has improved to the point that they just flat out don't miss many shots, but Blair could re-emerge if the Spurs run into scoring issues somewhere down the line. The Spurs got Blair in the second round in 2009, a criminally-low slot for him to be drafted. He was the best value pick of that entire draft.
Of these players, only Bonner was around the last time the Spurs won the title, and he only played 25 postseason minutes that year. Popovich and Buford have managed to assemble the perfect cast of supporting players, an ideal blench of complementary skills, youth and experience. They've done it without dipping into the high-level free agent market, a lesson reinforced by the Jefferson experiment. They've done it without any kind of bias based on draft slot, sketchy injury information or perceived locker room problems.
San Antonio has simply scouted well, targeted the specific skills they needed for their system and built the model roster. There is no one trick to it, but it all started with Popovich, who was the Spurs' general manager before he was the coach. He put the machine in place and set the tone for substance over style. The Spurs have kept the engine humming all these years despite operating in one of the league's smallest markets, because everyone from the scouting department to the playing floor is on board with the organizational philosophy. This is the way you build a model franchise.
(Note: Data from MySynergySports.com and NBA.com/Stats were used in this piece.)
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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