Appreciating the masterfully aged San Antonio Spurs

Ryan Wight
May 31, 2013

With all due respects to Kobe Bryant, who’s renamed himself Mamba Vino, the San Antonio Spurs are your vintage Bordeaux. The Spurs have aged with grace, and through their aging process, they have taken on different noses; David Robinson to Tim Duncan to Tony Parker and back to Tim Duncan again. The Spurs were unquestionably the Admiral’s team throughout the 1990s, but could never get past the Houston Rockets thanks to Hakeem Olajuwon dominating Robinson. It wasn’t until Gregg Popovich took over as coach and they lucked into Tim Duncan that they were able to establish themselves as an elite team in the west.

The 1996-97 season saw the Spurs hit rock bottom with an injury to the then-in-his-prime Robinson and it led to their current streak of 16 straight seasons of making the playoffs along with four championships (1999, 2003, 2005, 2007). That rock bottom culminated with San Antonio receiving the first pick in the draft, which turned into the future Hall of Famer. Duncan quickly established himself in his rookie year and it was apparent that the Admiral would be passing the torch to the Big Fundamental. The Chicago Bulls were about to end their repeat three-peat and it was clear that the Rockets and Utah Jazz were starting to age. The titles were there for the taking as long as Robinson had a few more runs in him. Thanks to the lockout shortened season in 1998-1999, The Spurs got their chance and Robinson put the cherry on top of a spectacular career with his first championship.

While the Twin Towers were getting their first rings, Shaquille O’Neal and the Los Angeles Lakers were about to steal their thunder. Kobe Bryant was transforming into the NBA’s best shooting guard, creating a formidable one-two punch. Three straight titles later and it looked like the Lakers were well on their way to five or six straight titles. However, in 2003, the Lakers could not overcome the alpha dog battle between O’Neal and Bryant. The Spurs, riding the last run by Robinson, managed to defeat the Lakers in six games on their way to their second championship. They sent the Admiral out in style, with another championship.

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The Spurs under Popovich, were originally a defensive-minded team. They played hard-nosed defense and protected the paint with the Twin Towers. It allowed them to stay in most games, which gave the opportunity for the Spurs to exploit any mismatches. As the years have progressed, it’s extremely apparent the biggest mismatch is at head coach. Popovich has progressed each year after getting his start as the GM. At first, the success of the team was given to good fortune for having the Admiral injured for a season allowing them to get Duncan with the first pick. After Robinson retired, the success was attributed to their current GM, R.C. Buford, who filled out the roster with role players and drafted international players only to store them in Europe for a few years to let them develop. However, few remember Popovich was the GM and head coach until 2002, when he hired Buford to take over. It was actually Popovich who mined the international talent pool for Manu Ginobili (in 1999) and Tony Parker (in 2001).

With Robinson retired, the Spurs had to transform or be left behind. Parker and Ginobili were budding stars, but weren’t ready to take over. The heavy lifting fell on Tim Duncan, but when it came to the playoffs, the limelight fell on newly acquired veteran, Robert Horry. Big Shot Bob. Horry was already a five-time champion from his days with the Rockets and Lakers. He brought veteran leadership to the team that they needed, but what everyone would and should remember were his clutch shots. Horry was to the NBA playoffs what Mariano Rivera is to the Yankees. He’s the closer. He comes in the fourth quarter and takes over. He had done it countless times with the Rockets and Lakers and repeated it again with the Spurs. In Game 5 of the 2005 NBA finals, Horry scored 21 points in the fourth quarter to beat the Pistons, after only scoring three points in the first three quarters. The 21-point fourth quarter culminated with Horry hitting his signature dagger three-pointer in the final seconds.

After the 2005 Finals, Popovich realized that Ginobili and Parker had reached their primes and were ready to share the load with Duncan. The Spurs now had three weapons and were ready for their third phase of their transformation under Popovich. Ginobili and Parker were both All-Star caliber players on offense, but defensive liabilities. The Spurs still had good defensive role players, but were starting to establish themselves more on the offensive end. This new-found offensive prowess was best illustrated by Parker winning the 2007 NBA Finals MVP over Duncan, who had a subpar series.

To combat the aging Duncan, Popovich changed the strategy of being defensive-oriented to a more offensive game after the 2007 title. This became even more apparent with the turnover of role players. Without the lockdown defense of Bruce Bowen, the Spurs invested in Richard Jefferson, an offensively gifted player. The Spurs tried to hold on to some of their defensive focus by drafting DeJuan Blair and signing an over-the-hill Antonio McDyess. Through this period of transition and identity searching, they couldn’t make it out of the first two rounds in three straight years.

In 2011-2012, the Spurs once again made a trade to set them up for the future, sending George Hill to Indiana for Kawhi Leonard. Duncan looked to be slowing down and saw his minutes decrease as he started taking a backseat to Parker and the oft-injured Ginobili. However, once again in a lockout shortened season, the Spurs managed to tie for the league’s best record at 50-16. Despite the great season and two easy series wins, the Spurs were no match for the Oklahoma City Thunder who, led by Kevin Durant dismantled them in six games.

The future looked bleak for the Spurs as OKC was being led by the trio of Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. The Thunder looked to have a new stranglehold on the Western Conference. However, in the offseason, OKC made a stunning move sending Harden to the Rockets, weakening the powerhouse. While the media was focusing on the astonishing move, Duncan re-dedicated himself to a strict diet and workout regime. Almost every sports fan saw him as washed up and on the downside of his career. We figured him as moving into same place as the Admiral was among the Twin Towers. We were wrong.

Tim Duncan emerged from the offseason looking like the lanky kid out of Wake Forest, not the 37-year-old, 16-year NBA vet with 1180 regular season and 190 career playoff games under his belt. With this renewed vigor, Duncan posted his best statistical season in three years. Along with returning to the Duncan of old, he managed his best free throw shooting season ever, shooting 81.7% from the line, as opposed to the 69.3% career average.

With Duncan returning to form, and OKC losing Westbrook to injury, the Spurs ran through the west in the playoffs. The current playoff run started with an easy sweep of the preseason favorites, the Lakers. The second round saw their biggest challenge, which came from the Golden State Warriors, led by the dynamic shooting of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Despite Curry and Thompson putting on a shooting clinic, the Spurs escaped in six games. Following Monday night’s victory over the Memphis Grizzlies in the Western Conference finals, the Spurs enjoyed their second sweep, and have moved on to the Finals, where they will enjoy nine days rest before it kicks off.

While the Spurs are chasing their fifth title under Popovich and Duncan, they will have to find an answer for the Miami Heat, who are still favored to prevail after falling into a 2-2 tie with the Indiana Pacers. The Pacers will not go quietly and will punish Miami throughout the series, but LeBron James has reached new heights this season. When Miami gets there, it will be a great series to watch. Can Duncan hold off LeBron and his pursuit of his second straight title? Can the Spurs get their fifth title? After all, they do love winning in odd numbered years.

This fine wine is ready to be uncorked at least one last time before they return to the NBA cellar.

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The Author:

Ryan Wight