The San Antonio Spurs just absolutely bowled over the L.A Clippers, a week after absolutely bowling over the Utah Jazz. They are on an 18-game winning streak, 24-point deficits be damned, and have been thoroughly untroubled on their way to the Western Conference Finals. Over the last month of the season, they have been the best team in the league, and it’s not been especially close.
Like a fine wine, and completely unlike gum disease, the Spurs only seem to improve with age. They have won four of the last 14 championships, and made the playoffs for 15 straight years, winning no fewer than 50 games in any full length regular season during that time and only failing to get out of the first round three times. Their winning percentage in that time is about 135 percent. And they never, ever seem to fall off.
It is not a coincidence that, 15 years ago, they drafted Tim Duncan, the unquestionable best power forward of all time even if he is a center. It is too simple, however, to credit the Spurs’ two decades of continued success solely to him. Nor is it fair to credit it all to Gregg Popovich, the NBA’s longest tenured coach in his first and only NBA gig. San Antonio’s continued success is multifaceted, contingent not just upon Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Gregg Popovich, R.C. Buford or the role players, but all of it. The pattern. The formula. The Spurs way of doing things. Spurs basketball. Whatever that is.
One alpha dog, two beta dogs, and a few puppies. Few bad eggs, and even the bad eggs they have will play hard. A mixture of age and youth, athleticism and guile, defense and offense, jumpshooting and paint production, transition and halfcourt. Doing so on a smaller budget than most, constantly flirting with (and sometimes paying) the luxury tax, but without ever wanting or wishing to. Finding cheapies, plugging them in, building them up, letting them leave, finding new cheapies. Moving the ball, shooting the ball, rotating, picking and rolling, carpe dieming, with precisely one All-Star in this superteams era. It doesn’t seem that hard, but seemingly no one else can do it this well.
The Spurs continue to milk this formula, with an alpha dog whose averages are only slightly better than those than Carlos Boozer. And yet Tim Duncan never declines significantly. He plays less now, but he plays just as well. He passes just as well. He reads the defense just as well. He shoots bankers just as well. His driving righty flip-hook-layup-whatever-it-is thing is just as good. He still never, ever goaltends. He produces 90 percent of what he did when he won his first title, 14 years on. And now, rather than relying on Mario Elie, Malik Rose and Jaren Jackson for support. Duncan has a deep, deep supporting cast.
San Antonio seeks out these role players, and get them comparatively cheaply, because there is ultimately nothing special about them. Danny Green can’t do anything that hundreds of other wing players can’t do. He shoots well, but they are mostly catch-and-shoots. He plays good defense, but locks nobody down. He passes well, but merely moves the ball and runs no offense. Gary Neal handles it sufficiently, shoots it well, yet does nothing remarkable. Matt Bonner has two moves — the jumpshot, and the up-fake-to-clumsy-drive countermove. Yet on the Spurs, they have become high caliber role players, guys who do a few things right, no things wrong, and fit perfectly within a simple but clinical offense designed to fit their needs. Because that’s Spurs basketball.
The formula was created by Duncan and Popovich. It was tweaked for Parker, refined for Manu, and adhered to by the rest. They look for only about four different looks on offense, mostly stemming from the incessant pick-and-roll. The bigs can roll or pop, the guards can wriggle into the lane and finish, and the floor is dotted with shooters, with rarely (if ever) less than two quality shooters on the court at any one time. The Spurs play for the corner three, play for the driving lineup, play of the open 18-footer. It is largely mistake-free basketball that prioritizes efficiency, yet also has versatility.
There are similarly few mistakes on roster decisions, and those that are there — say, for example, Richard Jefferson — get cleared for the cost of a first round pick. That pick is then replaced by a quality free agent signing, and a couple of midseason pickups. Rinse and repeat, repeat to fade, et cetera. Everybody makes mistakes, but you don’t notice San Antonio’s, which is as glowing of an endorsement as there can be.
This is not to say that they are beyond reproach. In theory, you can beat Tony Parker off the dribble, pressure him when on the ball, and dare him to shoot. In theory, you can expose a lack of size, the lack of post defenders outside of Duncan, and a lack of post offense, as only Duncan gets it done on the interior and it’s the aspect of his game to have slipped the most. In theory, you can expose the age of a team whose stars have 3,044 games under their belt, before international or pre-NBA commitments are even accounted for. No matter how young their supporting cast.
But that’s all just theory. In practice, the Oklahoma City Thunder, next in the firing line, don’t have the pieces to attack Duncan, and Parker feeds on Russell Westbrook just as much as Westbrook feeds on Parker. Without being invincible, it is hard to know how to beat the Spurs. By keeping their minutes down over the years, Popovich has his big three, now into their second decade of implicit dominance, almost as effective as ever on a team as good as ever. And now they have far more support to pick up the slack.
At some point, a precipitous decline really will happen. But it won’t be any time soon. The Spurs might not win the title this season, but they most certainly could. That, simply, is quite remarkable.