15 years ago the San Antonio Spurs were handed the #1 overall pick in the 1997 draft, a result of their dismal 20-62 season that led to the firing of their head coach after only 18 games. With the future of the franchise weighing on that pick the front office wisely chose the 6’11” forward out of Wake Forest: Tim Duncan. Duncan was highly touted coming out of college, but I don’t think anyone envisioned the kind of success this team would achieve with that acquisition. 6 Finals appearances, 4 NBA Championships, and 15 years later we look back at a team that has gone 776-352 (including this season), eclipsing a 70% winning percentage in 8 different seasons and amounting a 68.79% winning percentage overall. In comparison the Lakers have won 5 championships in 7 appearances in that time period, winning over 70% of their games only 4 times and going through 7 different coaches. I will lay out the factors that have caused the Spurs to be the most consistently successful team over the past 15 years. Factors that indicate, if history tells us anything, they will continue that trend for years to come.
1. Tim Duncan
We all know how amazing of a player Tim Duncan is, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to see him here. He’s not a flashy slasher/shooter like Kobe, he doesn’t have the scowl, and he doesn’t make big waves in the media; he simply lets his performance on the court do all the talking for him. For the first 8 seasons of his career Duncan never dipped below 20.3 points per game, 11.1 rebounds, 2.2 blocks, or a 49% shooting percentage from the field. Even after his production dipped ever so slightly he still managed to average a double double for 5 more seasons until last year, when at the age of 34 he recorded his first season without averaging a double double. His numbers become even more impressive in the playoffs where he has averaged 22.7 points, 12.4 rebounds, and 3.4 assists while shooting 50% throughout his career when it matters the most. He is not only a great leader but a model of consistency that has been the foundation of this team for 15 years and is surely bound for the Hall of Fame whenever his illustrious career comes to a close.
2. Gregg Popovich
As important as it is to have a core of solid players it is arguably even more important who you put in charge of those men. Gregg Popovich has led this Spurs franchise to nearly 850 wins ever since taking over 18 games into the 1996-1997 season. The 2002-2003 Coach of the Year implements his defense so effectively that ever since his first full season as head coach the Spurs have been in the top 10 in the league in opponents’ points per game excluding last season. Not only does Popovich get his players to execute his strategies effectively but as this team has aged he has gotten his entire roster, including the star players, to accept their roles on the team whether they be diminished or not. As much of a dominant player Tim Duncan used to be his age and knees no longer grant him the mobility he was accustomed to. As he has grown older he has accepted his role on the team: rebounding, providing an inside presence on defense, and playing efficiently in the post. Even Ginobli and Parker have accepted their roles, with Ginobli coming off the bench and Parker picking up the slack left offensively by Duncan’s regression. Each player knows what their role is on the team and they embrace and execute that role for the greater good of the team.
3. Front Office
Lastly we can’t ignore the process through which these players have been acquired. Duncan was almost a lock at #1 when the Spurs were on the clock, so it didn’t take too much thinking to pull the trigger on that one. Aside from that obvious choice the Spurs have made savvy moves that have squeezed every drop of value from their picks. Manu Ginobli was taken in the 2nd round, 57th overall in 1999. He was a project that the Spurs were patient with, letting him develop overseas until he officially joined the team in 2002 and since has been an integral part of their core group of players, averaging over 15 points over his career and earning 6th Man of the Year honors for the 2007-2008 season. Tony Parker was a late first round pick that turned into a 4-time All Star. Most recently the front office made a draft day trade with the Pacers to acquire Kawhi Leonard despite having to give up coveted George Hill, a move that has worked out thus far with Leonard bringing youth, intensity, rebounding, and defense to this aging roster. These moves have kept this team succeeding over this long period of time and indicate further success even after the big 3 of San Antonio move on.
*Transactions not mentioned but worth noting: Dejuan Blair, Tiago Splitter, Gary Neal, Matt Bonner, Stephen Jackson, and Boris Diaw.