For years, when San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was asked about the Spurs’ vaunted organizational culture or their enduring place as contenders in the Western Conference, he’d deflect all credit to Hall of Famer Tim Duncan.
“Before you start handing out applause and credit to anyone else in this organization for anything that’s been accomplished, remember it all starts with and goes through Timmy,” Popovich said several years ago. “As soon as he [retires], I’ll be 10 steps behind. Because I’m not stupid.”
The Spurs have hardly fallen 10 steps behind since Duncan retired in 2016, but for the first time in 22 seasons, the NBA playoffs will begin without them. The Spurs were eliminated on Thursday with wins by Phoenix and Memphis.
Over the course of those 22 seasons, the Spurs won an NBA-best 1,260 regular-season games — 211 wins more than No. 2 Dallas. To put San Antonio’s dominance in context, the difference between the Spurs and Dallas is greater than the gap between Dallas and No. 21 Philadelphia. The Spurs maintained that superiority for one more season after Duncan’s retirement when they won 61 games behind Kawhi Leonard and marched to the Western Conference finals. This kind of excellence over such a sustained stretch is simply unparalleled.
Whether the abiding culture in San Antonio was the result of Duncan’s presence; the early adoption of the innovative movements in team-building, health, scouting and style of play that have come to define the present-day NBA; or the leadership of Popovich and GM R.C. Buford, the Spurs sustained it. Over those 22 seasons, they mined international gems late in the draft such as Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, and scoured the bargain bin for underutilized players including Danny Green and Patty Mills.
The Spurs have operated on the understanding that whatever shortcomings a player has, San Antonio is a place where he can maximize his strengths and mitigate his weaknesses. That has been the overriding but simple attribute of the Spurs organization: It puts people in a position to succeed.
As Leonard said in 2015, “Coming to a team like the Spurs, you’re automatically going to learn how to play the game the right way.”
If the Spurs aspired for perfection, their performance in the 2014 NBA Finals, when they beat LeBron James‘ Miami Heat in five games, was nearly that. For two weeks, the Spurs hosted an exhibition of motion, timing and precision. The choreographed routines — the way players floated into space — were dazzling. They made decisions with pace, yet never compromised their patience. The ball popped around the half court, and always seemed to land with the right guy for the right shot.
Leonard was to be Duncan’s heir apparent as the personification of the Spurs’ ethic, a belief that basketball is about the work — “pounding the rock,” as the maxim goes in San Antonio — a selfless commitment to process, and an allergy to the pageantry of the NBA star system. It’s not that you should deprive yourself of the good life — nobody can accuse the Spurs’ brass of being abstemious — but that good life should be a celebration of team and culture.
Duncan told me in 2013, “People choose to try to be bigger than the game, to make themselves an individual brand or whatever it may be, and luckily enough there are enough of those guys around the league. I choose not to.”
The NBA could have made the Spurs a focal point of its marketing campaigns and national broadcast slate during their reign, but what would have been the point? The league is in the business of selling the showmanship and athleticism of its stars, not the discipline and piety of its teams. Besides, the Spurs never cared all that much. While they are committed ambassadors to the community in central Texas, their truculence with the media and disinterest in swagger became hallmarks of their identity. To Popovich’s point, they embodied the values of Duncan, and it served them well for nearly a quarter of a century.
Leonard shares some of the Spurs’ values. Those in Toronto and Los Angeles describe him as a man dedicated to the preparation and routine a championship demands, and he isn’t a natural pitchman. But the trust between Leonard and the Spurs eroded to the point of no return in 2018 over Leonard’s quad injury, and Leonard asked for a trade out of San Antonio that June.
In the wake of Leonard’s departure, the Spurs were left in 2018 with a core of LaMarcus Aldridge, whom they signed in 2015, DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay. Manu Ginobili, whose emotional IQ, self-fulfillment and familial love for the Spurs stood next to Duncan’s, had retired, while Tony Parker had moved on to Charlotte. Notwithstanding Patty Mills, the last vestiges of Spurs glory had receded.
Aldridge, DeRozan and Gay have their individual strengths, but they are not prototypical Spurs. Aldridge likes to roost on the left block, while DeRozan was third in the league in isolations, and the majority of Gay’s actions come in the post and in iso. In classic Spurs form, each of these scorers has generated a more efficient volume of shots than he had in previous stops, yet in style and substance, the Spurs had suddenly transformed modern dance into heavy manufacturing.
The Spurs still managed to win nearly 50 games in each of the two seasons before this one, and still employ many of the same organizational philosophies. In the bubble, they’ve gotten solid production out of their youngsters, including Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Keldon Johnson — a trio of No. 29 draft picks (naturally) — who will likely be part of their next chapter.
Yet the Spurs have come to appear more like an everyday NBA team, slogging through the muck like any other small-market franchise. There’s absolutely no shame in twilight, especially after five championships. Even a streak of tigers eventually dies out, and the Spurs’ longevity is almost incomprehensible. But Popovich wasn’t being falsely modest — without an exceptional luminary like Duncan, exceptionalism has a way of fading.
Somewhere along the way while the Spurs were winning titles and reinventing how NBA organizations govern themselves, the rest of the league took notice. Their coaching and managerial tree branched out to every corner of the NBA. It has taken root in Milwaukee, Brooklyn, Golden State, Oklahoma City, Philadelphia, Utah, Charlotte, Memphis and Phoenix. Even where there might not be a direct descendant, many best practices within NBA organizations can be traced back to San Antonio.
In that respect, the Spurs are victims not just of Father Time, but of their own success. They no longer look like their old selves, but many of the NBA teams advancing to the postseason look more like the vintage Spurs than ever.