Apart from a single photo from each of their four championship seasons, there are few reminders of the San Antonio Spurs’ rich history near their locker room at the AT&T Center. Down a long white hallway where action shots of each of San Antonio’s active players are displayed, the title photos -- those uncomfortable team portraits with everyone from the equipment manager to team owner -- hang above metal boxes into which television stations plug their equipment. Cameras, microphones and small monitors are often left sitting on the floor under these team photos as people go about their business before the game. It is the messy part of an empty wing, far from a cherished section designed to immortalize Spurs teams reaching the ultimate achievement.
In the players’ lockers hang jerseys with accents that are oh, so familiar. Like it has for years, white trim outlines the black for the numbers 21, 20 and 9 and black lettering for the names “Duncan,” “Ginobili” and “Parker.” But these days they sometimes sit atop a camouflage pattern, a tribute to San Antonio’s large military community, or a silver alternate with a large single spur on the front.
The Spurs have won at least 50 games in 14 straight seasons, an NBA record. They’ve had the same coach for 18 seasons, the same star player for 16 seasons and the same “Big Three” for about a decade. It’s a franchise steeped in history.
But amid all the consistency, this franchise is constantly evolving. San Antonio was one of the early adopters of the SportVU camera tracking system. Last season, the Spurs became the first team in NBA history to go text-free when they debuted their gray alternate jerseys, declining to put a city or nickname on the front of the jersey and simply featuring that spur on the chest. There is now an in-house DJ for home games and, to my knowledge, Gregg Popovich has yet to order his execution. Tim Duncan (37 years old) and Manu Ginobili (36) will be retired soon enough, but the maturation of Kawhi Leonard (22) has the team optimistic about its future.
There are changes to this roster, but on the floor the product has been maintained, and that continuity is paramount. Twelve players return from a team that finished an excruciating 28 seconds away from an NBA title last season. Ten of those players were on San Antonio’s roster the previous year, when the Spurs squandered a 2-0 lead over the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference finals.
After San Antonio dispatched the Grizzlies in a four-game sweep in last season’s Western Conference finals, the message resonating from San Antonio was about how happy the team was to get Duncan back to the NBA Finals. “We really want to do it for him,” Tony Parker said at the time, pleased he was able to make good on a promise he made to Duncan. The team sounded like a happy family relieved to get one more time together before life took each their separate ways. Some wondered if Duncan would retire after the season.
It was an understandable feeling. Duncan, Parker, Ginobili and Popovich know more than anyone how difficult the road to the Finals is, how many things have to fall into place in order to play into June. The Spurs were as healthy as they had ever been last season. Duncan has battled a deteriorating left knee over the second half of his career, but played 69 regular-season games and produced his best per-game averages in three years. Even Ginobili, who is usually good for one catastrophic injury per season, only dealt with small injuries of the soft tissue variety and played 60 games during the regular season.
Now after 103 games in 2012-13 and a summer full of international play for some of the team, including Parker, this Spurs team is going to play another 100 games and make it back to the Finals?
Yet a quick survey of the Western Conference suggests there’s no reason San Antonio can’t do just that. Every other West contender -- the Thunder, Clippers, Rockets and Warriors -- has a fatal flaw greater than San Antonio. And unlike the Spurs, they’re all figuring it out on the fly.
Questions persist about the mental and emotional toll Game 6 of last season's Finals had on the team, when the Spurs couldn’t secure a defensive rebound to clinch the series and ended up losing in overtime. “I think about Game 6 every day,” Popovich concedes. Other Spurs have similar stories, and who can blame them? San Antonio was seconds from being crowned champion, only to watch it disappear in a tangle of gold ropes on the AmericanAirlines Arena court in Miami. Two days later, in Game 7, the Spurs fell again.
But the NBA season is such a long one. By the time the playoffs roll around Game 6 will seem like an eternity ago. The Spurs realize the painful memories will linger, never to go away completely, but there’s nothing they can do but play their way through it. It hasn’t gotten in their way so far: The Spurs currently sit at the top of the Western Conference with a 10-1 record, their best start through 11 games since 2010-11 when San Antonio began the season 13-1.
Aided in large part by the lack of getting-to-know-you period that so many other teams around the league are experiencing, the Spurs are second in the league in defensive efficiency behind the only other 10-1 team, the Indiana Pacers. The offense resides in the middle of the pack right now, but if San Antonio regains its rhythm and Duncan improves on his nightmarish 38 percent shooting, the offense will creep closer to elite once again.
The Spurs built an empire upon incorporating new aspects to an aging foundation. Young players joined with older to continue a winning tradition in San Antonio, while the organization finds new ways to make this classic franchise one advancing with the times. Imitated -- not quite duplicated -- around the league, the Spurs continue chasing history. Sometimes personnel changes are required for survival, but the Spurs are confident that continuity and a healthy mental state is enough to frame one more 12-by-18 team photo on the white walls outside their locker room.