Spurs admiration starts with Admiral
David Robinson's imprints still can be seen all over San Antonio's winning ways
If the Moneyball Oakland A's were about wise investment strategies and the New England Patriots are regarded as a sound business model, we should think of the San Antonio Spurs as an effective government.
The greatest testament to a successful political system is the peaceful transfer of power: regime change without strife or bloodshed. That's the way it has been for the Spurs, from David Robinson to Tim Duncan, from Duncan to Manu Ginobili and now Tony Parker. If you want plotting, double-crossing and high-carnage battles, catch "Game of Thrones" on Sundays. San Antonio is a long way from Westeros. With the Spurs, regimes change with neither a fight nor instructions from above.
"I'm very fortunate in that I didn't have to deal with a star's ego," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "I dealt with grown-ups, who had character and prioritization already set in their lives and their values, that sort of thing.
"Timmy came along, David understood his talent and made it very easy for Tim to become the go-to guy. As Tim got older, he understood the value of Manu and Tony and was able to share that spotlight with them. I never had a talk, I never had a discussion, a meeting or anything with any of those guys about that. We just did it. The process kind of morphed along. It's because of their character we were able to do it."
Robinson doesn't get enough credit for establishing the template. He's the founding father of the team's locker-room constitution. (If someone with better Photoshop skills than mine swapped a George Washington-style white wig for Robinson's old flattop, I bet it would work.) Robinson already had a Most Valuable Player trophy on the shelf, with seven trips to the All-Star Game and two Olympic gold medals. He'd led the league in scoring and blocked shots and was the defensive player of the year by the time Duncan arrived via lottery luck in 1997. But by Duncan's second season, he was the team's top scorer and the MVP of the NBA Finals the Spurs won in 1999.
Robinson was a willing accomplice in Duncan's takeover.
"If we can win games, everybody's going to be happy," Robinson said. "For me, when Tim came, the very first thing I told him was, 'I'm going to put you in position where you can succeed. Period. That's it. If you're a better scorer than me, I'll put you down on the block, you score. I don't care. I can do other things.'
"I think [the attitude] permeates a whole franchise. It wasn't me necessarily bringing it in. Popovich is always talking about team. He leads it by saying, 'I don't want any attention, I'm not going to act like I want attention.'"
That doesn't mean the players don't have pride or don't value individual accomplishment. You don't lead the league in scoring without believing that you can put the ball through the hoop more than anyone else in the NBA.
"When you get on the floor, you've got to think you're the best player," Robinson said. "Everybody does that.
"I didn't necessarily think I wasn't the best player on the team. I still felt like I had my role to play. It's sort of like being a husband and a wife: Who's more important? Nobody's more important. You've both got your roles, you play your roles. And everything goes great as long as you play your roles. As soon as one of you guys acts like you run the show, and you're more important than the other one, everything goes haywire.
"I felt like my role was critical for this team. Even as I got older I felt like, how I come into this locker room, how I keep these guys together, keep them focused, keep the pressure off Tim until Tim's ready to become a leader all those things I thought were real important. All the pieces, that's the only way they can come together."
Perhaps Duncan's nature would have led him to be just as selfless on his own. Or maybe the early years of a player's career are like the formative years of a child's psyche. I read a study that showed that a tumultuous household can be seared into a young person's mind to the point that it becomes the norm, and the brain will constantly seek a return to that state, disrupting healthy relationships if necessary to achieve the imbalance to which it's accustomed.
Duncan had no coaching changes, no power struggles, no core breakups to endure when he entered the league. That's all foreign to him. I remember running into Duncan during the 2004 All-Star Weekend and telling him how the Kobe-Shaq relationship was reaching its terminal stages. Duncan wasn't sympathetic to their plight. He couldn't relate. Instead, his face lit up as he considered the prospect of facing a Lakers team that was weakened within. Honestly, I'd never seen Duncan look that giddy.
The Lakers wound up beating the Spurs in the playoffs that year, when the series turned on Derek Fisher's 0.4-second shot. But the breakup of Shaq and Kobe that summer cleared the path for the Spurs to reach the NBA Finals in two of the next three seasons. And it all occurred while the Spurs were in the process of a reform.
In Duncan's MVP seasons of 2002 and 2003, he had usage rates of 29 and 28 percent, often 5 percent above the next-most featured player in the Spurs' offense. San Antonio's staple play was "four down," the call for Duncan to get the ball on the left block.
By 2005-06, Parker was the team's leading scorer, if only by a few tenths of a point, and by 2007-08, Ginobili was the team's leader in scoring and usage rate. This season, Parker averages a team-high 18 points and takes two more shots per game than Duncan, who averages 15 points. Ginobili, who missed a third of the season with injuries, averaged 13 points.
Duncan has maintained he's fine with however the shot distribution flows as long as the team is winning -- which the Spurs have been, more than any other team in the Western Conference the past two regular seasons. Their offense is more democratic than ever, and you can trace it all back to principles of locker-room governance established by Robinson.