My love for San Antonio Spurs basketball has bordered on obsession. While I watched and admired their 1999, 2003, 2005, and 2007 championships passively, it is only in the past 3 years, going back to their 2012 playoff run, that I have come to appreciate what makes them special in today’s sports landscape. Inspired by their dominant championship series victory over the Miami Heat, I have distilled the Spurs appeal down to three defining characteristics: selflessness, perseverance, and faithfulness.
Many have observed and discussed this past week how well the Spurs play together as a team. Their beautiful teamwork was vividly on display on their surprising evisceration of the Heat in Games 3 and 4. But these games merely epitomized the team-centered approach displayed throughout the entire season. Consider some statistics
Their leading scorer, Tony Parker (16.7 points per game), was not even among the top 25 scorers in the NBA during the regular season. 6 players averaged more than 10 PPG.
No player averaged more than 30 minutes per game; 9 players averaged 19 or more minutes per game.
They averaged 25.1 assists per game (3rd in the NBA)
These signs of team work – balanced minutes, balanced scoring, ball distribution – were magnified in the Finals
6 players averaged double digits in scoring, with the highest, Kawhi Learned, scoring less than 19 per game.
All 13 players scored in Game 4
Assists per game – 25.5 vs. the Heat’s 15.5
These assists were the product of a pass first, pass often mentality that flummoxed the Heat, especially in the pivotal Games 3 and 4.
The Spurs passes per possession averaged 4.2 and 4.5 in Games 3 and 4, respectively.
In contrast, the Heat passed the ball a total of 267 times compared to 380 for the Spurs.
This selflessness, which I am defining simply as a team-first attitude, is also displayed off the court. Their stars notoriously say very little in interviews, and when they do speak, they are loathe to speak of their individual accomplishments, but quick to deflect attention to either the team, or their ”system” or the coaches. This aversion to not running their mouth indicates a cautious attitude toward boasting or to putting down an opponent, which are signs of true humility.
This quality is shown by how they respond to setbacks, the longevity of their success, and in how no-name, unwanted players often find success that eluded them elsewhere.
Last year’s Game 6 finals loss was as stunning as it was devastating. Up by 5 points with the less than one minute to go, and with a 3-2 series, the championship was virtually guaranteed (the NBA was already preparing the trophy presentation on the sidelines). But in an uncanny, almost impossible, sequence of events (described vividly here by Zack Lowe of Grantland.com), including two missed free throws and two offensive rebounds by the Heat resulting in two 3 pointers), the Heat tied the game, and went on to win Game 6 in overtime, en route to a final Game 7 victory . I almost cried. I had already typed “SPURS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” on my Facebook status update, a finger raised to press send. Such a loss would have decimated the confidence of most teams, making it psychologically impossible to recover and come back the next year. Coach Popovich confessed to being haunted by it every day since. But the Spurs embrace this awful letdown as an opportunity to improved and used it as motivation to become a more dominant team the following year. And dominate they did. There 14 + points per game margin of victory was the highest ever in for the NBA Finals.
I would not characterize them as persevering, though, if it were just a one year story. Consider the longevity of their success as a team. They have been in the playoffs every year for 15 years, winning 50 plus games a season over this stretch), winning 5 championships since 1999 (Duncan was in his 2nd year), but their last was 7 years ago in 2007. Manu Ginobli and Tony Parker were not on that first championship team, but were on the other four since. Together, the Duncan-Ginobli-Parker trio have one more playoff games than any three player combination in NBA history (and Duncan himself set a record for the most total playoff minutes played). The constant variable through it all, of course, is their coach Greg Popovich, who at 18 years with the Spurs, has the longest consecutive coaching tenure currently in all 4 major American sports.
The perseverance of the team transfers to the perseverance of individual players through personal adversity. As an organization, the Spurs are masterful in picking unwanted, below-average players off the junk pile of other teams and transforming them into productive role players in their team-centered system. Boris Diaw, whose insertion into the starting lineup in Game 3 was arguably the catalyst for their 3 consecutive game domination, was released by the Charlotte Bobcats (who suffered the worse season in NBA history that year) in 2012. He was viewed as overweight, out of shape, and washed up. Shooting guard Danny Green, who set a record for 3 pointers made in last years Finals and was 7-8 from the field in their record-setting Game 3, was released by his first team, the Cleveland Cavs, in just his second year in the league, and was picked up by the Spurs, only to be cut that same year. But they brought him back and transformed him into a major contributor.
As a professional sports organization, this commitment to develop players and maximize their talent by putting them in niche roles that channel their gifts toward the success of the team is what I admire most about the Spurs. Their philosophy seems to be “If you are good enough to make it into professional sports, you are good enough to make meaningful contributions and are expected to do so.” This approach though requires trust between players and between players and coaches, which leads to my last quality.
The norm in professional sports these days is that when teams’ seasons end in disappointment, heads must role: trading older stars in the name of ‘re-building,’ sacking coaches, paying hot free agents exorbitant sums. Whatever promises to bring the quickest results. Of course, the Spurs try to improve their team by adding better players, but the secret to their success is sticking with and developing the players they have, trusting in their system to bring the most out of individuals. Many franchises would have fired their coach, or launched a dramatic roster overhaul, after A) not making it to the Finals in 2012 after squandering a 2-0 series lead to the OKC Thunder and B) epically blowing a Finals victory last year. Management could have decided that their old stars just weren’t going to win again and traded them all away for the future. But the Spurs stuck with their core guys, modified their roles (the offense no longer centers around Duncan’s inside scoring), and developed their supplementary pieces (hiring a world famous shooting coach to work with Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and others).
Don’t get me wrong, the Spurs care about winning as much as any franchise, but they are distinct in the way of going about it. Instead of going for pragmatic, short-term fixes to problems, they stay faithful to players whose abilities they believe in and to the principles of basketball that define their ‘system.’
NBA comissioner Adam Silver, when handing the Spurs president the Finals trophy, summarized the global praise that has been heaped on the Spurs this week, “You showed the world how beautiful our sport can be.” Beauty is a word that has oft been used to describe the Spurs pass until you find the best shot available approach. But the beauty of this team is greater than that. The basketball only reveals the beauty of virtue that all of us should emulate. Indeed, these traits of selflessness, perseverance, and faithfulness, are characteristics of life lived beautifully.