The San Antonio Spurs’ dynasty has been almost dead for much of the time it’s been alive. In 2009, they lost in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs to the Dallas Mavericks, and it was “time for [the] aging San Antonio Spurs to turn the page.” In 2010, when they lost to the Phoenix Suns, “time [wasn’t] on the side of their aging core.” In 2011, the “aging Spurs” got pounded by the Memphis Grizzlies. In 2012, the team’s “aging stars” couldn’t get past the “younger, swifter” Oklahoma City Thunder. In 2013, when they lost to the Miami Heat in a seven-game NBA Finals, we didn’t “know for sure” whether Manu Ginóbili would be back, or “how much longer” Tim Duncan could keep this up, and we wondered if it was time to say, “So long to [the] Spurs as we know them.” In 2014, the Spurs won the NBA title, the fifth of the Tim Duncan–Gregg Popovich era.
This year, the Spurs went 67–15, the best mark in franchise history, but lost again to the still-younger, still-swifter Thunder. But even though San Antonio looked old and slow and obsolete against Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Oklahoma City, nobody is burying the Spurs this time. “The Spurs’ culture won’t leave, even if Tim Duncan finally does,” says SB Nation. “Disappointing end for Spurs, but future bright,” says ESPN.com.
This calls to mind that old press box maxim: Fool me 19 times, shame on you; fool me 20 times … you can’t get fooled again. Us sportswriters are real smart: It took us a little while, but we’ve figured out that this San Antonio bunch kind of knows what it’s doing.
The Spurs, who’ve won at least 60 percent of their games in each of Popovich’s 19 full seasons as head coach, represent one model for how to run an NBA team. The Sixers, who didn’t win even 25 percent of their games in any of Sam Hinkie’s three seasons as general manager, represent another. One of those teams is very good. The other is very bad. In the juxtaposition of the two, you get an idea of just how difficult it is to transform from bad to good, and the kinds of misapprehensions that can make the bad stay bad.
Hinkie’s plan, in brief, was to acquire as many high draft picks as possible. He did this by engineering a bunch of trades, and by fielding a roster of barely professional-grade players who’d lose a lot of games, ensuring that Philadelphia would get to make its picks near the top of the NBA Draft. Hinkie clear-cut the forest to make room for a couple of notional trees. Those tall, immature plants might grow into glorious Redwoods, but they also might stay rooted in Europe, or they might come down with Dutch elm disease.
Hinkie didn’t get a chance to see his reforestation program through. The Philadelphia GM resigned last month, defending his actions in a 13-page letter in which he wrote that a “competitive league like ours necessitates a zig while our competitors comfortably zag.” He was right that the 76ers had no chance to win a title without a great player, and he was right that the draft gave him the best opportunity to acquire such a superstar. He was wrong that Philadelphia had to zig while its competitors zagged. What the Spurs prove is that the best, most stable franchises both zig and zag: They do things that nobody else has thought of, and they do the exact same stuff that everyone else is doing, but they do it a whole lot better.
The Spurs were bad once. In 1996-97, they started the season 3–15 with star center David Robinson sidelined because of a back injury. Popovich took over on the bench, and a short while later Robinson broke his foot. He missed the rest of the season, and so, in effect, did the Spurs, who tanked their way to a 20–62 record. They then won the draft lottery, picked Tim Duncan, and won a championship two years later. For the Spurs, a terrible season turned out to be the best bad year in the history of pro sports.
Lucking into Duncan was a necessary step in building the San Antonio dynasty, but it wasn’t sufficient. The top seven scorers on the 2002–03 Spurs were Duncan, Robinson, one late first-round pick (Tony Parker, who went No. 28 in the 2001 draft), three second-rounders (Stephen Jackson, Malik Rose, and Manu Ginóbili), and one undrafted player (Bruce Bowen). The top nine scorers on the Spurs’ 2013-14 championship team were Parker, Duncan, and Ginóbili; four more foreign-born players, none of whom went higher than No. 18 in the draft (Marco Belinelli, Patty Mills, Boris Diaw, and Tiago Splitter); a mid-first–rounder acquired via trade (Kawhi Leonard); and a second-rounder who’d been cut by his first NBA team (Danny Green).
The Spurs don’t just fill their roster with players who have been cast aside or undervalued. The team invests in developing them. The Spurs wouldn’t have been able to trade for Kawhi Leonard if he’d come into the pros as a great shooter. This year, with the help of shot doctor Chip Engelland, he finished third in the NBA in three-point shooting percentage.
This institutional emphasis on player development creates a virtuous circle. By cultivating the deepest roster in the NBA—“The Spurs’ Bench Could Probably Make the Playoffs on Its Own,” reported FiveThirtyEight back in January—the Spurs are able to rest their starters, saving them from the grind of the NBA regular season. It’s no accident that Duncan and Ginóbili have been able to hoist themselves out of the grave each season. This aging team with its aging stars doesn’t age like you’d expect it to, because Buford and Popovich figured out how to keep everybody young. And because the team keeps winning, and the coach and GM do their best to keep everyone healthy, the players want to keep a good thing going, signing team-friendly contracts to stay in town.
All of the people dumping dirt on the 40-year-old Duncan and 38-year-old Ginóbili might be right this time. But Tony Parker is still alive, at least to some degree. Five-time All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge—the team’s first marquee free-agent signing under Popovich—is under team control through 2018. Leonard, the 24-year-old who just finished second in the MVP balloting and whose modest affect and top-line numbers belie a superstar in the making, is signed through at least 2020. That is the core of a championship contender.
So long as R.C. Buford is still in charge of the front office, we know the Spurs will be able to surround that core with complementary players. Buford is a chef who uses every part of the animal, from snout to tail, then uses the bones to make stock. Hinkie, by contrast, always focused on cooking the perfect meal. If a dish didn’t come out exactly right, he’d throw it in the trash and turn his stove on again the following year, or trade some burned toast for the right to use a roasting pan in 2019.
He understood the key requirement of an NBA title: not just a superstar, but an all-timer. Just look at the league’s champions since 1980. The only team on that list who didn’t have one of the best players ever was the 2004 Detroit Pistons. Though Hinkie’s drafts seem like failures now—Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel, and Joel Embiid are not looking like all-timers—that doesn’t mean he was wrong to prize draft picks, and it doesn’t mean that the Sixers won’t find their franchise cornerstone this June.
But the problem with Hinkie-ism is that it ignored or foreclosed other pathways to success. Hinkie could’ve drafted a guy like Tim Duncan, the consensus best player in college basketball. But would he have drafted someone like Kawhi Leonard? Would he have devoted the resources to molding him into an All-NBA player? Under Hinkie, Philadelphia saw the league as an arbitrage opportunity; young players were assets to be flipped, not developed. Under Popovich and Buford, the Spurs seized on a larger market inefficiency: the ability to identify and nurture talent. This is the aging core that Spurs fans need to worry about. So long as the 60-something Popovich and the 50-something Buford stay in their jobs, San Antonio will continue its reign as the best franchise in the NBA.