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San Antonio Spurs system promotes excellence

Thursday , March 06, 2014 - 12:09 PM

Al Iannazzone

The San Antonio Spurs won the 1997 NBA lottery and haven’t lost much since.

They drafted Tim Duncan, teamed him with David Robinson, and a dynasty was born. Now, 10 years after Robinson retired, the Spurs remain an elite team that receives little hype and hoopla.

That’s just how Duncan and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich want it. They enjoy flying under the radar and continue to do so despite 16 years of unprecedented success. Their fifth trip to the NBA finals together begins Thursday.

The Spurs are a model franchise built on defense, selflessness and playing together. They have won four NBA championships since Duncan and Popovich joined forces (1999, 2003, 2005, 2007) and display an incredibly consistent level of excellence.

‘‘They’re the best-run organization in the NBA and have been for a long time,” said P.J. Carlesimo, who won three titles as a Spurs assistant coach from 2002-07. “They’ve got guys that care about the team more than they care about themselves.”

It’s a basic premise that all players and teams should follow -- but frequently don’t. The Spurs are 888-376 since drafting Duncan. The .703 winning percentage leads all the teams in the four major professional sports during that period.

The Spurs have star power. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have some flash and a fiery nature to their games, more so than Duncan, whom Shaquille O’Neal nicknamed The Big Fundamental.

‘‘It is vanilla,” said ESPN analyst Bruce Bowen, the starting small forward on three of San Antonio’s championship teams. “You might look at vanilla and say, ‘It’s boring. I want a little bit of Ben and Jerry’s Chunky Monkey.’

‘‘Chunky Monkey is not viewed worldwide as vanilla is. The special thing about vanilla is you can add to it to make it more special. You got Tim Duncan, vanilla. You add a little whipped cream with cherries and some type of strawberry something with Tony Parker. You add some nuts and caramel sauce or chocolate sauce with Manu. The next thing you know, you have a great sundae.”

The NBA had “The Decision” and “Melo-Drama” and “Dwight-mare” during the last several years, in which star players left teams for bigger markets and improved chances of winning a championship.

LeBron James got his. Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony and Lakers center Dwight Howard still are chasing their first ring. This whole notion is foreign to Duncan and the Spurs.

‘‘It’s how can I make my teammates better?” Bowen said in describing the Spurs’ Way. “How can I make Tony better? How can I make Manu better? How can I make Tim better? It’s sacrificing to make someone else better.”

Popovich is the only coach Duncan has had. In that same time, the Wizards have had 12 head coaches and the Grizzlies and Warriors have had 10 each. Duncan and Parker have been together since 2001. Ginobili joined them a year later and they have won three titles since.

It also comes from the culture created by Popovich, who graduated from the Air Force Academy. He gets on all his players, including Duncan. But he also has instilled in them that the Spurs come before any personal achievements, and they buy in.

‘‘Timmy and David have empowered Pop from day one,” said Carlesimo. “Pop can tell people to stand on their head, and the first guys that are going to do it are going to be Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. In the old days, it was David and Tim.

‘‘When your best players support you like that and play for you and respect you the way those guys respect Pop, that’s the formula.”

Robinson gracefully passed the torch to Duncan shortly after his arrival and they won two titles together. Duncan, 37, did the same for Parker and Ginobili in recent years.

The Spurs went from being a slow-it-down post-up team that runs the offense through Duncan to one that’s more spread out, and features Parker probing and creating shots for himself and his teammates.

Duncan turned back the clock by losing about 20 pounds in the offseason. He averaged 17.8 points and 9.9 rebounds and made the All-NBA first team.

Owner Peter Holt, Popovich -- who also is the Spurs’ president -- and general manager R.C. Buford have created a winning environment. Their staff is good at scouting and finding people who will do what’s asked and expected of them.

Consider this: Duncan was their last lottery pick. So they have had to be creative and do their homework to build this juggernaut.

The Spurs’ top nine rotation players also were on the team that lost to the Thunder in the Western Conference finals last year.

‘‘You see the continuity,” said NBA TV analyst Steve Smith, who played on the Spurs’ 2003 championship team. “They don’t turn over a lot of people. They do a good job of finding guys that want to win.”

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