Once again, the San Antonio Spurs are at the center of everything. Even as their star players age graciously, even when they cannot offer grand financial gestures to more than one free agent, even when they lose players or trade players because of the cap, they are still important enough to be copied- although no one has quite gotten the Spurs theoretical mystique down pat. They stand alone as unique and admired.
LaMarcus Aldridge and David West signed free agent deals to join the San Antonio Spurs for the 2015-16 season. It was one more example of how the Spurs remain relevant in a changing landscape that romanticizes explosion, excitement and noise. While the addition of Aldridge and West are great pieces to the Spurs lineup, neither are considered the best of their generation talent. Between them, they have 6 All-Star appearances out of 22 NBA seasons. But what Aldridge and West have the ability to do, besides bringing leadership and experience in spades, is to fit perfectly within the San Antonio mold that was established in 1997 when Tim Duncan was drafted with the #1 pick.
Aldridge and West are Spurs not by birth but by desire; they fit the system which is the best thing you can say about the structure the Spurs have anointed. It has been crafted but has not been repeated. The Spurs have a particular style and come hell or high water, win or lose, this is what they go with. It is not always glamorous to watch. At times, it has been characterized as dull and uninteresting and boring.
Recently, the Spurs three point efficiency, ball movement, spreading the floor, a touch of athleticism sprinkled in, intelligence, and Tim Duncan brilliance, has made the Spurs admired, which wasn’t always the case. A decade ago, they were in the shadow of the much flashier and extravagant Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson title teams. The Spurs were a watery version of entertainment even as they were proficient. There was something about them that made you yawn, absent as they were of the cool factor.
But the 360 degrees of the NBA has tilted the axis and not because the Spurs have done anything differently. They have not. They just keep fitting players around Tim Duncan so that his minutes are reduced and he can probably play to the age of 45 though he probably won’t. It is the rest of the NBA that has drastically changed. There aren’t as many exceptional players anymore. Good ones still walk through the door but the transcendent, transformational players are not what they once were because college is not what it once was.
In the Tim Duncan era, the Spurs have never drafted a United States born player in the first round with less than two years of college experience. The Spurs want players who know how to play basketball. And yet, their system is not foolproof, no system is. They have never repeated as NBA champions. In 2000, after Tim Duncan’s first title, they lost in the first round. In 2004 and 2006, they lost in the second round. In 2008, they lost in the Conference Finals. In 2015, they repeated what happened in 2000 and lost in the first round again. The gaps between their title teams have been as little as two years (2003, 2005) and as large as seven years (2007, 2014). And yet, their disappointments don’t haunt them long term.
Unfamiliar to the Spurs culture of obligation and responsibility is self-destruction. The disease of me isn’t present at the top and isn’t a function at the bottom. The middle is comprised of the non-complainers, the hard workers, the sharers, the listeners. Collectively, the Spurs link their fate to one another and try to improve upon what they have to work with. It is the basic definition of group-think, that the whole is better than the sum of its parts. If a title comes, a title comes because the whole group earned it. If it doesn’t, then the team has to try again next year without all the hand wringing.
It was enough for David West to take a $10 million dollar pay cut to join the Spurs and he said it was because he wanted a ring. But a ring is just the conclusion, after a process of interdependence, trust, accountability and a little luck along the way. Will David West win a ring with the Spurs before his career is up? Perhaps. Or, maybe not. So many intangibles go into a team winning a title. But, this is true. Signing with the Spurs has given David West an advantage over every other player in the NBA who is not playing in San Antonio.