SALT LAKE CITY —
They used to live in the same modest neighborhood, looking up at the big shots and dreaming of also being there.
The San Antonio Spurs and Utah Jazz were just a couple of pugnacious little guys in a glamorous league. But then something changed: The Spurs began prospering and soon they were movin' on up. They finally got a piece of the pie.
These days, the Spurs have long ago surpassed their humble wannabe origins. With a 2-0 lead in their first-round playoff series with the Jazz, they are shooting for a fifth championship since 1999. That's breezy company. Only the hoity-toity Los Angeles Lakers have more titles in that span (5), but they seem unlikely to repeat this season. Meanwhile, the Spurs are still running with the rich and famous.
"Imitation is the greatest compliment," Jazz assistant coach Scott Layden said. "I think that the whole league would love to be San Antonio Spurs, from top to bottom."
Ah, yes, imitation. It's what makes the world go 'round. There would be no Wal-mart if not for Kmart; no Facebook if not for MySpace. You take a good idea and improve it.
"Utah is a model franchise," Spurs general manager R.C. Buford said on Wednesday.
Right back at you, but more of it.
"The Spurs do things in a very modest, humble way, but they do everything right and they do everything for the right reasons," Layden said.
That's the intriguing thing about this story. Fifteen years ago, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich decided the Jazz were a standard of character-driven, work-ethic stability. He said he wanted to fashion the Spurs after them. At that time Karl Malone and John Stockton were leading the Jazz to back-to-back NBA Finals appearances. The Jazz's general manager was none other than Layden.
Flash forward to today. San Antonio was supposed to be slipping after a first-round flame-out last spring. Instead, the Spurs added Kawhi Leonard, Boris Diaw, Patty Mills and Stephen Jackson and ended up tying for the league's most wins. Even more impressive, they did it while former All-Star Manu Ginobili was missing 32 games with injuries.
They don't rebuild, they reassert.
While the Jazz had two Finals years (1997, 1998) and tied with (who else?) the Spurs for the league lead in wins in 1999, they never did surround John Stockton, Jeff Hornacek and Karl Malone with the talent to win a championship. When those years were gone, so were the Jazz as contenders. They had some good years with Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer, but never advanced beyond the conference finals.
Meanwhile, San Antonio was cashing in on its investments. From it's first Tim Duncan/Sean Elliott/David Robinson title in 1999, they added Tony Parker, Bruce Bowen and Ginobili for their second championship (2003). Two yeas later they had Robert Horry, Brent Barry and Nazr Mohammed on their title roster, and by 2007 they had added aging but still dangerous sharpshooter Michael Finley, to win another championship.
So here they are, all those championships later, wanting more. The Spurs franchise is what the Jazz wish they'd been, which is to say repeat champs. The Jazz were good but the Spurs were special. Some experts say San Antonio deserves to be rated among the best franchises of all time.
"They did a brilliant job of putting this team together (this year) when a lot of people had written them off," Layden said.
In one sense, it's encouraging to the Jazz to know small-market teams can win multiple titles. In another, it means the Spurs might be an obstacle, even after future hall of famer Duncan retires.
From instructor to student, the Jazz are watching.
Said Layden: "I saw Coach Popovich after one of our games and said, 'Playing you guys is like going to the dentist. There's no letup, it's constant drilling and it's painful 'til the game is over.' So I think we want to be like this organization. Yes, I think so."
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