There’s an axiom in the sports-writing business that states: No cheering in the press box.
Good thing I’m not in the press box.
The NBA Finals are underway, and I have just one thing to say about that: Do everyone a favor, Spurs — beat the Heat.
Do you really need to ask?
Cheer for the Spurs because they’ve done everything the right way and the difficult way and the classy way and the small-market way and succeeded against all odds. In case you don’t believe me, I talked to a guy who knows — Dennis Lindsey, who was the Spurs’ assistant general manager until the Jazz hired him as their GM last summer. We’ll be hearing from him in a minute, but, meanwhile, where was I?
Cheer for the Spurs because they’re the anti-prima donna team, and that’s no accident. Sure, they have a couple of future Hall of Famers; they just don’t act like it. They’ve checked their egos at the door. They’re surrounded by a bunch of no-name players who are willing to play supporting roles. Cheer for the Spurs because when it comes to picking players they believe character matters as much as a jump shot and good feet.
“Coach Pop (Gregg Popovich) likes to say he wants players who are over themselves,” says Lindsey. “He wants players who have the appropriate level of humility. They’re not necessarily looking for the next big contract; they want to be part of something special. They give up minutes or the ball and serve a role where the coach sees them fit. They’re the same things you learn in kindergarten: Work hard and share the ball; it’s a real team. Even some of the primary players who are in decline have adjusted. They’re playing around Tim Duncan instead of through him like they used to, and he’s allowed it to happen. The players they bring in are easy to coach; they’re good people; they’re compliant. You can sustain things when you have high-character people.”
Cheer for the Spurs because they’re a small-market team in a league that has created a system that allows the rich, big-market teams to collect stars and dominate the competition. The haves lure players away from the have-nots with fat contract offers, using those teams as farm clubs. We all know this. In three decades only eight teams have won a championship. Two teams have won more than half of the league’s total championships.
The rich get richer or stay rich, because the league does not have the NFL’s revenue-sharing arrangement. If the Green Bay Packers were in the NBA, they’d be gone. And forget all that talk about how the revamped luxury tax is going to change the league — at least one league executive told me it’s not going to make much of a difference in the world of haves and have-nots.
Cheer for the Spurs because they give hope — however small — to small-market teams, including the Utah Jazz. The Spurs have advanced to the playoffs 16 consecutive years and won four championships. The NBA would downplay the correlation between market size and championships, but rarely has a champion come from the bottom half of teams ranked by market size (the Milwaukee Bucks in 1971, the Portland Trail Blazers in 1977). And the Spurs have been able to do it despite rarely having lottery picks (three since 1987).
“Think about the longevity of this run,” says Lindsey, “and there have been no major scandals, just quality people who play hard and are unselfish and play evolving roles. They’ve been able to bridge that gap where they are limited in their ability to trade and draft.”
Cheer for the Spurs because they reached the NBA Finals the right way. As Jalen Rose Tweeted, "The Heat were bought, the Spurs were built." As a small-market team, they have been unable to entice big-name free agents with fat contracts. The Spurs have built championship teams through the draft, player development and astute player evaluation. Anyone can pick a Tim Duncan or LeBron James in the draft if given the opportunity — they’re obvious. But finding their supporting cast is an art.
The Spurs currently have four players who were overlooked by other teams and have played significant roles in the team’s success — DuJuan Blair (the 36th pick of the draft), Tiago Splitter (the 28th pick) Danny Green (plucked from the developmental league in 2009) and Gary Neal (signed in 2010 after he bounced around European leagues).
The Spurs have built the nucleus of their team through the draft, not by pilfering other teams for ready-made veterans via free agency. With the exception of Duncan, the Spurs’ stars were overlooked by the rest of the league — Tony Parker and Splitter were both taken with the 28th pick in the draft, and Ginobili was drafted in the second round. Kawhi Leonard, whom coach Gregg Popovich thinks will be the face of the team someday, was taken with the 15th pick.
Cheer for the Spurs because they’re a lot like the Utah Jazz, which is not a coincidence. In the ‘90s, the Spurs considered the Jazz the model for how small-market teams could succeed, and they set out to emulate them. The Jazz qualified for the playoffs 20 consecutive seasons (two short of the NBA record) and twice advanced to the NBA Finals. They built their roster through the draft and pursued high-character players who were willing to play roles for the good of the team, work hard and foster a drama-free atmosphere. They created a stable, loyal team culture, with little turnover on the court or in the front office, led by the same steady coach year in and year out. Their philosophy: Pick good people and leave them alone. It worked for the Jazz, and it’s worked for the Spurs.
The teams have had a strong connection over the years, with similar philosophies and similar situations. Not only did the Jazz hire Lindsey, but the Spurs brought former Jazz coach Jerry Sloan to their training camp last fall.
“There is significant respect between the teams,” says Lindsey. “It’s pretty well documented that when Pop took over in San Antonio as GM, and then as coach two years later, he really admired how Scott (Layden) and (Jerry) Sloan and later Kevin (O’Connor) conducted business — it was a no-nonsense, confidential, work-based organization. There is a certain culture he wanted to instill early on.”
Cheer for the Spurs because their superstar player didn’t go out searching for another team in which to build his own superteam. Duncan has remained with the Spurs since being drafted 16 years ago. David Robinson also remained with the team from start to finish. Parker and Ginobili also seem likely to stick with the Spurs. The Spurs have picked good players and stuck with them and vice versa, with various tweaks to the supporting cast as needed because of age or other considerations (Stephen Jackson, Bruce Bowen, Steve Kerr, Robert Horry, Brent Barry, Steve Smith).
“Instead of looking for answers outside of the walls, like so many teams do, they look at what they can do better with the group they have,” says Lindsey. “Kevin talks about that (regarding) Coach Sloan. He focused on the players he had. He didn’t like trades; he liked continuity.”
A win by the Spurs is a win for the little guys and those who did it the right way. They’re a team to cheer for.
Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. EMAIL: firstname.lastname@example.org