While the NBA seems to value parity and league-wide equality more than other professional sports leagues, every so often the best players in the game team up, forming powerful “super teams.” If you look back at such teams — the Bulls of the ‘90s and the Showtime Lakers of the ‘80s come to mind — you’ll see that oftentimes they had no real competition. No one could take down Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman nor Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and James Worthy.
In this decade, something has changed. The top of the NBA is constantly competitive, heck, we’ve seen five different league championships over the past six years. And the competitiveness is mainly manifested in one team, one organization that can constantly level the playing field against super teams. While their wins are impressive, the real beauty of them, however, is just how they do it. Instead of focusing on individual play, isolation ball and the glitz and glamour of amazing dunks, they concentrate solely on the principles of winning and playing the game the way it was fundamentally meant to be played — with teamwork.
With their unmatched understanding of the game as their biggest weapon, this franchise has beaten some of greatest teams of this century, if not all time. Just this year, they put up one of the best regular season records ever, yet got overshadowed by the flashy 73-9 (and eventual Finals runner-up) Warriors. They are every super teams’ kryptonite and worst nightmare. They are the San Antonio Spurs.
When the NBA was founded, teams focused on performing on the court first and financial compensation later. Players were paid so little that money often wasn’t a bargaining chip in negotiations. But now, in an era of nine-digit contracts and TV deals with money amounts that start with a “B,” teams across the league simply need to focus more on raw revenue. To get fans into seats every night, front offices sign players that can please onlookers by packing the stat sheet and not necessarily the win column.
Michael Jordan once said, “Some people want it to happen, some wish it would happen, others make it happen.” And for the past 20 years, the Spurs have been making it happen. In addition to winning five championships (fourth-most in league history), maintaining the highest team winning percentage ever and holding a winning regular season record over every other active team, the Spurs are title contenders every year — solely because of their system and how they execute it.
And although it’s hard to believe, one of the main reasons for their success is that they don’t necessarily look for the best players. As of now, they have only had eight Hall of Fame players, and most of them spent their prime with another team. But their ability to identify the best players for their team is off the charts. The Spurs drafted the cornerstones of their franchise: past, present and future. When they do dip their toe into the free agent pool, they always find players willing to check their ego at the door and do their job for Gregg Popovich.
In their 2014 championship season, no Spurs player averaged more than 30 minutes a game. In the Finals, they played a super Heat team with three All-Stars in their prime — LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh — while two of the Spurs best players, 37-year-old Tim Duncan and 31-year-old Tony Parker, were plagued with injury throughout the season.
Against LeBron James’ Heat — a group that was anticipated to become the next great league dynasty — the “old and lethargic” veteran Spurs team slowly but surely carved up Miami’s defense, with pass after pass after beautiful pass until they had slain the Heat juggernaut in the Finals.
As a Lakers fan, I detest the Spurs. But as much as I hate that black and silver, they’re the team I respect the most. There’s a certain beauty in the way they play basketball. If you want to see the high-flying dunks and show-off moves, then maybe watch other teams. But if you want to watch a group of players that understands the purest form of basketball and uses teamwork as their best weapon, then watch San Antonio. Great players come and go, but great principles and systems are forever.
With the recent signing of Kevin Durant, the Golden State Warriors have just formed the newest NBA super team. As they trot out the latest rendition of the NBA apocalypse, they will almost definitely be favored in every game they play. But look out, because predictions and stats and personalities can be deceiving. Watch carefully those contests between the Warriors and the black and silver this year — the Spurs may just have the answer to the Golden State riddle.