When the great scorer comes to write against the San Antonio Spurs, he’ll mark how Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and David Robinson both won and played the game—greatness personified with picks and pops, cuts and catch-and-shoots.
Seldom, however, have we given much shrift to the footnotes of San Antonio’s quiet dynasty: those manifold role players who helped grease the wheels of greatness.
Because without the Kawhi Leonards and Jaren Jacksons, the Marco Belinellis and Sean Elliotts, the four banners and beautiful basketball—gleaming totems of a 15-year golden age—may have never been.
For the Spurs, depth isn’t merely a byproduct of how they play. It’s essential to who they are.
Fans are no doubt familiar with what’s become a seeming rite of the NBA season: Popovich opting to rest his stars—often in “big” games—to better prepare them for the playoff grind.
That may be the motive everyone talks about, but it’s part and parcel with Pop’s goal of getting everybody, from Duncan to Austin Daye, locked and loaded and prepared to play at a moment’s notice.
This year was no exception: According to HoopsStats.com, the Spurs’ bench finished in the top 10 in points (36.1—10th), field-goal percentage (45 percent—fourth), assists (10.2—first) and—most crucial of all—minutes (19.1—seventh).
Thanks in large part to their ultra-steady reserves, the Spurs appear poised to blaze yet another path to the NBA Finals—this one past the relatively top-heavy Oklahoma City Thunder.
And while the names and faces have changed, San Antonio’s propensity for deep, talent-laden benches is almost as old as its taste for championship gold.
During the 1998-99 season, the first of San Antonio’s title runs, names of veteran ballers abound, with Elliott (30), Steve Kerr (33), Mario Elie (35), Jerome Kersey (36) and Will Perdue (33) each contributing their share of makes and moxie.
Four years later, it was Kevin Willis (40), Steve Smith (33) and Danny Ferry (36) there to bolster the Spurs’ burgeoning core, which by then included a 20-year-old Tony Parker and a 25-year-old Manu Ginobili.
The 2007 banner-hangers saw Brent Barry (35), Michael Finley (33) and Robert Horry (36) lending their long-range strokes and proven savvy to help upend the comparably pugnacious Cleveland Cavaliers, led by a 22-year-old LeBron James, in the finals.
The stock may be younger, but this year’s role players have proved equally critical, with Danny Green (26), Belinelli (27), Patty Mills (25) and Boris Diaw (33) providing the potent punch.
For the Spurs, minutes management is as much a science as their brand of basketball is an art. More importantly, it plays into a strategy far more precise than the casual fan may realize, as Bleacher Report’s Stephen Babb recently explored:
Notions that starters alone can carry a team during the postseason are becoming increasingly antiquated. Those starters are playing in the wake of a grueling 82-game season. Many of them then go on to endure protracted first-round series. By this point in the postseason, a little extra rest certainly isn't going to hurt anyone.
In this instance, however, the logic goes beyond securing rest for the starters. Popovich's bench is a strategic tool. It's a means to secure advantageous matchups, a way to inject energy into games, a mechanism that forces opposing defenses to make adjustments.
Equally praiseworthy has been Pop’s ability to nurture his talent without fostering a sense of entitlement, of teaching without coming off as preaching—something he underscored with typical aplomb following a win over the Cleveland Cavaliers this season. From Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News:
A lot depends on the competitiveness and the character of the player. Often times, I’ll appeal to that. Like, I can’t make every decision for you. I don’t have 14 timeouts. You guys got to get together and talk. You guys might see a mismatch that I don’t see. You guys need to communicate constantly — talk, talk, talk to each other about what’s going on on the court.
I think that communication thing really helps them. It engenders a feeling that they can actually be in charge. I think competitive character people don’t want to be manipulated constantly to do what one individual wants them to do. It’s a great feeling when players get together and do things as a group. Whatever can be done to empower those people…
Empowerment. It’s why Ginobili—a top-five shooting guard for well over a decade—has remained wholly amenable to coming off the bench.
It’s why Leonard seems to perpetually scratch the surface of greatness without having the weight of expectations become too burdensome. Although, rest assured, that greatness is coming.
It’s why former All-Stars and title-team starters like Smith and Kerr can be brought aboard and plugged in so seamlessly you’d think they’d been there all along.
Considered in sum, the Spurs have become a team for whom “serenity and stability,” in the words of ESPN.com’s Kevin Arnovitz, “emerged as the organization's defining qualities from the top down.”
In his stellar synopsis of San Antonio’s peerless consistency, Arnovitz highlights the team’s uncanny ability to not dole out roles, but to assure they’re the right roles for that particular player—nay, that person.
As the team’s core ages and inevitably atrophies, those niches necessarily become even more defined and refined, more specialized without being constrictive.
This year’s Spurs include 12 players who logged more than 500 minutes, and nine tallied over 1,000. And yet, when push comes to playoff shove, Matt Bonner and Cory Joseph are unlikely, if ever, to hear their numbers called.
But those minutes are worth far more than what was or wasn’t reflected in the box score—each one being another spell for the stars, every practice matchup yielding more than mere sweat. Because, with this team, minutes have always been more about the how than the who; the process behind them, not the person filling them.
Because, when it comes to these San Antonio Spurs, there’s no such thing as garbage time.