More often than not, irrespective of league or level, the end of a sports season amounts to nothing more or less than the triumph of one over all the rest.
Every now and again, however, a team’s march to the mountaintop is so decisive—so convincing in both form and function—that the sport itself is transformed.
Babe Ruth’s New York Yankees. The 1999 St. Louis Rams. The Edmonton Oilers of Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier.
Whether they won one or a dynasty's worth of titles, sport’s most memorable squads are the ones who change the way the game is played.
The 2013-14 San Antonio Spurs just joined that list—the vanguard of a bona fide basketball revolution finally free of exile.
The only question now is, who, if anyone, will follow them?
All the same, there’s a fine line between trumpeting a team’s style and—after going from merely describing its beauty to prescribing its tenets—cheapening the process. These Spurs didn’t merely stumble on their blueprint, they honed it over years, the heat of the floor their hellish forge.
And while the roots of San Antonio’s attack may have been the Big Fundamental’s block-bound footwork, Tim Duncan’s growth into a mere gear in the gestalt has been as important as any other single factor in his team’s aesthetic endgame.
Between the three of them, Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili boast 39 years of combined experience. In terms of institutional knowledge—of a trillion trials and errors—no other NBA team can even compete.
How, exactly, does one go about replicating that?
Which is to say San Antonio’s system goes well beyond both the X’s and O’s and the Jims and Joes. It’s about a franchise finding its philosophical footing both between and beyond the lines that mark the hardwood.
Failing into arguably the greatest power forward to ever bounce a ball helps—no doubt about that. But it’s how the Spurs treated that luck, how they appreciated it for the basketball blessing it was and is, that proved the potion behind the poetry.
The easy part is watching San Antonio dismantle the Miami Heat and conclude, “More teams should pass like the Spurs.”
To have a core trio willing to take a pay cut; to target talent ripe with the seeds of selflessness; to nurture a worldview where what’s happening on courts in other countries is worth paying attention to?
That’s the hard part.
San Antonio’s small-market status makes their feat all the more mind-blowing. Justifying cap-crossing paydays for pedestrian talent carries little consequence when you’re wooing a few million moneyed Manhattanites.
Cut those corners out where cattle skulls line the houses and highways, you’ll be lucky to lure fans enough to make George Gervin Bobblehead Night a hit.
Owner Peter Holt and general manager R.C. Buford figure mightily into the Spurs’ success, of course. Whole boardrooms would betray the brains between the two.
But if San Antonio boasts one thing that no other NBA team could ever deign to duplicate, it’s the unparalleled coaching genius of Gregg Popovich.
Fans are, by now, familiar at least with the facade—the snarky sarcasm foisted upon wholly suspecting sideline reporters in the form of five-word answers. What few appreciate, however, is the point Pop’s interviews prove: Understanding the madness to his method means not watching and hearing, but seeing and listening.
Popovich understands quite clearly how quickly the game gets steeped in sound bytes. In being evasive, he’s begging you, the viewer, to stop relying on canned cliches and start seeing the strategic forest for the trees.
Try as you might, you’ll never reassemble the broken mold that is Coach Pop. But lest you believe San Antonio’s execution is the product of some Stalinist system, the San Antonio Express-News’ Jeff McDonald offers up this sordid little secret from the man himself:
Sometimes in timeouts I'll say, 'I've got nothing for you. What do you want me to do? We just turned it over six times. Everybody's holding the ball. What else do you want me to do here? Figure it out. And I'll get up and walk away. Because it's true. There's nothing else I can do for them. I can give them some bulls---, and act like I'm a coach or something, but it's on them.
In fact, San Antonio’s offense has become so metabolically ingrained in its practitioners' systems that, as the Express-News’ Dan McCarney acknowledged at the beginning of the season, even Popovich’s plays have morphed from a matter of memory into one of intuition:
Interestingly, a player said recently that the Spurs have actually simplified their playbook in that span, even as they’ve become more balanced and diversified. Rather than call plays every trip down court, the Spurs use a handful of base sets, with the freedom to break them off at any point in order to exploit an immediate weakness rather than run them to completion by rote.
Describing Popovich as a “general commanding his troops” completely misses the point. He’s merely the muse, the sensible siren whose songs steer the ships clear of the cliffs and toward the tactical terra firma beyond. However occasionally harsh and insult-laden they may be.
San Antonio’s success isn’t about championing a particular style or system. It’s about cultivating a culture wherein “the system” is given a chance to grow organically.
As such, the Spurs of 10 years ago are not the Spurs we watched unleash holy hardwood hellfire on the Miami Heat. Some common elements remain—the will, the heart and the brain, to give the Hall of Fame trio its due—but the attendant cells, the pieces beneath the pieces, are routinely regenerated.
Think of all the famous basketball systems. The triangle. The Princeton. The spread pick-and-role. That San Antonio has avoided these and other labels reveals how revolutionary its offense really is. For the Spurs, there’s no need to name what should be the all-too-obvious goal: playing the best possible basketball.
As a concept, "hitting the open man" is as old as nylon shoelaces. San Antonio simply takes it more to heart than everyone else. It's not what they do; it's who they are.
Can that kind of perspective be replicated? Certainly. But if other teams believe taking San Antonio’s template means making off with a bagful of basketball buzzwords, there’s bound to be one and only one result: a tale told by idiots, full of extra passes and turnovers, signifying nothing.