The 2014 NBA Finals were only the beginning.
Gregg Popovich's San Antonio Spurs have made the most of their time in the spotlight, reminding us how real teams play and how they are built. While the rest of the league preoccupied itself with LeBron James' return to Cleveland and Carmelo Anthony's tour of suitors, the Spurs quietly went about their business.
Tim Duncan decided he had at least one more year of basketball left in his 38-year-old bones, opting into his contract's final year and earning a relatively modest $10.4 million for his trouble.
The organization also reached quick agreements with free agents Patty Mills, Boris Diaw and Matt Bonner. In so doing, it took a significant step toward preserving that corporate knowledge we hear so much about in Spurs circles.
Winning formulas come in several shapes and sizes, but San Antonio's is predicated on the belief that it takes time to learn and execute a system, that doing things the right way doesn't happen overnight.
To that end, retaining old talent may be even more important than acquiring new talent.
That logic likely had plenty to do with the franchise subsequently extending a three-year extension to point guard Tony Parker. The deal—which kicks in following the 2014-15 campaign—is reportedly worth $43.3 million according to Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski. It simultaneously rewards Parker for his career of service without breaking the Spurs' bank in the process.
These kinds of deals have become second nature for general manager R.C. Buford.
So too have savvy draft acquisitions. It should accordingly come as no surprise that Buford and Co. landed what appears to be a perfect fit with 30th-overall selection Kyle Anderson. The UCLA product has already drawn comparisons to Diaw on account of his size and playmaking abilities.
Anderson may not have many early opportunities to prove his worth, but odds are he finds his way into the rotation once some of the club's more veteran contributors move on.
No splashes. No theatrics. No drama.
Just smart, professional team-building.
To appreciate this franchise's approach, it's worth contrasting it with that of a nearby rival. Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey spent his summer chasing stars Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh, ultimately missing out on both. In the interest of preserving the flexibility for future star-chasing, he also opted not to match the Dallas Mavericks' offer to emergent forward Chandler Parsons.
Though Houston stopped the bleeding with the acquisition of Trevor Ariza, there's little doubt Morey's club has taken a marked step back this summer—perhaps losing ground to the very Mavericks who stole Parsons.
San Antonio's star power—such as it is—never had to be persuaded by elaborate recruiting. Duncan, Parker and sixth man Manu Ginobili were all drafted by the organization. Though San Antonio got lucky with Duncan, Parker was taken with the 28th overall pick in 2001.
Ginobili was drafted 57th in 1999.
Rising star Kawhi Leonard was a draft-day acquisition, resulting from a rare trade that sent team favorite George Hill back home to Indiana in exchange for Leonard—the 15th overall selection.
But for their pursuit of Pau Gasol this summer, the Spurs were otherwise content to deploy the same troops who won a championship just months ago.
San Antonio's biggest moves impacted the coaching ranks more than the roster.
In addition to Popovich accepting a contraction extension, the Spurs added two new assistants to a staff that already included the accomplished likes of Jim Boylen, Ime Udoka, Chip Engelland, Chad Forcier and Sean Marks.
The team first added four-time Euroleague champion and two-time Euroleague Coach of the Year Ettore Messina.
"I am honored to have such an accomplished individual join our program," Popovich said in the team statement on NBA.com. "Coach Messina is an exceptional coach, a great leader and someone we can all learn from."
More recently, San Antonio hired former WNBA star Becky Hammon, making her just the second female to serve as a coach in the NBA—the first to be hired on a full-time basis.
"Obviously this is a big deal, but the bigger deal is, I feel like there's been greater pioneers to even get to this point," Hammon said per CBSSports.com's Ken Berger. "CEOs, COOs of companies, major trailblazers, people that went before me basketball-wise to allow me to have a 16-year playing career. ... There have been so many other women who have been doing really great things."
She added, "Coach Pop has made it very clear to me that I'm being hired because of my basketball IQ and because I'm qualified. It just so happens that I'm a woman."
With European and WNBA legends now working alongside Popovich, the franchise's commitment to fresh perspectives seems beyond reproach. SB Nation's J. Gomez writes:
These moves only corroborate the Spurs' well-earned reputation as the most innovative team in the league. San Antonio hasn't cared about nationality for a while when it comes to players and now that philosophy extends to coaching candidates. And gender didn't stop them from signing someone whom they had worked with before and thought was qualified. The Spurs are actively making a difference in the way the league deals with groups that have traditionally been ignored.
Appropriate given that the Spurs themselves are regularly ignored until their results rip headlines away from more star-studded counterparts.
San Antonio will gladly trade the media attention for a record of consistent success that's virtually unparalleled in the modern era. The franchise's leadership has spawned numerous attempts at imitation.
Front-office personnel like Sam Presti, Dennis Lindsey and Danny Ferry have all gone on to manage clubs of their own. Former assistants Mike Budenholzer and Brett Brown now coach the Atlanta Hawks and Philadelphia 76ers, respectively.
Messina or Hammon could certainly be next.
But for all the trendsetting at the top levels of the organization, it's ultimately the on-court play that's captured the imaginations of fans league-wide.
The selflessness and discipline that defines San Antonio's approach proved more than enough to compensate for the Miami Heat's superior star power. Popovich's club redefined what it means to have a deep rotation en route to the most democratized ensemble championship in recent memory.
Those tangible results stem in large part from a sense of professionalism and loyalty rarely seen in a league that's all about its financial bottom lines and individual accolades. Plenty of PR-savvy stars have learned to talk the talk, but San Antonio's personnel consistently walk the walk.
The Spurs' collective resilience improbably kept them in the title conversation after a debilitating collapse in the 2013 Finals. There was no talk of blowing things up, no mention of Tony Parker or Kawhi Leonard preferring the opportunity to chase a title with a younger, more asset-rich team.
No sudden bouts of homesickness.
Instead, San Antonio came together in a bid to finish what it started. And it paid off in a big way.
A return to those lofty heights won't be easy, not with the Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers awaiting their respective turns at greatness. Not with the Dallas Mavericks making substantial offseason strides. The Western Conference is as crowded as ever, and the Spurs will be tested accordingly.
Whatever next season's outcome, rest assured San Antonio will remain the envy of the NBA. It consistently puts itself in a position to be successful, doing things the right way through thick and thin.
This summer was no different.
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