The only thing harder than beating the San Antonio Spurs is copying them.
To understand why, we have to deconstruct the Spurs' model, reverse-engineering it to reveal the inimitable pieces and people that make it so special.
We'll start in the present, with the Spurs enjoying yet another post-title afterglow.
They knocked off the Miami Heat to win their fifth ring this past June, and they did it by moving the ball, sacrificing minutes and shots for the good of the team and adopting a collective, team-first approach we simply haven't seen in modern NBA history.
Part of the lesson that we proved when we won and what San Antonio proved was that it wasn’t [Tim] Duncan getting that last-minute hoop. It was Patty Mills and Danny Green. Anybody was in a position to contribute. Manu Giniboli didn’t have a great last series, he did against us, but not afterwards. They were a good team. They moved the ball and got the open shot and they were smart. Literally in the Finals Patty Mills is sprinting up and hitting pull-up threes. It was almost like Nellie-ball. The lesson there isn’t can just one guy carry the load, but it’s can one team carry the load.
OK, sure. The first step in emulating the Spurs is to assemble a team loaded with selfless talent and devoid of ego.
Let's say you find those kinds of players—role-fillers like Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard and Patty Mills—all of whom were integral to San Antonio's most recent ring.
And let's say you assemble them around stars like Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili who don't act like stars at all—guys who contentedly sit on the bench in crunch time if their unsung backups are performing well—regardless of the stakes.
Let's say you find all of those guys.
You're still nowhere close to duplicating the Spurs' blueprint because you don't have their system in place.
We're already entering complicated territory because the Spurs don't have a system—not in the conventional sense, anyway.
We understand how they play: extra passes, constant player movement, loads of pick-and-rolls and repeated side-to-side swings to attack shifting defenses. But it's not like San Antonio has a playbook that lends itself to being copied.
Before the 2013-14 season, Dan McCarney of Spurs Nation wrote:
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.
Even if you somehow nailed down San Antonio's current offensive system, you'd only have a tiny shred of what makes the Spurs stylistically successful.
The past 15 years reveal the surprising truth that San Antonio isn't a system team at all. It has evolved, adding and subtracting parts of its scheme to figure out the smartest ways to play before anyone else catches on.
The emphasis on the corner three, heavier use of the pick-and-roll, short rotations to preserve an aging roster—all Spurs innovations.
Remember, San Antonio used to grind it out on offense and stifle teams on the other end because it worked best with past personnel. That approach changed over time to maximize the talent on the roster and exploit trends the league hadn't yet figured out—probably because the Spurs started them.
San Antonio's stylistic blueprint isn't inked on paper. It changes from year to year. You can't copy a system so fluid.
For the sake of argument, let's say you could find the players you need and implement the ever-changing system that would make them successful. Even then, you're still miles away from being the Spurs because you don't have the man who leads them.
You don't have Gregg Popovich.
He's the guy pulling the strings, motivating players like Parker, Duncan and Ginobili who have nothing left to prove. He's the guy emboldening young talent just as effectively.
Popovich has cornered the market on tough love. He respects his players, but not automatically. His approval has to be earned, and not just once.
He can scream at Duncan, an all-time great, then shout at Mills, a player who nearly washed out of the NBA before finding salvation with the Spurs.
Pop marries a no-nonsense attitude with a smirk, subtly assuring every student that what he's saying matters more than the brusque way he's saying it.
And that shifting system? That's all Pop, too.
Former assistant Brett Brown spoke with Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.com about this in June:
He's changed ever since I was with him. Every year was different. He took the strengths he had and he changed over the years from a post-up team with David and Timmy, to an isolation team with Manu [Ginobili], to a pick-and-roll team with Tony [Parker], to this now hybrid Euro-ball that's on hyperspeed. But always with the same foundation of defense and accountability and responsibility and teamwork.
Popovich figures out the smartest way to win and implements it, often putting aside his own ego to crowdsource solutions. The Spurs' end-of-season retreats are legendary for their egalitarian brainstorming, and those pow-wows regularly result in tearing up old plans and drawing new ones.
Let's say you somehow found another Popovich, implausible as it sounds. Even then, you're still a few steps short of emulating the Spurs because you lack the franchise stability that allowed Pop to become who he is.
For all of San Antonio's changing styles on the court, it is a predictable organization off it.
Current general manager R.C. Buford started with the team in 1988 as an assistant coach. When Peter Holt bought the team in 1994, he hired Popovich to be the GM. Pop summarily hired Buford back from the Los Angeles Clippers.
Those three have now been running the Spurs together for 20 years, and no other NBA franchise even comes close to that level of stability.
For reference, Erik Spoelstra is the league's second-longest-tenured coach, a mere 12 years behind Popovich.
That firm foundation is what allowed Popovich to make so many changes without fear of reprisal. It's what gave Buford the confidence to take risks on international scouting, to draft players nobody had ever heard of, to sign castoffs everybody had given up on.
It's what made trusting the process an option in a league that so often puts the value on immediate result.
That stability extends to the roster as well.
"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," wrote Bleacher Report's Jim Cavan.
Let's say you had stability like that—top to bottom, inside and out. Even then, the key ingredient is still missing.
The Lucky Break
You still don't have Duncan.
His unquestioned on-court greatness, complete lack of ego and willingness to listen allowed everything else to fall into place around him. You can't get another Duncan because another one doesn't exist. Superstars of his quality inherently change the way their teams play.
Duncan's willingness to change his own game—to fill in the gaps and play in whatever fashion makes winning easiest—makes him unique among superstars.
At the bottom of it all, beneath the personnel, system, coach and staff, the Spurs have Duncan. And do you know what it took for them to get him?
If not for an injury that knocked David Robinson out for the season before the 1997 draft, San Antonio wouldn't have been in a position to get him. It still took the Boston Celtics' own bad fortune—they had the best odds of landing the top pick—for Duncan to fall to San Antonio.
And if you have any doubts about Duncan, the luckiest of lucky breaks, being the key figure in San Antonio, consider what Holt told ESPN.com's Marc Stein: "I'm lucky to work for him."
Buford added, "The truth is we all work for Timmy."
Good luck finding another franchise cornerstone like that.
The Impossible Dream
The Spurs can't be emulated. They're a perfect storm of unique components held together by unparalleled leaders. Their style on the court is merely a product of countless factors, all of them singular and extraordinary.
That hasn't stopped teams from trying, though.
The Philadelphia 76ers are doing their best to strike gold in the lottery, though their allegedly deliberate attempts to bottom out are a little different than San Antonio's unanticipated slip in 1997. The Sixers are trying to do on purpose what the Spurs did by chance.
It's also interesting to note that Philadelphia has Brown, a Pop disciple, at the helm. It also features a forward-thinking GM in Sam Hinkie and new, stable ownership that has the patience to play the long game.
Philly is years away, but you can see what it's trying to do.
Elsewhere, teams are stealing scraps. Indirectly, every instance of tanking is a ploy to land the next Duncan.
Mike Budenholzer (another Popovich protege) has the Atlanta Hawks taking a ton of threes—a strategy the Spurs pioneered over a decade ago. Similarly, the pick-and-roll is everywhere now, and we should expect contending teams to copy San Antonio's liberal rest policy for their stars this season.
But that's about it. In terms of wholesale emulations, nobody's even close.
That's because it's too hard. It takes time, one-of-a-kind personalities and a whole lot of luck.
The takeaway, then, must be this: Enjoy the Spurs now, because unless a team like the Sixers stuns everyone, we're never going to see them again.
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