Four years ago, the San Antonio Spurs were supposed to be finished.
Perhaps it was five years ago, or maybe even six; eventually you lose count.
But in 2014, the San Antonio squad officially proved even the most steadfast naysayer wrong. After flirting with championship contention for a while, it finally sealed the deal and carved its name into the history books for a fifth time.
Like any great magic trick, the Spurs' improbable, everlasting dominance has crowds wondering how it could have been done. And like any great magicians, San Antonio's main architects—Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford are hesitant to reveal their secrets.
However, that may be due to the fact that there is no secret pathway to success at all. Looking back, the Spurs found themselves a winning formula and have adapted accordingly to ensure that their prosperity lingers on.
Though the franchise's current nucleus—Tim Duncan and Popovich—has remained consistent since it won its first title in 1999, the surrounding pieces have fluctuated as expected.
The team's previous championship roster prior to 2014 featured just four Spurs who are currently on the squad—Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Matt Bonner.
The rest of the roster has been overhauled completely, with the vast majority of the 2007 players having retired.
But, while losing the majority of your team often indicates the end of an era, San Antonio has managed to revamp and retool throughout the years in order to maintain a strong supporting cast.
While the team's dominance was centered around its Big Three, its bench and role players were monumental, with Kawhi Leonard—a rookie in 2012—having won the Finals MVP trophy.
So how is it, then, that the team maintained a strong roster without making any blockbuster trades or signings?
One facet of the franchise's impressive roster manipulation can be found in its relationship with overseas leagues.
The Spurs have relied on talent from abroad numerous times, with current starter, Tiago Splitter, and 2014 breakout player, Patty Mills, having joined the team after making the journey across the ocean.
While many teams are hesitant to invest in foreign talent, San Antonio has used its expert scouting to find diamonds in the rough, using the draft as a means of stealing elite prospects whose draft stocks have slipped due to a nonexistent commitment to leave their overseas teams.
But, the value that Splitter has amassed, as well as the continued development of Mills and his fellow Aussie-teammate Aron Baynes, serve as a testament to the success of the formula that the team has tried since it nabbed Ginobili in the late second round in 1999: Recruiting overlooked overseas prospects is not only a good way to fill a roster but a good way to find stars that have simply been discounted due to the mere fact that they aren't American.
Additionally, the roster has benefited from management's commitment to maintaining a precise culture and distinct style of play.
While many teams simply search for the best talents in free agency or the draft, the Spurs pick out individuals who fit into their plans.
Ball-movement, three-point shooting, strong defense and high IQ have all been characteristics that define the Spurs each and every year, and rather than picking elite talents when adjusting the roster, San Antonio has added individuals who sport these characteristics.
Danny Green was given his first shot with the Spurs due to his three-point shooting ability and his strong perimeter defense. Likewise, Leonard was touted as a defensive stopper and an intelligent workhorse during the 2012 draft, and with strong intangibles, the Spurs were able to add the man who will one day take over as the face of the franchise.
Both players share a resemblance with Bruce Bowen, one of the best role players on the 2007 team, thus showing that even though the particulars of the roster may be different, its overall composition has changed very minimally.
Additionally, Boris Diaw, one of the best post passers in the league, joined the squad after an embarrassing run with the Charlotte Bobcats, and while being waived by Charlotte is considered by some to be an indication that you've reached rock bottom, Diaw has since become a valuable asset to the Spurs.
Free agent Marco Belinelli, though hardly a big-name addition, fit well with the team's offense and the player and the team benefited mutually as a result.
Though its difficult to maintain consistency over the course of three decades, the Spurs succeeded in committing to a successful formula and simply adding new parts that fit in the gaps left by exiting ones.
Adaptability and Coaching
The other half of the formula revolves around what the Spurs actually do with their players once they bring them on.
Though the Spurs may preach similar sentiments and have the same coach, certain aspects of their play style have changed. While ball movement and strong defense have been consistent features in each incarnation of the team, an overall shift in focus from defense to offense has been evident. The change greatly reflects the Spurs' ability to adapt with the changing times.
In a 2012 column, San Antonio Express News writer, Jeff McDonald covered the team's switch from a defensive juggernaut—the juggernaut responsible for its success prior to the new decade—to an offensive powerhouse—the powerhouse that blew Miami out of the water this season.
From the article:
“You have to score a lot more points now,” Duncan said. “I don't think it's the league of old, where you can score in the 80s and defend your butt off and still win championships.”
That's the reality Popovich has come to accept as he pushes his team to push the pace on offense.
A season after posting a Popovich-era record 103.7 points per game, the Spurs are averaging 101.2 this season, third-most in the league.
Though San Antonio's tenacious defense—led in the post by Splitter and Duncan and along the perimeter by Green and Leonard—played a major role in their success this season, it was hardly the backbone of its team as it had been in the past.
While previous Spurs teams had won titles by holding opponents to 80 points per game, this team executed beautifully on offense and was thus able to outscore opponents en route to a title.
Years ago, people would have laughed to hear that San Antonio would eventually have the best offense in the league. But, with adaptability being so essential for survival, the squad did what was necessary and the rewards were bountiful.
Of course, this change in mindset, along with a large number of the decisions that have paid off for the Spurs, was the brainchild of Popovich, who has recently solidified himself as one the all-time coaching greats.
Over the years, Popovich has masterfully managed his players' minutes, keeping them healthy for the playoffs. For the first time in NBA history, there was a team whose entire roster averaged under 30 minutes during the regular season—a remarkable feat and one that ensured that the Spurs would have the firepower to continue on a long postseason run.
Additionally, the changes that Pop made during the playoffs proved to be monumental, with his decision to play Splitter and Duncan separately having paid off at times as it allowed the Spurs to space the floor against post-dwellers like Serge Ibaka.
However, Pop's greatest characteristic—and the one that played the biggest role—is his ability to get his players to play an unselfish game.
From his stars to his benchwarmers, everyone knows and accepts their role, and they are happy to contribute when they can. Locker room drama never surrounds this team, and the teamwork that results from these good-natured relationships is largely responsible for the ball sharing and focus on team success over individual ones.
Pop can motivate his team like no one else, inspire average players to do great things and stimulate great players to perform like superstars.
With his tutelage, the Spurs have managed to stay relevant, as they will continue to be as long as he is coach.
And when the critics return next season to denounce the Spurs' ability to compete, their words will be empty.
With a proven track record and a winning formula, San Antonio has not only proved that it can compete on an annual basis, but also that it can win, as it did so masterfully and beautifully in 2014.