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San Antonio Spurs Keeping 2014 Title Team Together Is Greatest Victory Yet

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistOctober 7, 2014

SAN ANTONIO, TX - JUNE 15: Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs directs his team in a huddle during Game Five of the 2014 NBA Finals against the Miami Heat at AT&T Center on June 15, 2014 in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
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SAN ANTONIO — There are corners of this league that refute the San Antonio Spurs' dynastic credentials on the basis of one—perhaps not so minor—detail.

They've yet to win back-to-back championships.

"I wouldn't call San Antonio a dynasty—a force, a great force," New York Knicks president Phil Jackson explained to reporters in April. "They haven't been able to win consecutive championships, but they've always been there."

But after winning five titles since 1999, the pressure apparently hasn't gotten to head coach Gregg Popovich.

"Why haven't we repeated? Because we haven't," Popovich said at the team's media day in late September. "If we do, it'd be great. If we don't, life will go on, and everything's cool."

It's the no-frills attitude we've come to expect from an organization that steadfastly resists any temptation to engage in media-driven narratives. 

And yet, there's little doubt this team continues to aim high. It may even have what it takes to silence those quibbles over the historic importance of repeating as champions.

Somehow—and in spite of Tim Duncan turning 38 in April—the Spurs seem to have discovered their collective prime, winning the 2014 Finals by a record 14.5 points per contest. So the big reason for optimism going into 2014-15 is that this roster is virtually identical to the one that decimated the Miami Heat

If that roster was good enough to best a four-time MVP and his two All-Star cohorts, it's hard to put a ceiling on what it may do this time.

"It'll be fun to have everybody back here and start up where we left off," Duncan said at media day. "That'll be a huge boost for us in terms of not having to get reacclimated with whose role is what...and everything else. I think that brings a comfort level for us and for Pop and for everyone."

SAN ANTONIO, TX - JUNE 15: Tim Duncan #21 and Head Coach Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs celebrates after winning the NBA Championship against the Miami Heat during Game Five of the 2014 NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs at A
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

The reunion tour almost never got off the ground. With Duncan's option to play this season briefly looming over San Antonio's offseason plans, there was initially some speculation the 17-year veteran might call it quits and go out on top.

Apparently, that speculation was well-founded.

"There was some hesitation there," Duncan conceded.

"It came down to, I'm not going to be able to do this again," he added. "So as long as I'm feeling I can [play], and I feel good about it, this is where I want to be."

Maybe the opportunity to claim that elusive repeat championship had a little something to do with it, too. Either way, the Spurs will take it.

Duncan's decision to stay kicked off a summer in which the organization also inked Popovich and six-time All-Star Tony Parker to multiyear extensions. General manager R.C. Buford also reached agreements with free agents Boris Diaw, Patty Mills and Aron Baynes.

If there is indeed a championship sequel in the making, it'll be produced by a familiar cast and crew.

This summer's only roster change was the addition of rookie Kyle Anderson, drafted out of UCLA with the 30th overall pick. And while Mills' return to the floor will be delayed as he recovers from offseason shoulder surgery, the Spurs should—if healthy—enter the 2015 playoffs with the same formula that worked so well in 2014. 

While the organization briefly chased free agent Pau Gasol—who eventually signed with the Chicago Bulls—this summer, it's otherwise proved more or less content to work with the same principles and personnel that got it this far.

It's a microcosm of the philosophy the Spurs have long held under the Popovich-Buford regime—a philosophy Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti internalized while working in San Antonio's front office.

SAN ANTONIO, TX - May 8:   R.C. Buford receives the NBA Executive of the Year award before before the San Antonio Spurs Game Two of the Western Conference Semifinals against the Portland Trail Blazers at AT&T Center on May 8, 2014 in San Antonio, Texas. N
D. Clarke Evans/Getty Images

"Continuity has become a lost currency," Presti explained to The Associated Press' Cliff Brunt in September, via the San Antonio Express-News (subscription required). "It's very hard to maintain that, given the rules. You're going to lose players, there's going to be changes. I think how you adapt to that, how you're able to absorb loss, but also add without having to lose players, is important."

The shared familiarity among San Antonio's players and staff preserves a measure of connectivity, an ever-growing—and mutual—understanding of jobs, personalities and expectations. It's the kind of intangible chemistry or culture that transcends on-paper measures of a team's talent.

And it's a virtue the Spurs take very seriously.

So seriously, in fact, that they're devising ways to institutionalize it when the day comes for key personnel—e.g. Popovich or Duncan—to move on.

According to ESPN.com's Marc Stein, Buford has solicited the assistance of "former Chelsea Football Club executive and noted sports science expert Mike Forde" to do just that.

"He's helping me verbalize some ideas and processes and giving our group a platform to build on our corporate knowledge," Buford told Stein in June. "We're trying to capture as much of our corporate knowledge as we can so we can try to carry it forward when the real linchpins of our corporate knowledge...if and when they aren't with us."

In the meantime, the mission is to maintain the status quo and keep this tightly knit crew together.

Preserving a championship-winning roster in its entirety is only the latest sign of that mission's efficacy. 

With 118 postseason victories to their names, the trio of Duncan, Parker and 12-year veteran Manu Ginobili surpassed Los Angeles Lakers Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Cooper (110 wins) as the winningest Big Three in playoff history last season. 

SAN ANTONIO, TX - JUNE 15: Tony Parker #9 ,  Tim Duncan #21 and Manu Ginobili #20 of the San Antonio Spurs pose for a picture against the Miami Heat during Game Five of the 2014 NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs at AT&T Center on Jun
Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

That's an obscenely successful track record, but it also speaks to the value of avoiding unnecessary change.

There have been any number of junctures at which the organization could have altered course. Six seasons passed between San Antonio's 2007 title and its long-awaited encore performance. Two of those seasons—in 2009 and 2011—ended with opening-round defeats.

Some franchises might have interpreted those off years as signs of imminent demise.

The Spurs doubled down.

Despite the commitment to continuity, San Antonio elected to trade beloved guard George Hill to the Indiana Pacers in a draft-night deal that landed 15th overall pick Kawhi Leonard—a particularly prescient move in light of the 23-year-old's Finals MVP award in June.

Around the margins, there were other adjustments. Buford and Co. allowed sharpshooter Gary Neal to walk via free agency in 2013, ultimately replacing him with Marco Belinelli.

Broadly speaking, though, the Spurs never panicked—and it paid off.

Perhaps it will pay off again in 2015.