April 7, 2014

SHATZMAN | With One Broken Foot, The Spurs Began 17 Years of Domination

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When the final buzzer sounds on the 2013-14 NBA regular season, it will mark the 17th consecutive playoff berth for the San Antonio Spurs. Over the course of those 17 seasons, the Spurs’ lowest win percentage was .610 when they finished 50-32 in 2010. How atrocious. Their 17 straight years of glory have included four championships, multiple MVP and Coach of the Year awards, scores of All-Star selections and a general supreme reign over the Association. The nearly two-decade run that the Spurs are on will go down as one of the most incredible stretches of dominance in all of professional sports. The Spurs are an epic dynasty, and their success over the last 20 years can be largely attributed to one broken foot.

San Antonio had high hopes heading into the 1996 season. Led by one of the most talented big-men of his time, David Robinson, the Spurs were on track to compete for a title. Just six games into the season, though, Robinson broke his foot, shattering all hope for a deep playoff run. However, Robinson’s foot has proven to be one of the most important feet in sports history. The team won just three of its first 18 games, leading General Manager Gregg Popovich to fire coach Bob Hill and replace him with none other than himself. The Spurs finished 20-62 and ultimately won the draft lottery, and, as legend has it, selected Wake Forest graduate, seven-footer Tim Duncan. And that was that. The following season was 97-98. Since then, the Spurs have been, you know, kind of good at playing basketball.

There may be nothing more fitting about San Antonio’s rise to greatness than the first overall selection in the 1997 draft falling into the hands of Coach Popovich prior to his first full season, for he and Tim Duncan have had a seventeen-year relationship unlike many player-coach duos in professional sports.

Popovich is known for his knowledge of the game, professionalism and player evaluation, among many other success-breeding attributes. The last of the three refers not only to judging talent and potential, rather to Pop’s unwillingness to allow any players other than high-character, hard-working guys who possess an unquenchable thirst for both learning and achieving greatness to put on a Spurs’ uniform. Tim Duncan epitomizes this.

Coach Pop knew what he was getting when the Spurs selected Duncan first overall in 1997. Tim Duncan could have entered the NBA after his freshman year at Wake Forest. Many basketball players with his skill did so then and continue to do so today. But Duncan was different. What Gregg Popovich breeds, Duncan was already becoming as a teenager. As his mother was dying from breast cancer, she made her three children promise to finish college with a degree. Only fourteen-years-old at the time, Tim Duncan, who already had a bright athletic future, promised his mother he would graduate with a degree, just days before she died.

He followed through and in 1997, after three years of turning down the lavish life of an NBA star, he received his degree from Wake Forest University. Some call it destiny, but it is hard to believe that there could not have been a more appropriate scenario than for Duncan and Popovich to join forces in San Antonio.

In San Antonio, the rest is history. The Spurs went on to draft two foreign players, Manu Ginobili in 1999 and Tony Parker in 2001. The two guards, along with Duncan, made up the post-David Robinson “Big Three” in San Antonio, and just as Robinson and Duncan — the “Twin Towers” — led the Spurs to two titles, the Big Three won two more in ’05 and ’07, and were one Ray Allen trey from defeating the Heat in the 2013 Finals.

Now Duncan, Parker, and Ginobli are all 30-plus years old, and while some has changed in San Antonio, much remains the same. Timmy D is years removed from playing 40-plus minutes a night in the regular season and takes far fewer shots than in past seasons, but come playoff time, he will play big minutes and will be the go-to-guy. He needn’t exhaust himself during the 82 game regular season. Maybe it would be a different story if the Spurs were fighting to make the playoffs, but, as they generally do, the Spurs sit atop the Western Conference standings. With a handful of games remaining, they are, believe it or not, on pace to have the highest winning percentage in the Popovich-era, in what is among the most competitive, talent-filled leagues in years. The faces around the Big Three change season to season, but that is inherent in professional sports. The difference in San Antonio is that the new faces all fit Gregg Popovich’s standards for playing ball for the Spurs. No team plays “team basketball” like the Spurs. Some players may not have survived one season in the league on other teams, but have had successful careers for the Spurs. Think Danny Green. Think Boris Diaw. They have both thrived in San Antonio, because they fit well in the Popovich system.

Only time will tell when the Spurs’ legendary run will come to an end, but for now the Spurs are a favorite to win the championship this June. They just win basketball games and play basketball the “right way”, because the Popovich way is the right way.

Even David Robinson would admit, his broken foot was a gift from the basketball gods.