“It felt strange.”
This was the reaction of most basketball fans when Tony Parker first wore an NBA uniform which did not have “Spurs” on it.
Parker was drafted by the San Antonio Spurs in 2001, 29th overall as a 19-year old French professional player. While they were not, by any chance, the pioneers of the European revolution in the NBA, they did sway the curiosity of the rest of the NBA scouts in the years to come.
The best model is success
Tony Parker’s first year out of a Spurs uniform is also his first time to miss the playoffs. In a league where 14 out of 30 teams, almost half the league, will fail to make the post season, the streak of making the playoffs for 22 straight years is absolutely incredible.
Sure, the Philadelphia 76ers, dating back to when they were the Syracuse Nationals also had 22 years of playoff participation, but making the playoffs with just 8 teams in the league is not the same as for 30 teams. There are just four teams in your division and only the worst gets eliminated.
The Spurs have survived retirements, season-ending injuries, free agency transfers and whatever transpired with Kawhi Leonard. All of these are part of professional sports, and while any of the above incidents could be a valid excuse for missing the post-season for other teams, the Spurs have risen above that standard.
Former Philadelphia 76ers GM Sam Hinkie was known to have coined the term, “The Process,” which merely abused the draft system of rewarding the worst records. The Sixers put on a brazen tanking strategy to get the best draft picks. The NBA Commissioner hated him for it, and Hinkie eventually lost his job. But his vision has come into fruition.
The Sixers are now a playoff team, an actual contender build behind The Process’ direct fruits, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. This has led other teams–the Suns, Lakers, Knicks, Magic, Hawks among others, to conclude that tanking is necessary.
Which proves that the San Antonio Spurs are true geniuses—an outlier from the rest of the NBA. There is a debate on whether they tanked in 1997, the draft that got them Tim Duncan. That is an entire column in itself, but even if they did, 1997 is a long time ago. They haven’t missed the playoffs even after Duncan retired.
The Spurs have never had one lottery pick since Tim Duncan. Not even Kawhi Leonard, whom they traded for, is in the top 14. The Spurs have made stars out of 28th-29th picks. They have attracted free agents recently—breaking the “small market” barrier. LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol, the latter no longer at an elite level, chose the Spurs over glitzier options.
The new project
Most everyone thought the Spurs’ playoff streak will end this season with the entire Big Three of Parker, Duncan and the retired Manu Ginobili all out for the first time. They found new building blocks, like Dejounte Murray, another 29th pick. He gets injured, ACL, an athlete’s nightmare, he’s out for the season. You can’t say the Spurs are lucky—they have had their fair share of this.
So they push another 29th pick, Derrick White, who spent more time in Division II basketball, and he drops 36 points in game 3, averaging 23 points in the playoffs. Spurs are leading the 2nd seeded Denver Nuggets at 2-1. DeMar DeRozan has been consistent and played more games than Kawhi Leonard, and he’s not leaving San Antonio at the end of the season. So who really won that trade with Toronto?
The Spurs have been handed all sorts of curveballs; Kawhi’s bizarre tirade was even unprecedented. But the team of Coach Gregg Popovich, GM RC Buford and owner Peter Holt have found a way to survive without stinking.
Other teams play the game. Some, like Hinkie, may have even aced the game. But the Spurs is the team that truly changed the game. Their secret will remain undiscovered, as none of the other 29 teams could even come close.
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