We are now in the month of March, we have about seven weeks to go, and it is likely that two of the top teams in the West will be the Thunder and Spurs. Since San Antonio is in town tonight for the third meeting between the two teams this season (currently tied at 1-1), we wanted to check in with the indomitable Spurs site Pounding the Rock to get their take on things. If you've been reading this space for a while you know that we're fond of getting various perspectives, but then this little story floated through my personal airspace a couple weeks ago:
According to Spurs history, Sam Presti was a 25 year old intern with the Spurs when an unknown 19 year old French kid named Tony Parker showed up on the team's radar. Lakers coach Mike Brown (then an assistant coach) explains:
"We worked him out and he was terrible...We walked away as coaches like, ‘Man, we're wasting our time.' We told Tony that he needed to develop a medium game because he was quick. He couldn't really shoot the ball and all he could really do was get to the rim, but against 7-footers that's going to be hard to do all the time. We were done with him after that and Sam and R.C. (Buford, Spurs GM) convinced us to bring him back for a second workout in San Antonio."
Fancy that. a young Presti pushed hard for a talented but unproven and unorthodox player to become the team's point guard of the future. Eight years later, Presti would make the same gamble on the super-athletic but unconventional guard Russell Westbrook.
Add to this little anecdote the fact that there are a number of similarities between the two organizations, including but not limited to their small market stature, their drafting of an all-time level player, the long term team building philosophy, and the players' unwavering loyalty to one another, and we see a Thunder team that is building itself off of the Spurs' blue print. In a day and age where we get "Let's follow the Thunder model!" editorials every season (and you know how I feel about those), everyone seems to have forgotten that the Thunder's model today is the Spurs model over the past decade, a model that has won four championships.
I think what this reality points to is that we need to understand the Spurs model a little bit better. To do that, I reached out to PtR to see if we could get a better perspective. So starting today, DrumsInTheDeep at PtR and I will begin what we hope is a weekly exchange of ideas about the two franchises, this season, and where things are headed in the playoffs.
For WTLC's perspective on things, I answered PtR's questions here so please check that out before tonight's game.
WTLC: To kick things off, I have one simple question for you: Is it possible to build a Spurs-like dynasty anymore in today's version of the NBA?
First of all, I'm excited--and--terrified to be representing Spurs fandom to you guys. I'd be lying if I said the Thunder are my second-favorite team, but that's because I don't really have a second-favorite team. The concept of being happy for another franchise that isn't mine is a completely alien concept to me, regardless how I feel about the players and other fans involved. It was all I could stomach to "root for" the Mavericks in the finals, even though all I was really doing was wishing as hard as Pinocchio for the Miami Heat to fall into a sinkhole.
THAT SAID, I love what the Thunder are doing, and I have a soft spot for Kevin Durant. He's grounded, humble, carries a pretty fly backpack, and went to the University of Texas so I don't feel my skin breaking out in hives whenever I watch him play. Even though I didn't actually go to the University of Texas. I've visited. It's nice, I guess.
Your main question is excellent: "Is it possible to build a Spurs-like dynasty anymore in today's version of the NBA?"
I have to think that every owner/GM tandem in the league (outside of NY, LA, CHI, MIA, etc) ask themselves that every year. What do you do when you don't have much money, you're in a small market, and you're just okay enough to miss the lottery? As a Spurs fan, I have to be honest and say a couple of things: we've been extraordinarily lucky. The cornerstones of our championship teams--David Robinson and Tim Duncan--were #1 draft picks. That really doesn't happen much, if you look at the last ten years of the NBA. We were incredibly lucky to get the RIGHT guys at the RIGHT time, who had the RIGHT attitude to buy into our system. That's half of it. The other half is that our front office is incredibly skilled at sticking to that system, and finding the right role players to fit in around it. We're the NBA's version of "Moneyball."
So, what do you need? I'm not going to say you need a "superstar," because you don't, necessarily, if your overall team is good, but it certainly helps. Besides, it doesn't matter, because you have one in Durant. He's amazing. And, like I've mentioned, one of the best things about Durant is his humility, and his placing higher value on the team's success than that of his own. Derrick Rose is the same way. They're quality guys.
(As a quick aside, I have to say that I'm touched and gratified by your choice of the word "dynasty." It's easy for national writers to look at as as an unfortunate speed bump between the eras of Kobe's Lakers and Lebron's Lebrons. So thanks. We did win FOUR titles, after all. It's annoying. Rant over.)
Getting back to the point: the draft, in your position, obviously isn't enough. And if you don't have Mark Cuban's endless flow of cheddar, buying your way to a title through trades isn't enough. So your front office has to be smart. Pop and RC Buford (and company) have their fingers in a lot of pies--they have secret scouts all over the world watching international ball, scouts with their eyes on the D-League, scouts with the eyes to recognize a diamond in the rough during the summer. They dogged Tiago Splitter for YEARS trying to get him to come to our shore, and eventually it paid off. He's probably not the next Tim Duncan, but he's a former MVP in Europe, and our hopes are high. Sharpshooter Gary Neal was signed immediately after he played unconscious in a summer league game, and he's been clutch for us. Manu Ginobili, THE Manu Ginobili, was the 57th pick in 1999. I don't have to tell you how that turned out.
So you've got to look in the right places, take chances, have a clearly-defined system with guys who know their roles, and--above all--have a little bit of luck. This year, the Thunder could have all of those things, but for the Spurs to go all the way and get one more for Timmy's thumb, after being counted out as dead all year? That would be pretty sweet.