The Secret to the Spurs' Success
More importantly, San Antonio is still the league's best team. Not in the usual, "those Spurs are sneaky, at some point they will hit their stride." This team is 15-3, running opponents out of the gym, and doing it as Tim Duncan gradually recedes. The retooling act continues -- except Duncan's aging was supposed to be the one variable the organization couldn't simply adjust around, or tinker with until they found a new sweet spot. Their franchise player was the cornerstone, and as the team's identity changed, he remained constant.
The strangest part of all this, though, is that we aren't quite seeing the emergence of a post-Duncan model. Timmy is still mightily effective, and will dominate at times. More importantly, though, the new leading man isn't DeJuan Blair, George Hill, or even the relatively young Tony Parker. It's Manu Ginobili, Duncan's junior by only one year. And yet Manu, a guard whose style of play seems to invite injury and collision with every gnarled trip to the hoop, has continued to play at the same astronomically high level he has for years -- without anyone noticing, because of Duncan's historic greatness. It might be the one time in his life Tim Duncan has ever overshadowed anyone.
What's more, the Spurs have been experimenting with going small, pushing the tempo, and other such dark arts for some time now. Actually, since right around the time they beat the pants off of the Suns and supposedly discredited the SSOL movement. You could have seen this coming -- but if you predicted the Spurs to be this good, right out of the gate, you're either a genius or a liar. Especially when they were swept by an equally old Suns team in the second round of the playoffs last year.
At the same time, that the Spurs have found so much success early speaks, first and foremost, to that increasingly vague "Spurs culture." It's not necessarily about personnel, or style of play. It's not even really about Gregg Popovich, or unheralded general manager R.C. Buford (so far, highly-touted rookie Tiago Splitter has disappointed). The Spurs, like the Celtics before them, have an ethos that allows for both continuity and a level of sustained excellence that just doesn't happen these days. It's not a function of player loyalty, coaching or front office brilliance, or market size. This reading of what makes a franchise durable is completely backward. The Spurs have all these things because that's the organization they decided to be.
Some of it is dumb luck (Duncan), and there's a first time for everything. But anyone looking to either learn from the Spurs, or use them as ammunition against some other player or team, needs to understand that pro sports teams are institutions. They take on a life of their own, and at the same time, cannot take shape in the first place without some sense of purpose. The right question about the Spurs, whether it's this season or any other, isn't "how do they keep it up," or even "how did they get here in the first place?" There's a "why" behind all of this, and that's the real Big Fundamental.
Duncan helped take the Spurs to new heights, and yet even he isn't essential. Nor should Spurs fans be measuring out how many years Manu has left. It might sound mystical, more suited to college ball than the pros, but at this point, the Spurs are the Spurs. This has been true for years; this season just happens to bring an especially dramatic reminder of it.