Gregg Popovich says you don’t deserve anything -- you just go play. That’s honorable, but it seems fundamentally just that the San Antonio Spurs won a fifth NBA championship Sunday night.
Another title for the Spurs confirms a bunch of optimistic beliefs about the the way the world should work: process matters more than politics; people should be valued for what they can do rather than what they can’t; a meritocracy can thrive if it emphasizes the right things.
Devotion to the process doesn’t always yield the desired results. In basketball, this is called heartbreak, and for the Spurs, Game 6 of June 2013 was a case study. Yes, there were a couple of self-inflicted miscues -- Tim Duncan comes up short in the paint, Kawhi Leonard misses a free throw, Manu Ginobili can’t snare a rebound -- but the Spurs didn’t deserve that.
Then again, you don’t deserve anything. You just go play. And the Spurs lead the world in just going and playing.
Praise such as this for the Spurs always sounds a little quaint. The ideas themselves feel precious or even stuffy, almost too obedient to authority. “Commitment to process” sounds like homework. Basketball and fame are supposed to be raucous and disorderly. What’s the point of being a rock star if you can’t act like one?
But very, very few institutions actually function like the Spurs because it’s insanely hard to get dozens of people to buy into the same vision. Those that do, such as the Spurs, are the true, honest-to-goodness nonconformists. All that well-timed stuff they run and the fundamentals and pounding the rock and never getting too high or too low and coming back unfazed after losing a lead 5.2 seconds from a banner and reclamation projects such as Boris Diaw and rodeo road trips that build character and Pop’s wizardry and knowing which mid-first-round pick would grow into the Wing-You-Need-In-Today’s-NBA and last-possession plays that actually resemble real basketball sets and almost never making bonehead personnel decisions and generally treating everyone in the office like an adult and having incredible command of the NBA’s bargain bin -- none of that is normal.
In exchange for their buying in, players earn trust, whether they arrived in San Antonio as a first overall draft pick or on a bus from the D-League. With the game on the line, Popovich will design an opportunity to get that former D-Leaguer an open shot, even when most coaches would just ride their Hall of Famer against a double-team. R.C. Buford appraises talent not by the standards of current trends or conventional wisdom but by a steadfast belief in process and innovation. Duncan might not speak to a young teammate for a calendar year, but don’t mistake aloofness for indifference; he’s just sizing you up before he dives in.
The most gifted players have every right to leverage their talents into power and have a voice in where and with whom they want to work. Duncan claimed that authority and chose to spend his capital on establishing a culture. He wants pro basketball to be about the work and to sell itself on the strength of the game’s actual appeal rather than the atmospherics or drama. That’s Duncan believing in the craft of basketball.
Tony Parker quickly signed up when he arrived in the NBA. He spent the first phase of his career working to earn trust and has rewarded his investors ever since. So did Ginobili, a charismatic stylist as a player but completely uninterested in personal branding. Leonard, often miscast as a creation of the Spurs culture who might have wallowed elsewhere, wasn’t sculpted by the team in its image so much as he found a suitable place to work his magic.
What the Spurs create on the floor is a testimony to all this. Both the offense and defense operate on a collective trust and the principle that if you inspire people to use their instincts, they’re capable of being both smart and creative. That's what gets the junkies so giddy. So when Ginobili slings a pass to a cutter off a ball fake, or Green fools a defender with misdirection, or Duncan slips a screen on a whim, or Diaw drops a no-look interior pass to Splitter that fools everyone, or Parker improvises, or Leonard cuts into open space, or Pop draws up a gutsy play call for a last possession, it’s the product of a happy marriage between order and self-expression.
Almost every owner likes the idea of being a “servant leader” -- in the parlance of business speak, someone who shares power for the sake of the cause -- but Peter Holt has pledged his trust to the people who work for him. How many owners willingly sit in the background and cede total authority to their coaches and lead execs for the better part of two decades?
Most coaches and basketball operations people work to keep their jobs, and their decision-making suffers because of it. They fall into the trap of convention, afraid to assume risk because the consequences are too steep. Popovich, Duncan, Parker, Ginobili, Buford, Spurs players and staff resolve problems differently.
That combination the Spurs have achieved is what most of us want out of professional life. We want to do something we love. We want the freedom to experiment and to know that if we’re true to the process, we won’t be deemed a failure, regardless of the result. We want to work alongside people who root for us to be really good. We want to know that if we have to wind the clock 12 full months after being so very, very close, everyone will exhale, regroup and stay with it.
Like Duncan, we want it to be about the work.