The San Antonio Spurs as we knew them are over. What they've built, however, the concept of the Spurs ... that might have achieved sporting immortality.
Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili played 14 years together, winning more regular-season games and playoff games than any trio in NBA history, and it's possible that none of them will be in a Spurs uniform at the start of next season. Duncan retired last year, Ginobili might retire this year and Parker is staring at months of rehabilitation for the quadriceps muscle he ruptured in the second game of this playoff series against the Houston Rockets.
Their look changes, but their results remain constant. The Spurs won 61 games in this first season without Duncan. They've won two of the first three playoff games since Parker went down. Other teams might build winning cultures; the Spurs have constructed the Great Pyramids of winning.
They've missed the playoffs only three times in the past 33 seasons -- and two of those trips to the lottery netted them Duncan and David Robinson. Yes, the team that wins like no one else even wins when it loses. The Spurs have won 50-plus games for 20 consecutive seasons. (That includes the 1999 season that was shortened to 50 total games by the NBA lockout; if you count the 15 playoff games the Spurs won en route to the franchise's first championship, that's a total of 52 wins. I say we do that and drop the asterisk).
Kawhi Leonard, already a Most Valuable Player candidate at age 25, looks ready to carry the Spurs to 50-plus wins annually for the next decade. Speaking of Leonard, the Spurs played overtime in Game 5 against the Rockets with him sidelined by an ankle injury and won that, too. Patty Mills and Danny Green emerged from the shadows, and then Ginobili traveled back in time.
The two threads woven through the past two decades are coach Gregg Popovich and GM R.C. Buford. What might be most remarkable about Popovich is his combination of longevity and flexibility. Those two things don't always go together. The only comparable long-term coaching story during Popovich's era belongs to Utah's Jerry Sloan, and the Jazz remained so dedicated to the same system throughout his tenure that, by the end, opposing teams barely even scouted them anymore.
Popovich has changed with the times. He won his first championship in 1999 playing at a pace of 88.6 possessions per game, ranked 19th in the league. Throughout the 2000s the Spurs remained among the bottom third in the league in pace. But from 2012 to '14, in a faster-tempo era, the Spurs were in the top 10, peaking with a pace of 95 possessions per game in 2013-14.
The roles of his star players shifted over the years as well. Duncan started as the low-post focal point of the offense, migrated out to the top of the key and at one point was relegated to little more than running up and down the court, grabbing rebounds and setting screens. In two of his final three All-Star seasons he averaged 11 shots per game.
The importance of Parker and Ginobili grew, then waned, as the Spurs prepared Leonard to take over. The symphony of passing we saw in the 2014 NBA Finals turned into a series of solos. Since the NBA started tracking detailed data in 2013-14, the number of Spurs passes per game has dropped from 334 to 317. This is Popovich adapting to personnel, not forcing players to fit his system.
In this series against Mike D'Antoni and the Rockets, one of Popovich's adjustments was to use both LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol in the starting lineup. Gasol has deterred the Rockets at the rim, and Aldridge almost single-handedly restored the value of the midrange shot. In the Spurs' Game 3 victory, Aldridge made five two-point jump shots outside the lane. The entire Rockets team made one.
The ultimate test of Spurs sustainability would be for them to keep winning without Popovich. We've seen the difficulty in replicating the Spurs' success with Spurs alumni elsewhere, seen in the tenure of general manager Rob Hennigan and coach Jacque Vaughn in Orlando. So what would make anyone think San Antonio can win post-Popovich? The Golden State Warriors.
The Warriors have created a player-centric, self-sustaining culture that enabled them to win 39 of 43 games when Steve Kerr was too ill to coach last season, and they've won six consecutive games without him in these playoffs. This is what's possible when there's empowerment of people without an emphasis on individuals.
It's worth noting that Kerr played for Popovich and that Mike Brown, the Warriors' acting head coach, was an assistant under Popovich. If it can work in Golden State, it can work in San Antonio, where this program originated. As Duncan, Parker, Ginobili and possibly even Popovich fade away, their imprint remains indelible.