With the annual Super Bowl hypefest underway, much of the discussion that doesn’t involve the unscrupulous deflating of footballs will revolve around the now-legendary pairing of coach Bill Belichick and his field general, Tom Brady. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime partnership, we’re often told, which ignores the fact that it’s been happening in the NBA for even longer.
I’m referring to the union—still thriving after 17 years, two years longer than the B&B boys’ reign in New England—between Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs. The Nuggets saw this beautiful friendship up close on Tuesday as the defending champs visited the Pepsi Center to teach Denver the latest lesson in their nearly two-decade master class covering exactly how fluid, successful, team-oriented basketball is supposed to look.
To be fair, the Nuggets showed up, no small feat after losing by 43 the night before. They hung around for three quarters until the Spurs did what they do and wore their opponent down with their balletically gorgeous brand of ball movement, rebounding, and stout defense.
It’s often said that pro teams are copycats. Whenever one organization wins a title, the rest line up to replicate its blueprint. Easier said than done, obviously, as talent distribution can be a fickle thing both on the floor (or field) and along the sideline.
Nevertheless, for years most NBA teams have followed the superstar strategy, hoping to land the next Jordan or LeBron in the draft and then build around him, preferably with at least one or two other superstars. This is theoretically easier than waiting for homegrown talent to pay off, because if you get the one guy, you can attract the others in free agency as long as your front office knows what it’s doing. (It never hurts to be near a beach, too.)
But as we learned during the Carmelo Anthony experiment, Denver has never been regarded as a very attractive destination for NBA free agents. It’s not just us; plenty of other cities are in the same predicament. Kevin Love only agreed to be traded to Cleveland because of LeBron’s magnetic presence, but that team’s first-half struggles have given way to whispers that free agent-to-be Love won’t re-sign with the team this summer and instead will head for one of the coasts.
With all due respect to the city of San Antonio, it has to be near the bottom of any list of desirable NBA landing spots. It’s certainly no Denver; the only thing I envy about it is its proximity to world-class barbecue. Yet while the rest of the league has played alpha dog roulette for the past 20 years, the Spurs have never come close to signing a top-line free agent. They rarely even try to go that route. Instead they’ve built their core through the draft and under-the-radar signings of role players who fit what they want to do on the court. This simple, ingenious plan has included a masterful international scouting operation—with nine players on its roster hailing from outside the United States, the Spurs have long been one of the most multicultural franchises in American sports.
The result of all this unconventional thinking: five rings in six Finals’ appearances (15 years between the first one and the most recent one). Although they’ve never repeated as champs, let alone three-peated, the duration of their dominance is probably their greatest achievement of all.
Why every GM in the league doesn’t study the Spurs’ game plan like scripture is beyond me. Whatever they’re doing is exactly what the Nuggets should be doing all day, every day. Yes, the Spurs got lucky by landing the number one pick the year Tim Duncan arrived. But by jettisoning as many bad contracts and unnecessary complementary players (i.e., non-stars) as possible, the Nuggets still have a chance to position themselves near the top of the draft this year and/or next and luck into the guy(s) who might prove to be the linchpin of a great roster.
In the meantime, consider two of the most surprising teams in the NBA this year: Atlanta and Golden State, which for years have been moderately successful in spurts but have never come particularly close to a title (sound familiar?). They currently have the two best records in the league. Their respective coaches are Mike Budenholzer, a longtime Popvich assistant, and Steve Kerr, who played for the Spurs’ first championship team and whose system mimics Popovich’s much more closely than it echoes that of his other legendary coach, Phil Jackson. (Nuggets’ coach Brian Shaw also studied under the “Zen master” Jackson, but so far that tutelage hasn’t produced much more than frustration.)
In other words, two perennially middle-of-the-pack franchises might have finally figured out what should be a fairly obvious winning formula. If the Nuggets would only follow their lead and look south for inspiration, maybe that would help stem their own long, downward slide.
—Follow 5280 editor-at-large Luc Hatlestad on Twitter at @LucHatlestad.