Jun 8, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; Miami Heat guard Mario Chalmers (15) shoots after getting fouled by San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker (9) in game two of the 2014 NBA Finals at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Can the Toronto Raptors ever become the Spurs of the east?


Jun 8, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan (21) dunks in the first half against the Miami Heat in game two of the 2014 NBA Finals at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

A perfunctory purusal of the NBA over the past twenty years reveals one team, the San Antonio Spurs, to be the winningest one of all. Kobe and the Lake Show, Miami’s Big 3, Shaq and the Magic – all have had big moments, but no one has combined regular-season and playoff success like the men in silver and black. They have chalked up 50 or more victories in 15 consecutive seasons, and won four championships. They are 3 wins away from a fifth. How can any team possibly have built and maintained such a record of excellence?

If there ever was an NBA franchise to emulate, surely it is the Spurs. Yet neither the Toronto Raptors nor any else has figured out how to do it. Their organization has won consistently despite low draft picks, a home city far from glamour and bright lights, and a refusal to indulge self-centred players. Is it like nailing jello to the wall, or can we divine the secrets of the Spurs’ success? Let’s try.

Clearly San Antonio has benefitted immensely from the talents of two men, head coach Gregg Popovich and power forward Tim Duncan, with a third, General Manager R.C. Buford, close behind. Somehow they have built a Spurs way to play, which transcends individual talent. We’re all dazzled by “impossible” athletes, like LeBron James, but the Spurs don’t have anyone like that. What has characterized the Spurs offense for the last 2 decades? A constant search for the open man, and an ability to hit shots created by passing. They led the NBA in assists at 25.2 [all stats on '13-'14 season per-game basis], and 3-point field goal percentage at 39.7. Yet they rank nineteenth in turnovers at 14.4, indicating their frequent passes are not being unduly intercepted.

I’m not overlooking defense here (the Spurs ranked #7 this past season), but their D is also noteworthy by a lack of remarkable individual stats. As a team, they tied for seventh in blocked shots per game at 5.1, and for fourth in defensive rebounds at 34.0. Duncan was the team leader, with 1.88 blocks (ranked fifth) and 7.6 D-rebs (ninth), but you have to drop down to Danny Green(!) , tied for thirty-sixth with 0.9, and Kawhi Leonard at forty-one with 5.1, respectively, to see who’s next on the Spurs. Conclusion: the Spurs demand, and receive, defensive contributions from everyone.

Popovich is famous for his refusal to kowtow to anyone. If he wants to rest his tired veterans, he’ll do so, and take a loss if necessary. Tony Parker, their superb point guard, averages the most minutes at 29.4, which ranks ninety-fourth in the league. Who occupies positions ninety-five and -six? Duncan and Leonard! Spurs management appears determined not to exhaust its players during the regular season (in other news: water is wet). It follows that their second unit had better be more than solid if the starters are going to sit so much. Coach Pop has enjoyed the luxury for years of calling Manu Ginobili off the bench first, and he’s the best sixth man in the NBA since John Havlicek. But San Antonio also has “found” other teams’ discards, like Marco Belinelli, Matt Bonner, Boris Diaw, and Green, to be capable of playing Spurs’ basketball. Who needs high draft picks?

San Antonio also has a boatload of interntional players. Is that something the Raptors are already emulating? We’ll discuss that, and our other findings, in Part 2.

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