Over the past 30 years, the San Antonio Spurs have established themselves as one of the most respected teams in professional sports. During that time, a strong culture has been developed that has allowed the Spurs to consistently win. That is, until this season.
David Robinson and Tim Duncan — and later Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili — had a massive impact on the organization. Their team-first mentality, selflessness, hard work, understated toughness and commitment to winning are still values that are emphasized even after they’ve all since retired.
Unfortunately, times have changed. The Spurs have struggled this season, to say the least, and are unlikely to make the playoffs — if there is a playoffs at all. And it’s not just this season, as San Antonio was a seventh seed in each of the previous two seasons.
While these down years don’t take away from the prolonged success of the franchise, the days of being a perennial contender are gone. Although the Spurs still have their culture to fall back on, it may not be as useful as it once was. Without a superstar here to buy into it, these days San Antonio holds no discernable culture advantage.
Former Spurs star Kawhi Leonard demanded a trade after reportedly being upset that other teams’ superstars were treated better by their organizations. While Leonard certainly deserves plenty of blame for how the whole situation played out, the Spurs — if nothing else — could be suffering from a perception problem, particularly in the eyes of other stars.
The Spurs have a certain way of doing things that may come off as rigid to outside observers. Perhaps the organization may even come off as old fashion or, worse yet, out of touch. The handling of the Leonard situation reinforces those views, whether fair or not.
By acquiring DeMar DeRozan in the trade for Leonard, the Spurs sought to continue the culture of winning rather than to rebuild. While admirable, hindsight tells us it was the wrong decision. Pairing LaMarcus Aldridge with DeRozan has been an awkward fit despite their individual talent. In two seasons, the Spurs are just barely above .500 with DeRozan and Aldridge leading the way.
Are the Spurs Stuck In Their Ways?
The NBA is changing, not just in how the game is played but in terms of the newer generation of players that are playing it. Off the court, today’s star players may demand more pampering than the Spurs are willing to commit to — in an effort by San Antonio to retain the culture that took so long to build.
On the court, being set in their ways has impacted the team, particularly San Antonio’s relative reluctance to take three-pointers. They’ve ranked in the bottom six, in terms of attempts, in each of the past five seasons.
Head coach Gregg Popovich’s disdain for three-pointers is partially to blame for the Spurs falling behind the rest of the league. Due to DeRozan’s unwilling to shoot threes, players such as Bryn Forbes and Marco Belinelli have been given oversized roles to compensate. As a result of one-dimensional shooters getting minutes, the Spurs have become unrecognizably bad on the defensive end.
Changing San Antonio’s Approach
The Spurs have generally been leery about making significant roster moves for fear that it may interrupt chemistry and negatively impact the culture. The Spurs are notoriously inactive when it comes to making trades; the last in-season trade was more than six seasons ago. Even in the offseason, San Antonio has shown little imagination when it comes to trades or cap management. As a result, season to season there has been minimal roster turnover compared to other organizations in the NBA.
Due to the culture, player fit is a key component to any transaction — not just fit on the court but off of it, too. It’s no secret that San Antonio values high-character players. However, this high standard may have caused the Spurs to avoid signing or drafting certain players who don’t live up to their standards. If that is indeed the case, it would represent a clear flaw in Spurs logic: Overvaluing fit due to a supposed culture advantage that is no longer a true advantage.
Patty Mills role has excelled in his role as a high-energy, sharpshooting spark plug off the bench for years. However, that’s just part of his value. He has been integral to helping maintain the culture and building team chemistry. That said, when the Spurs handed him a $50 million deal, it certainly raised some eyebrows.
With the Big 3 era coming to a close, the Spurs didn’t want to risk losing Mills — due as much to culture reasons as basketball reasons. But if you look at it only through a basketball lense, overpaying to keep Mills was a poor decision. The same could be said of giving Pau Gasol a big contract. His fit within the team’s culture was valued too highly by San Antonio.
As the Spurs unavoidably head into a rebuild, focusing so much on culture would be a mistake. Not many players have the qualities that Robinson and Duncan brought to the table; you could probably count such players on one hand. With that scarcity in mind, the Spurs would be wise to adjust their expectations, particularly when it comes to finding their next star.
Once upon a time, Leonard was viewed as the perfect player to lead the Spurs into their next era. As it turned out, however, his priorities actually differed drastically from that of previous Spurs stars.
San Antonio should learn from their mistakes, relax their expectations when it comes to how a player fits, be willing to take cues from the newest generation of players, and adapt to changing league instead of clinging to a culture advantage that no longer exists.