At the start of every NBA season in recent memory, the strangest thing happens. The accomplishments of only one team from the previous season are completely wiped from everybody’s collective memory. This has become so consistent and so baffling, somebody should really be looking into it. It’s bordering on a phenomenon at this point. Yet here we are again, smack bang in the middle of the NBA’s very own Groundhog Day. The San Antonio Spurs have now won 19 games in a row and are headed to the playoffs in blistering form, just like in many seasons gone by. So why are we all scratching our heads like we didn’t see this coming?
One of these years, and in fairness it probably isn’t too far away, we will all actually be right and San Antonio will fail to shock us and will stutter it’s way through the campaign, sneak into the playoffs and bow out in the first round. Only this supposed demise has been meant to happen for years now because the Big Three of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker were deemed too old and weary to mount another serious assault on the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Before heaping praise on their ability to apparently counteract Father Time, we must first turn to the unsung heroes of this team who have helped get them to the top of the pile headed into the postseason once more. It is the bench of San Antonio that gets the least credit, and yet arguably does the heaviest lifting during the season. They are the most efficient bench in the league (52.5) while also leading all other benches in points contributed to their teams during a game (45.4). Names like Patty Mills aren’t going to sell jerseys and they aren’t many people’s favorite player. They’ve probably never received a single All-Star vote in their lives and when they’re gone few will remember them. But they are so crucially important to what this Spurs team does, for no other organisation leans on it’s bench in the way head coach Gregg Popovich allows his San Antonio team to. They have played big minutes already this year and have contributed greatly, so when the playoffs begin, nothing really changes for them, unlike other teams. They will see less minutes as the stars are kept on the court longer to win games, but when their moment comes, their brief moment, they are ready because they have been called upon already many times during the regular season to do the same thing.
We all already know of the superhuman feats of Duncan, the mesmerising moves of Ginobili and the on court leadership of Parker (who is still only 31, by the way). Popovich is up there with Phil Jackson as the greatest coach of this generation, and he’s won four titles without Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant leading the way. We could gush some more about them, but they wouldn’t want the attention and we already know what they are about. They are masters at what they do. In the Big Three’s case, it is knowing when to turn it on and when to take a back seat. With Popovich, it is the way he manages the minutes and bodies of his ageing superstars as well as getting the best out of players in a way that no other manager or team can (Stephen Jackson). More than that, he plugs guys into this team and trusts them to make the right plays in the big moments, even when they have never played at that level before (Gary Neal anyone?). They are the core of what San Antonio is about, the foundation on this current winning streak and all the success that has come before it. They can’t last forever but the teachings of Popovich and the attitude of stars like Duncan and Parker can, they have been engraved in the very heart of San Antonio so that the franchise can continue to be a power long after they have gone. That is truly special, and we won’t even see the full effects of that for years yet.
Every team needs it’s X factor too, and the Spurs have that in Kawhi Leonard. Overlooked so often, this kid can do it all and will be an All-Star one day. He’s quiet yes, but is also like a sponge, learning from the great elder statesmen on this team so that when his time comes, he can be the leader. In the NBA Finals last year he was the best player on the court for the Spurs against the Miami Heat at times, something that has been lost this season. This isn’t surprising and is also mildly ironic, like Leonard’s stellar play being forgotten the achievements of the Spurs are forgotten year after year too. He also has that attitude that San Antonio loves to bring on board, say nothing off the court and be seen even less. Tell me, when was the last time you heard of Kawhi Leonard being involved in any sort of bar fight or something like that?
You know what, despite this 19-game win streak, the Spurs are still not even in the top four or five teams that people think can win this championship. Words like Heat, Thunder, Clippers, Pacers and even Rockets are more trendy options right now heading into the postseason. That’s the problem with the Spurs, they’ve never been trendy, and they seem to like that. No matter where this team finishes this season, and don’t be surprised if it is the Western Conference Finals or beyond, just please don’t forget all about them in favour of some flashier franchise when the previews come out for next season. Again everybody will sleep on this team, and again they will prove the doubters wrong. It’s what they do.