If you’re looking for a reason behind the sustained success of the San Antonio Spurs, search for it within the confines of one word: structure.
The Spurs always know who they are because their identity is tightly confined within a proven blueprint. Since the late 1990s, they’ve had constant presences at every major post. Gregg Popovich, one of the most revered basketball minds of his or any other generation, was given the head coaching gig in 1996. That reign coincides with the ownership span of Peter Holt, one of the NBA’s most stable and least meddlesome head honchos. Tim Duncan, somewhere between greatest power forward of all time and top 5 center, joined a year later. Only R.C. Buford, the rookie among the bunch, is of the new millennium, as he relieved Popovich from the executive part of dual coach-GM duties in 2002.
Throughout that tenure, there has been nearly perfect synergy throughout all four levels. Popovich and Buford essentially work in tandem, sharing a viewpoint. Duncan and Holt, meanwhile, submit fully and stay their lane, leaving basketball operations to be overseen by those hired to oversee. The former instead spends his time on the court, the latter focusing on funding the operation and reaping the rewards amid sporadic duty in NBA Board meetings.
Empirically proven operational guidelines have provided a starting point for the Spurs on the court as well. Wings must be able to knock down the corner three, preferably as part of an overall long-range arsenal. Point guards must be able to drive and kick. Big men must be sound defenders within space. If by chance, a player with deficiencies in mandatory designated skills but obvious talents elsewhere emerges, Popovich must be trusted to concoct an alternative manner of optimizing those talents, and the player must adhere accordingly.
It was into this system Kawhi Leonard was drafted three years ago. Leonard’s inaugural NBA franchise sang but one gospel: take instructions, persevere, and if you gain our trust, you will be given the opportunity to outdo yourself. And lo and behold, Kawhi listened. He almost immediately turned outside shooting, a pre-draft weakness and a natural lubricant towards a Spurs rotation spot, into a strength. He injected youth and athleticism while absorbing veteran restraint. He even hates being interviewed, displaying so little enthusiasm towards the running cameras that you might thing Buford genetically engineered him.
In return, Kawhi was given the opportunity to outdo himself in last year’s playoffs. He grabbed that chance with both enormous hands, and did so much with it that 2013-14 opened amid rumblings that Leonard may have elevated himself to the status of Spurs superstar.
Membership in that group has been hard to come by, as NBA superstars are rare. Ever since David Robinson retired and the Spurs moved to a tri-focal approach, there have been no new admissions. Management has been more or less content with this situation, realizing that stars are hard to come by late in the first round, where the Spurs are relegated, and choosing instead to focus on (big surprise ahead) stability over breaking the trade market. In fact, San Antonio’s only earnest attempt at adding a fourth star was the acquisition of Richard Jefferson in 2009, then a slightly sub-elite all-around scoring wing coming off a single down year. As Jefferson immediately lost any former relevance as an elite NBA contributor and cemented his status as “The San Antonio Spurs’ Only Mistake”, any other attempts of superstar acquisition were prematurely discarded before Kawhi shoved his foot in the door.
The problem is, being a Spurs superstar in 2014 is different than in 2007. Back then, Duncan, Parker and Ginobili would still play around 80 games a year, save uninvited injury, and register over 30 minutes a night. Back then the Spurs still played as slow as teams came, and the supporting cast was still comprised of mostly low-usage defensive contributors, leading to a style of play that both enabled and incentivized heavy dependence on San Antonio’s three major tenants.
Gregg Popovich was already a Hall of Fame coach in 2007. But he has since mastered the concept of the regular season. And that newer concept doesn’t really have room for the Atlas, world-resting-upon-one’s-shoulders version of superstardom. If the old Spurs were Godzilla, this new version is the Hydra, serving menace from more directions with a sleeker spin. No matter how good you are, the machine is still functional by taking you out, be it for a superior replacement or a Cory Joseph plug-and-play.
It’s irrefutably exquisite. These Spurs are going to run away with the league’s best regular season once again, with not a single player averaging more than 30 minutes a game, and with 9 different players registering over 10 starts. Everything works so well as a collective that individuals are marginalized, to the point that Tony Parker, collector of some full-blown MVP buzz the past two seasons, can have an injured down year, only to be seamlessly replaced by Patty Mills. PATTY MILLS! Popovich has gamed the system to the point that Patty Mills is a thing that’s happening.
It also means that to the naked eye, Kawhi is happening less. As was laid out by Jack on these very pages only a few days ago, Leonard has been playing some of his best basketball yet, 2013 Finals notwithstanding, since the turn of the calendar. It’s just that he doesn’t have the screaming numbers and pundits to show for it. He’s more Kawhi Leonard than ever before, but in San Antonio’s structured machinery, he has yet to transcend above mere cog status.
But this can be changed, once again, in the playoffs. Because the playoffs are where Popovich’s rotational mastery recognizes its limitations and secedes as superstars are summoned once again. As teams lock in on opposing systems and minutes for second units are cut, the aging stars once again shine, their minutes and touches restored by the sheer gravitas of the circumstance. And if Kawhi truly is within reach of the top of the Spurs’ structural pyramid, as we suspect, the game will accordingly tilt towards him as the stakes grow.
New Spurs superstars weren’t expected until this current era expired completely. The Spurs blueprint only allows for a limited amount, and because these are the Spurs, it’s a different version of superstardom, less glitzy and more workmanlike. In return, stars are rewarded with the opportunity to run and at times transcend Popovich’s system on the court. Kawhi Leonard seemed to be on that road last Finals, and when he wasn’t given the role to reflect it this season, it was perhaps interpreted as a failure to walk down it. But in reality, he hasn’t yet tried, delaying the next part of his journey in the name of a the larger goal. It doesn’t matter if he’s a real superstar yet. Certificates of authenticity are frivolous acquisitions when fresh legs are on sale in the adjacent isle.
The playoffs – that’s where Kawhi Leonard will continue his charge at the flag, and that’s where we find out if the next phase has been completed. The same place he started it last year, and the same place the Spurs hope he will continue to do so for years to come.