By: Justin Faudree
People keep saying the beginning of San Antonio’s reign was based purely on luck. If a single ping pong ball didn’t fall their way in 1997, they wouldn’t have any rings to showcase how smart they’ve been as a franchise over the last decade-and-a-half.
This is troubling for a couple reasons. First of all, San Antonio knew the percentages (all smart teams do) going into the 1996-97 season. When David Robinson went down during the preseason, they knew their chances at contending were slim. Second, by the time Robinson returned in early December of that year, they were 3-15. The Spurs went 3-3 in the six games he played — including a huge 115-101 victory over Hakeem Olajuwon’s 21-3, Houston Rockets. How did they do that, you ask? They slid Robinson over to power forward and stuck Will Perdue on Olajuwon for the most part. They knew Perdue could matchup with The Dream’s size defensively and that sliding Robinson to power forward would favor them against the smaller Charles Barkley. San Antonio, even then, was outsmarting the competition.
Third, they were smart enough to know what they had in Duncan. Not only did San Antonio know (and most importantly, respect) what they had in Duncan, they were sure to surround him with players that ultimately helped him win a number of championships. And it’s at that point where they don’t get enough credit. It starts with Duncan, sure. But he could have been drafted by someone unable to acquire the necessary parts to keep him both satisfied and continually winning.
Two years after getting Duncan, the Spurs took Manu Ginobili with the 57th overall pick (#28 in the second round) in the 1999 NBA Draft. Who went before Ginobili that season? Steve Francis, Baron Davis, Jonathan Bender, Wally Szczerbiak, Trajan Langdon, Aleksandar Radojevic, Corey Maggette, William Avery, Frederic Weis, Cal Bowdler, Quincy Lewis, Dion Glover, Jeff Foster, Kenny Thomas, Devean George, Tim James, Vonteego Cummings, Jumaine Jones, Scott Padgett, Leon Smith, John Celestand, Rico Hill, Michael Ruffin, Chris Herren, Evan Eschmeyer, Calvin Booth, Wang Zhizhi, Obinna Ekezie, Laron Profit, A.J. Bramlett, Gordan Giricek, Francisco Elson, Louis Bullock, Lee Nailon, Tyrone Washington, Ryan Robertson, J.R. Koch, Todd MacCulloch, Galen Young, Lari Ketner, Venson Hamilton, Antwain Smith, Roberto Bergersen, Rodney Buford, Melvin Levett, Kris Clack, and Tim Young. That’s 47 players picked before Manu Ginobili who proved irrelevant (or mostly irrelevant) in the NBA. San Antonio had no other picks in the 1999 Draft. They waited for Ginobili and got Ginobili. The nine players who ended up being pretty good picks? Elton Brand, Lamar Odom, Richard Hamilton, Andre Miller, Shawn Marion, Jason Terry, Ron Artest, James Posey, and Andrei Kirilenko. None of those nine approach Ginobili in importance.
Four years after Duncan and two after Ginobili, the Spurs took Tony Parker with the 28th pick in the 2001 Draft. Who went before Parker that season? Kwame Brown, Eddy Curry, Eddie Griffin, Rodney White, Kedrick Brown, Steven Hunter, Kirk Haston, Michael Bradley, Joseph Forte, Jeryl Sasser, Brandon Armstrong, Raul Lopez, and Jamaal Tinsley. The only two names of note on that list are Brown and Curry because they are two of the biggest busts in NBA history. The rest are a veritable who’s who of “who?”
The Cleveland Cavaliers took Danny Green as the 46th overall pick in the second round of the 2009 NBA Draft. He was waived at the end of the season. Only a few weeks had passed before San Antonio picked him up as a free agent. They released Green after six days and then, seeing he was still available four months later, signed him to a contract worth $94,154 for the remainder of 2011. If you looked at only his PER or win scores like most “production-based” analysts, you’d think San Antonio was nuts for giving Green a chance. He played 92 minutes for the Spurs during the 2010-11 season, tallying a PER of 13.2, wins score of 0.1, and a wins produced per-48 minutes of 0.118.
San Antonio re-signed him during the summer of 2011 for the league minimum just to see what he could do with a full season’s worth of minutes in their system. He responded well.
There is one prerequisite needed for San Antonio to consider signing a player. It’s that he exhibit a high on and off-court I.Q. Players who lack intelligence are not even given a second-look. If they aren’t smart enough to learn the San Antonio system, they aren’t worthy of consideration. Danny Green fits that bill. Kawhi Leonard fits that bill. Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Tiago Splitter all fit that bill. How do you deduce whether or not a player is smart? Watching him play and seeing how he interacts with coaches and players during combine activities.
The NBA is no different from any other business. Smart people sign smart players to execute their smart, carefully considered plan. The San Antonio Spurs don’t have a magic formula that leads to all that winning. They’re smarter than you. Plain and simple.
Golden State is doing its best impression of San Antonio. And they did it in two short years. Recognizing a strong front court was the key to winning big (like what’s existed in San Antonio, Indiana, Memphis, and Chicago), they traded Kelenna Azubuike, Anthony Randolph, Ronny Turiaf, and a 2012 2nd round draft pick (Quincy Miller) to the New York Knicks for David Lee. Lee isn’t going to be mistaken for any kind of defensive stalwart. However, he is a marvelous offensive player who is a threat to shoot, pass, dribble, operate out of the low and high post, and hustle for rebounds. He has skill, hustle, and a high basketball I.Q. That was step one.
In the 2011 Draft, they took Klay Thompson with the 11th-overall pick. Then in December of the 2011 season, they traded Lou Amundson to the Indiana Pacers for Brandon Rush. This trade in particular is quite ludicrous and can be looked upon as one of the few missteps by Larry Bird during his time in Indiana. This was step two.
The Warriors’ coup de grace came less than three months later when they traded Kwame Brown, Monta Ellis, and Ekpe Udoh to the Milwaukee Bucks for Andrew Bogut and Stephen Jackson. Bogut was the perfect center to pair with the defensively hapless, David Lee. This was step three.
With their future starting front court firmly in place, Golden State turned their attention to free agency and the NBA Draft for wing support and potential reserves to backup Bogut and Lee. During the 2012 Draft, Golden State took Harrison Barnes, Festus Ezeli, and Draymond Green. Mark Jackson smartly tanked the second half of the 2012 season to ensure his team a high draft pick, which ended up being Barnes. Sound familiar to San Antonio? It should. Barnes, Ezeli, and Green aided the Warriors in the playoffs enormously as rookies. This was step four.
Following the draft, the Warriors acquired Jarrett Jack (to back up Stephen Curry) in a 3-team trade with the 76ers and New Orleans Hornets. All Golden State relinquished was Dorell Wright to the Sixers. To wrap up their incredible offseason, they signed power forward Carl Landry as a free agent only a few weeks later. They had their starting front court and back court set and then reinforced those units through the draft and free agency. That’s not just smart. It’s common sense – something seemingly lacking throughout the NBA. That was step five.
If you want to know how to model your team after what San Antonio has done, look no further than Golden State. They started with a strong front court and went from there.