Sometimes great team play trumps superstars

The right team won this year's NBA Championship


Last year the San Antonio Spurs were 28 seconds away from winning the NBA?title when disaster struck.

Leading NBA?title when disaster struck.

Leading by five points in game six, the Spurs needed to just hold on to the ball and they would have won their fifth NBA title in 16 years. However, the Miami Heat came back to win the game, then won a close game seven in Miami.

The Spurs could have panicked and changed personnel, as so often happens in professional sports.

Instead, they elected to keep their team intact. There was no complaining about the officiating, or the bad breaks that they received during last year’s championship series. Rather they spent the off season working to improve as a team.

The Spurs finished the regular season with the best record in the NBA and eventually went on to win the Western Conference Championship.

When the Heat blew out the Indiana Pacers in game seven of the Eastern Conference Championship, the Spurs had the rematch that they so badly wanted.

For those who watched, the finals were the worst beat down in NBA history. The Spurs won the series in five games and finished plus 70 points. It was the biggest point differential in NBA?finals history.

The Spurs won both games in Miami by a margin of more than 15 points a game, something that has only happened once before in NBA?History. More impressive was how the Spurs won the championship.

For years, the NBA?has marketed its superstars, not its franchises. Teams with enough money to buy superstars get in bidding wars for free agents and attempt to lure them to new markets. Players seldom finish careers with one team and teams in the major sports markets tend to end up with the lion’s share of the best known players.

The Spurs, one of three teams in Texas, are in one of the smallest markets in professional sports. The team management has chosen to mostly build through the draft. It is rare for the team to go after even a relatively unknown free agent and the franchise is loyal to both its coaching staff and players.

To illustrate the difference between San Antonio and most professional sports franchises, a wealthy Spurs fan paid for a billboard with just three words on it once the Spurs reached the finals. It said simply, “Built, not bought.”

San Antonio Head Coach Gregg Popovich has been with the Spurs since the 1996-97 season. The longest tenure of any active coach in any of the four major professional sports leagues. Probably the Spurs best known player is Tim Duncan, from the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Wake Forest. This was Duncan’s 17th and possibly last season in the league — all 17 with the Spurs.

Other Spurs “stars” Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker have both been with the team for 12 years. Parker led the Spurs in scoring in this year’s finals with 17.4 points per game, the fewest points per game of any scoring leader on a championship team since the shot clock came into existence for the 1954-55 season.

Kawhi Leonard, who became the youngest Finals MVP?since Duncan won the award in 1999, earned just $2 million this year. Leonard was drafted three years ago by the Indiana Pacers then out of San Diego State. He was immediately trated to San Antonio on a draft day-trade. Leonard appears to be a rising star, but is virtually unknown outside of Texas.

The Spurs have a decidedly international flavor with nine players originally from outside the continental United States on their roster.

Meanwhile, the Heat who had won two consecutive NBA?titles prior to being unseated by the Spurs, have three of the highest paid and highest profile players in all of basketball.

Led by LeBron James, the self-proclaimed “king,” Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosch,the Heat have been forced to rely on lesser known players to fill their roster since the three stars have taken the bulk of the team’s available money under the salary cap.

The team expects their three stars to perform every day,expecting huge minutes and production to justify the high salaries.

Meanwhile,Popovich frequently sits his starters during the regular season and they place fewer minutes than any other starting five in the league. Popovich has been fined several times for sitting his entire starting lineup on a road trip to rest them.

When the two teams had to play game one without air conditioning in 90-lus degree heat,the Heat wilted in the fourth quarter, while the Spurs, who played their entire roster throughout the game,had an absolutely outstanding fourth quarter outscoring the Heat 30-9 when it really counted.

The Heat looked tired the rest of the series, while the Spurs continued to play at a high level, especially in the fourth quarter of games.

Players on the Spurs team do not appear to seek personal glory. Instead relying on team play both offensively and defensively to get the job done. They now have the winningest percentage of any professional sports franchise over Popovich’s coaching career and show no evidence of slowing down.

They have demonstrated year after year that they are a true team.

I know that the Spurs are not everyone’s favorite team, but they have done exactly what sports franchises should do. They have built through the draft, and both players and management have remained loyal to the team. Players stay in San Antonio until they retire even if they could make money elsewhere and the coaching staff and team have clearly built a bond of mutual respect.

One by one, as the game wound down, Popovich removed his starters to standing ovations. As they came off the floor players first hugged Popovich then each other and the entire team stood for the final two minutes as they relished the victory.

Even the Heat recognized what the Spurs had accomplished when won the title Sunday night. Players and coaches from Miami began congratulating the Spurs while the game was still winding down. Instead of the usual perfunctory handshakes one by one, they congratulated the Spurs with hugs and lengthy conversations.

It was a clear sign of respect and recognition of what the Spurs have accomplished, and it was a two-way street. The Spurs were gracious in victory as well. It was a moment of sincere sportsmanship and what is best about sports.

It’s too bad more professional teams couldn’t work the same way.

Lon Austin is the sports editor for the Central Oregonian. He can be reached at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..




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