Monday, May 21, 2012

Tim, Pop, and the San Antonio Spurs' Resurgence

The San Antonio Spurs have now won their last 18 games and 32 of their last 37. They have swept past their last two NBA playoff opponents in the first and second rounds, 4-0 and 4-0.

This dominance has the Spurs being touted as the favorites to win the NBA championship this year, potentially their fifth since 1999. They have sped past the Miami Heat, the pre-season pick to win it all.

Their coach, Gregg Popovich has won this season's NBA Coach of the Year award. And, their marquee player, Tim Duncan, has been rejuvenated this year with the energy and skills of an All-star after being considered well past his prime.

How has this happened? Let’s look closely at a peak performance franchise.

Setting the Tone as the Backbone of the Team

"He is getting older, just like you are, and all of us, but Tim Duncan is still the backbone of the program," said Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich. "He's the guy we build around. He sets the tone for us.Tony [Parker] and Manu [Ginobili] know that full well."

The Facts and the Numbers

For 15 seasons, Duncan has quietly gone about his business, winning four championships along with three finals and two league MVP trophies.

Here are the numbers and some accomplishments to consider:

13: Consecutive seasons to begin his career in which Duncan was named All-NBA and All-Defensive team, six more than anyone else in league history.

.702: The Spurs' winning percentage during the Duncan era, the best 15-year run by any NBA team in history.

0: Number of teams in the four major pro sports with a better winning percentage over the last 15 years than the Spurs.

One Game at a Time

For several years now, the media has wondered how long Duncan would continue playing. They and his opponents have been asking him nightly when he will retire.
Each night, Duncan says the same thing: "I got at least one more game."


In the summer of 1997. Coach Popovich flew down to St. Croix to meet his team's No. 1 draft pick.

Over the next few days the two men swam and lay on the beach, ate, and talked about life, family and priorities. Everything except basketball. Despite a difference of nearly 30 years, they connected in a way few athletes and coaches do. Today Popovich tears up just talking about it. "I really cherish that time," he says. "It was like an instant respect and understanding of each other. Almost like we were soul mates."


When the Spurs call a timeout and you see the San Antonio coaches huddle a few feet from the bench, it's not to hash out strategy. Rather, Popovich is giving his veterans, Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker time with the team. "You'll see Timmy over there with a young kid, talking about how he should do this or that or what we meant by such and such," says Popovich. "I'll come back to the timeouts sometimes and say, 'Are we square?' and Timmy will say, 'Yeah, we got 'em.'"
"He commands that type of respect because he doesn't demand it, if that makes sense."


What drives Tim Duncan? Everyone on the team says the same things: He loves the game. He cares just as much as the little guys do. It's one thing to claim to love the game and another, as Ferry says, "to make the sacrifices that are necessary to win."


"He's always known who he was and been comfortable in his own skin," Sean Elliott, a retired former teammate says. "In 15 years he hasn't changed."

Ask Duncan about it, and this is what he says: "It sounds somewhat arrogant, but I don't really want to change. I like who I am, I like how I do things. I try to be that way."

Continuous Improvement Mentality/Comfort with Change

Duncan grew up in St. Croix, raised by a loving father and a mother whose mantra was, "Good, better, best/Never let it rest/Until your good is better and your better is your best."

However, As Duncan's career evolved, the Spurs' strategy changed because it needed to.

"As we got a little bit older and the personnel changed, we were going to go from one of the best defensive teams to a more middle-of-the-road defensive teams," Popovich said. "Something had to change if we wanted to continue to win at a high level. So we went to the offense about two years ago and kind of shifted it to pick up the pace, to shift a little from inside to outside. Some of the offense went from Timmy a little bit more to Manu [Ginobili] and Tony. Attack early in the clock, kind of Mike D'Antoni-ish. We tried to get that into the program." 

The Spurs are a faster, more exciting, higher scoring team who gamble a tad more on defense and generally look to fast-break more than ever. Fans like it and opponents fear it. Popovich said that the change wasn't merely a product of necessity, but also rejuvenating for a coaching staff and roster that had known only one thing for the better part of a decade. 

"It was great because we'd been the same team for a long time," Popovich said. "If you want to keep winning you have to be aware of changes that might need to be made. It was pretty obvious we had to do it. But it did make it more fun. I think the players enjoyed it, too. They were probably getting bored of the same old stuff."

Continuity and Longevity Equals Peak Performance

On April 11, 2000, Tim Duncan tore the lateral meniscus in his left knee. He missed the final four games of the regular season and forced Spurs coach Gregg Popovich into a corner: go with Duncan in the playoffs, or keep him on the sidelines.

Duncan didn't make the decision any easier.

"I was doing everything I could to get ready to play," Duncan said.

Nevertheless, Popovich was just too worried about his star player.

"He was young, a franchise player," Popovich said. "He wasn't just a No. 1 pick. With him, you've got an opportunity to win multiple championships, if you don't screw it up. I didn't know if [the injury] could get worse, or get chronic."

Popovich liked his team, and he liked its chances in the playoffs. He just liked Duncan even more. He was looking long-term and betting on the future of the franchise. He told Duncan that he would not play any more that season. Duncan was done.

"I don't know if it was right or wrong," Popovich said. "But we did it."

Fast-forward to 2012, it turned out to be the right decision. And Duncan has come to appreciate Popovich's decision to sit him down in 2000. Even though he might not have liked it at the time.

"He's always been the voice of reason," Duncan said.


Tim Duncan has said he uses silence to "destroy people's psyches." He explains, "The best mind game you can run on someone is just to keep going at them and at them until they break." Don't respond, don't show emotion. Just keep playing. "Eventually," he says with a grin, "you'll piss them off."

Emotional Intelligence

Duncan prefers mellowness to emotion as a virtue. 

"It's essential," Duncan said of that mellowness. "Trying to stay cool and collected when things are going in all different directions around you -- if you can keep that even keel, you're not affected by the good or the bad as much. It's a great quality to have."

A Legacy of Winning
Does Duncan care about how he's viewed, how he's remembered?

Duncan thinks for a second, pulls on the sleeve of his silver Spurs sweatshirt. "Why?" he says. "I have no control of that. All I can do is play and try to play well. Winning should be the only thing that matters. I can't manipulate how people see me."

Excerpts form Los (May 17, 2012), (May 18, 2012), (May 20, 2012) and (May 21, 2012).

For more about the San Antonio Spurs, click on: and

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