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Art Garcia

The goal in San Antonio is consistency, but there will come a time when Tim Duncan won't be around.
Chris Covatta/NBAE via Getty Images

With time becoming a factor, Spurs try to stay on right path

Posted Jul 29 2010 11:08AM

Sustainability isn't just a catch word among the environmental set. It's a purpose the league's most successful franchises subscribe to. Those who eschew prolonged stretches of mediocrity and just win.

For them the lottery isn't a reward. It's failure.

The Lakers and Celtics have won for the vast majority of the league's existence. The Jazz and Blazers enjoyed playoff runs lasting decades -- yes, decades -- and quickly rebounded after recent falls from grace. The Mavericks have emerged a postseason staple in the new millennium. The Suns have been relevant going on 30-plus years.

And then there are the Spurs.

The modern-day model of consistency, this no-nonsense outfit from deep in the heart of Texas stumbled upon a formula that sounds as simple as it is intuitive. Find good players. Develop those players. Try not to screw up. Keep your stars happy.

"The challenge in staying competitive is not making mistakes," Gregg Popovich said, "is finding guys that fit the system."

Popovich has 20 years invested in San Antonio's system, the last 14 as head coach. The Spurs have captured four championships in that span -- only the Lakers (five) have more -- and own the league's longest active playoff streak at 13.

There's also evidence, albeit slight, that slippage is occurring. In each of the last four seasons, the Spurs have won fewer games than the season before. That's actually the longest such stretch in the franchise's 43-year history. While such a stat should be taken with a grain of salt, considering San Antonio has won a title during that span, a drop from 63 wins in 2005-06 to 50 last season can't be ignored.

So while it's foolish to suggest the Spurs are rebuilding, especially with the nucleus of the last three championship teams still intact, they are in process of replenishing around Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. This is an organization focused on maximizing the present while remaining cognizant of the future.

"We've used Utah as our example to try to make sure we do things in a way that's consistent and can maintain a certain level of play and a certain level of character," Popovich said. "They're the best at it."

Duncan has been the one hardwood constant during San Antonio's postseason run, and Popovich has always been the first to point out the Spurs' good fortune in building on such a foundation. But even the most transcendent of players don't win alone, as LeBron James reminded us again a couple of weeks back.

Flanked for Ginobili and Parker for the last three titles, the cast around Duncan continues to evolve. It's a continual task for Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford to churn out willing and able complementary pieces, all in hopes of keeping that championship window ajar.

It's a delicate balance act for a franchise lacking South Beach sizzle and bound by the strictest budget parameters of any title-winning team during the luxury tax era. Despite those inherent challenges and traditionally drafting in the crapshoot that's the bottom of the first round and lower, the front office almost feels like it can't miss on incoming rookies, free agents and trades.

"If you get guys and find out this guy doesn't work and that guy doesn't work, then all of the sudden you've wasted money and you've wasted corporate knowledge and the best player's time," Popovich said. "Great players only have so much time in the league, and it goes more quickly than any of us think.

"It's a matter of really making sure you bring in guys that have both the character and the ability to accept a role that you plan for them. If you're just thinking that because someone is talented it's going to work, it usually doesn't."

That's been the thinking behind the veteran signings of Robert Horry, Brent Barry and Antonio McDyess over the years. Even the trade for Richard Jefferson last summer, which was panned throughout the season, was made for the right reasons. Popovich and Duncan had experience with RJ, who by all accounts was a model teammate and tried to fit in.

"When you're trying to manage money and make sure that you respect the franchise players on your team, it's a big responsibility to make sure we do our homework," Popovich said. "R.C.'s group starts that and runs that very, very well and then we all get together and try to make sure which ones will fit those roles and be part of that team. So far we've been fairly successful at it."

When it comes to cheap and vibrant talent, the last four drafts have been critical in San Antonio's quest to keep piling up victories and postseason shares. Starting in 2007, the Spurs have selected Tiago Splitter, George Hill, DeJuan Blair and James Anderson. That's a base of youth and athleticism for a team stuck with the stigma of old and slow since the last title in 2007.

Hill has Rondo-like upside, leading to rampant speculation this summer that Parker was on the block. Blair proved to valuable rotation piece along the frontline as rookie last season. Tiago finally brings his reputation as Europe's best over this season to take over at center. Anderson ideally provides swingman depth behind Ginobili and Jefferson.

At some point Duncan, 34, is going to hang it up. Ginobili, 33, isn't far behind. Parker is the baby of the group at 28, but, let's be honest, he's the best bet to finish his career outside of the Alamo City. Once the Three Amigos are gone, the Spurs as we know them will be, too.

But Popovich expects the Spurs to carry on past Duncan and Co. Just as the Lakers, Celtics and those other franchises that find a way.

"We want to bridge that gap," Popovich said. "A lot of teams have gone right into the toilet for five, eight, 10 years before they get back up. I don't think we're going to do that. Whether you're a championship-caliber team is another question, because as we look at championship-caliber teams, every one of them has got a player who's a franchise player. Not a max player."

Popovich expounds.

"There's a difference between a max player and a franchise player," he continued. "There aren't too many franchise players and a whole lot of max players. That's the deal. You can count the franchise players on one hand. Until you get one of those, it's not going to happen for you."

Time will tell if and when the Spurs find another. Until then, they keep sustaining.

Art Garcia has covered the NBA since 1999. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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