Apr 15 2011 2:48PM

The Sacrifice


Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty Images

This is about as much reaction as you’ll ever get out of Tim Duncan.

It’s 2011 NBA All-Star media availability day at the downtown Los Angeles’ J.W. Marriott hotel. We’re 30 minutes into the session and dozens of journalists now are surrounding Duncan’s table inside Salon F.

One of these lads asks a question with this lead-in, “A few years ago, David Robinson didn’t have this opportunity toward the end of his career to make one All-Star swan song. Do you remember that at all?”

Duncan stops fiddling with the recorders set on the table, looks up at the intruding interrogator and gives the same wide-eyed stare he saves for referees when they make bad calls.

“This is my swan song?” says Duncan, eyebrows raised. “Is that what you’re telling me?”

“I don’t know,” stammers the questioner. “I’m just saying, it’s, at this point …”

Duncan interrupts, “I don’t remember that. And I don’t know that this will be my last one or not. I’m not looking at it like that. I’m just going to enjoy it as it is in front of me.”

Duncan then eases off the gaze and turns his attention back to fiddling with the voice recorders set on the table.

A few minutes later, another daring soul tip-toes in, asking about the age-old age subject, saying, “What I mean is, because you don’t know, this could be in some ways a last chance. Your last real good shot.”

“It’s been our last chance for the last three, four, five years,” says Duncan. “That’s what everybody keeps telling us. I can’t say it’s our last chance, but it’s as good a chance as we’ve had in a couple years.”

And minutes later, the capper—after Duncan has told the surrounding media this is the “last question” for the session—a foreign journalist says, “San Antonio is doing fantastically great. There is also Miami and the Lakers. People talk about them all the time. Does that bother you at all?”

“Not in the least,” says Duncan, and you can tell he means it.

Once again, Duncan rises above it all, nods goodbye and exits the building.

*

It must be tough to be Tim Duncan, Paul Pierce, Kobe Bryant or any of the other Lord of the Rings, for that matter—to know The Secret of championship basketball, yet not be able to share it with the world.

To listen to meandering media questions with misdirected premises—“How do you feel about your points and rebounds being down, Tim?”—and yet you must restrain yourself from giving direct and correct answers, for fear that your peers around the league will read what you say and they too will discover how to win it all.

Bill Simmons brilliantly wrote about The Secret in his 2009 tome “The Book of Basketball,” where he got Isiah Thomas to reveal nuggets of a private conversation with Larry Bird, where Bird inadvertently clued Thomas in to The Secret to championship basketball.

And that original nugget of the conversation—detailed in Cameron Stauth’s 1989 book “The Franchise”— helped take the Bad Boy Detroit Piston teams from elite contenders to back-to-back champions, according to Thomas.

In a nutshell, the former Pistons point guard told Simmons how The Secret to winning didn’t have anything to do with basketball. It had to do with sacrifice. Ignoring boxscore statistics. Your best players giving up minutes and numbers to make everyone else on the team happy.

Thomas points out in the book how he and Vinnie Johnson sacrificed minutes for a young Joe Dumars. How Rick Mahorn gave up minutes for a young John Salley. How Adrian Dantley was reluctant to give up any of his playing time for a young Dennis Rodman, so he was shipped to Dallas for Thomas’ good friend Mark Aguirre, who made the sacrifice.

It had everything to do with chemistry, knowing your roles and valuing winning over everything else.

As Thomas told Simmons, “The Secret of basketball is that it’s not about basketball.” It’s about people. It’s about sacrifice.

The Secret is still in effect today.

The Lakers’ Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom sacrificed their career numbers from 2004-05 through 2006-07 to reach the Finals the last three years and win the NBA championship last two seasons.

Kobe sacrificed leading the League in scoring at 35 and 32 points-per-game clips, cutting back his minutes from the ridiculous 41 mpg in 2005-06 and 2006-07 to 36 and 39 mpg in the championship seasons (and a century-low 34 mpg this season). Gasol saw his scoring numbers drop from his Memphis days, while his rebounding rose as a Laker. Despite being one of the 20 best players in the last four years in Regularized Adjusted Plus Minus combined with minutes, Odom sacrificed playing time and a starting position the last three seasons to help develop a young Andrew Bynum.

The Celtics’ Ray Allen, Pierce and Kevin Garnett sacrificed nine, five and four points from their scoring averages on separate teams in 2006-07, played fewer minutes per game together as Celtics and reached the NBA Finals two of the last three seasons, winning it all in 2008.

The Spurs’ Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker also continued that selfless tradition throughout their entire careers as Spurs’ teammates, winning three championships together—Duncan won a fourth separately in 1999—to establish themselves as the most successful Big Three intact today.

And in the tradition of Thomas’ depth-filled, selfless Bad Boy teams—where Detroit won with scoring Big 3’s averaging 18, 17 & 16 and 18, 18 & 15 points per game—the Spurs are doing it again with selfless stat-ignoring leaders.

What other elite team's top three scorers average 18, 17 and 13 points per game?

What’s even funnier about that is that San Antonio is ignoring individual stats, posting the best regular-season record in the West (61-21), while simultaneously running the league’s second-most efficient offense.

Six Spurs are averaging double figures, with Parker leading the bunch at only 18 points per game (Ginobili, 17; Duncan, 13; George Hill, 12; Richard Jefferson, 11; Gary Neal, 10).

“If your best player is selfless and sets that kind of tone,” says Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, “everybody else is pretty reticent to think of themselves as the most important piece.”

“Depth is what makes a good team a great team,” says Duncan. “An 82-game season is a real grind. When you can use that time to spread it out, to develop players and to feel comfortable with players out there on the floor, it makes you a better team come playoff time.”

“It’s not about individual points and rebounds,” says Ginobili. “It’s about always improving, being humble more than anything and never thinking that we accomplished anything. It’s too early for that.”

Less is indeed more. That’s The Spurs’ Way.

“It should be everybody’s way,” says Ginobili. “Who’s going to remember who was in first in the regular season? We want to be the best in June.”

There is a parallel quote from Thomas in Cameron Stauth’s 1989 book “The Franchise” about those Bad Boy teams that both summed up The Secret and what these Spurs are saying.

“Lot of times, on our team, you can’t tell who the best player in the game was. ’Cause everybody did something good. That’s what makes us so good. The other team has to worry about stopping eight or nine people instead of two or three. It’s the only way to win. The only way to win. That’s the way the game was invented.

Bill Russell won 11 championships that way. Even Michael Jordan sacrificed—believe it or not—learning The Secret under Phil Jackson’s tutelage in 1990-91, dropping from 35 points and 40 minutes per game over the years to 31 points and 38 minutes in the championship seasons, consequently winning six titles in the process.

Popovich is another head coach who knows.

It’s how he won four championship rings as Spurs head coach “riding Tim’s coattails,” as Pop says, while also trying “to keep us healthy” as he developed his bench.

“We probably have had as much depth in some of the championship years as we do now,” says Popovich. “But the last two or three seasons, we haven’t had that depth and it ended up hurting us.

“It’s important when you’re trying to get to the playoffs that you’re as healthy as you can be. There’s a little bit of luck involved there too, but having depth helps keeps you healthy.”

Many in the biz act surprised by the Spurs’ 2010-11 success, but everyone should have seen the signs.

When the Big 3 was healthy, San Antonio’s deep squads maintained 56-to-63-win seasons on the regular.

Really, that’s been the only reason the Spurs hadn’t reached the conference finals the last couple years, with Parker missing 26 games in 2009-10 and Ginobili missing 38 in 2008-09.

That’s what it’s like for the teams that know.

An injury to one of Boston’s Big Three was the only reason the Celtics didn’t compete for the title in 2008-09, with KG missing 25 games and the playoffs when he hurt his knee. Injuries really are the only thing that keeps the teams that know how to win from winning at playoff time.

And right now, it is clear there are three teams out there who know how to win championships—the Lakers, Celtics and Spurs.

It can’t be a coincidence that L.A. and San Antonio have won nine of 12 championships since Jordan retired. And Boston gets props too for winning in their Big Three’s first year together in 2008 and also reaching the 2010 Finals in their third year together.

There have been other winners this century, but those championships teams are no longer intact.

Dwyane Wade won the 2006 Finals MVP, but nobody from that championship team is still playing with the Heat, with the exception of the out-of-action Udonis Haslem.

New Heat young stars LeBron James and Chris Bosh have learned some from past playoff experiences--and they did give up money to play together--but their on-court sacrifices to help the other nine guys on the squad are not as obvious yet.

Chauncey Billups won the 2004 Finals MVP, but he’s in New York now, while his old Pistons teammates now are in Detroit, elsewhere or retired.

And three-time Finals MVP Shaquille O’Neal has taken his knowledge to a team that already knows how to win, the Boston Celtics.

Admittedly, it’s a process for any young star throughout the history of the NBA ... but it’s one these Spurs learned quickly because that’s how their leader came into the league in 1997-98.

San Antonio was coming off a 59-23 season in 1995-96 when David Robinson and Sean Elliott averaged 25 and 20 points, respectively.

After an injury-plagued 1996-97 season—which led to the Spurs getting the No. 1 1997 NBA Draft pick—Robinson and Elliott sacrificed their games to accommodate the rookie sensation Duncan (Robinson’s average dropped to 22 as he took on the defensive stalwart role to let Duncan develop offensively and defensively at his own speed; Elliott saw his average drop to 9 points per game).

Two seasons together, championship.

That’s what makes the sacrifice all worth it for Duncan in this 14-year span of annual 50-win seasons—T.D. was the recipient of the veterans’ generosity as a rookie, and ever since, he has been the giver.

“It’s hard, in the fact that I have to play differently now,” says Duncan. “I have to adjust to that. But it’s great, in the fact that I feel as healthy as I have been in the last three, four, five years. I have to imagine my minutes being down and not being on the floor and pounding myself has helped. It’s helped in that respect. And we’re winning.

“I don’t need to be the 25-12 guy. I’m not that player. I do believe I can double-double anytime. I can do 20-10 just about—well, not anytime—but I can get those kind of numbers on some nights. But that’s not what I’m being asked to do right now. My role has changed. I’m kind of a different player right now. I’m working with what I’ve got.”

By playing a career-low 28 minutes per game, the 34-year-old Duncan has more gas left in the tank for the playoff run, not to mention his rest—and also 36-year-old Antonio McDyess’ sacrifice and limited action—has given more playing time to Matt Bonner, DeJuan Blair and Tiago Splitter.

And by sacrificing their minutes for George Hill the past few seasons, Ginobili and Parker in turn have helped create the best guard trio in the game, according to Regularized Adjusted Plus-Minus, a statistic that correlates with winning basketball much better than traditional boxscore stats ever could (Ginobili’s 1-year and 4-year RAPM is +5.7 and +5.3; Parker is +0.7 and +2.7; Hill is +2.6 and +1.0).

Those same RAPM indicators show Duncan is still among the best centers in the game, even while old-school boxscore stats—13 points and 9 rebounds—say otherwise (Duncan’s 1-year and 4-year RAPM is +3.4 and +6.2, only topped at the center position by Dwight Howard’s +4.3 and +7.4).

“Sure it hurts our points and stats, but that’s not what the game is about,” says Parker. “Our critics will compare us to the other stars in the league and point out how their numbers are better. We use that as motivation, but we don’t let it distract us from what we have to do as a team. Winning is the focus here.”

“It’s about something more for us,” says Ginobili. “In my case, for sure. I have a real sense of appreciation of being here, of being in the NBA.

“Knowing all that I’ve gone through. I started playing pro in Argentina. Then I went to second division in Italy. Then after a lot of work, I made it to first division and at 25 I got here. It’s not like I was a one-of-a-kind talented guy at 18, made it to the NBA and I’ve been here since then.

“In my case, like so many of us here, it’s different than other players around the league. That’s why we appreciate what has happened here so much.”

It’s the foundation in San Antonio that is different than any other place in the NBA, where loyalty and longevity is cultivated.

As San Antonio’s head coach for the past 15 seasons, Pop is the longest tenured coach in the game.

Duncan, Ginobili and Parker are three of only six multiple-time All-Stars in the league who have 9-plus years for the same team for their entire career (Bryant, Pierce and Dirk Nowitzki are the others).

Popovich’s right-hand man, Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer points out this foundation as key in the development of all the San Antonio late-round draft picks and non-draft players alike (Hill, Blair, Tiago Splitter, Neal and James Anderson).

“First, you got to find the players,” says Budenholzer. “Then you’ve got to work and develop them. But probably the most important is our veteran players help grow them, help teach them. There’s nothing like having a veteran player talk to a young guy about different situations or different things he needs to work on or improve.”

You see it when Duncan palms his teammates’ heads and pulls them to him to whisper something to them. “And you see how the young players respond to him,” says Coach Bud.

You see it in Ginobili, over the years, volunteering to come off the bench so that a younger Hill gets the opportunity to play with the first-string crew. Or showing up at the Spurs Summer League to help coach the team of prospects, then drawing up plays for a then-unsigned Neal and afterwards promoting his talents to the Spurs coaches.

You see it in Parker, regularly having Blair over at his house to make the second-rounder feel more at home a year ago.

It’s the little actions between the big moments.

You see it in the depth charts—nine Spurs averaging 19-plus minutes this season. You see it in the balanced scoring attack—six Spurs averaging in double figures. You see it in the bench’s RAPM scores, where the Spurs’ subs rank with the Lakers, Nuggets and Bulls as the best bench in basketball.

Some knock the Spurs for being an old team—with a team average age of 28.4—but 93-percent of NBA champions are old by that definition.

In the NBA’s Modern Era—since the 1983-84 season (start of the salary cap, four-round playoffs and Commissioner David Stern)—25 of 27 NBA champions had a team’s average age of at least 28 years in age, which is strange since an overwhelming majority of teams are in younger demographics.

Only the 1990-91 Bulls and 2008-09 Lakers won NBA titles without fielding a playoff roster that had an average age of 28 or older.

“When people bring up the age question, I don’t think about it, very honestly,” says Pop, whose four championship teams had an average age of 30.8, 30.5, 29.3 and 30.8 years old, respectively.

“Most good teams have a good mix of experienced players and younger guys. We have that. Other good teams have the same thing.”

Pop knows his stuff. Check out the six teams older than the Spurs this year—the Heat, Lakers, Mavs, Nuggets, Celtics and Magic—all playoff contenders.

Pop knows—like Phil and Doc also know—that you’ve got to be old to win!

And you’ve also got to be together for a long time to generate that championship chemistry—21 of the 27 NBA champs had four of their top five playoff minutemen together on the team for three-plus seasons (the six that didn’t: 2007-08 Celtics, 2005-06 Heat, 2003-04 Pistons, 2002-03 Spurs, 1999-2000 Lakers and 1994-95 Rockets).

Duncan. Parker. Ginobili. Hill. Bonner … the list of longtime Spurs goes on and on.

“I think all of us, in our own ways, we get a lot of satisfaction out of the success and the duration of the success,” says Budenholzer.

“I just think there’s a lot of quality of life, the camaraderie and friendship and relationships. It’s a family type of atmosphere that Pop creates. You want to go to work happy and be at a place where you feel important and you enjoy the people you work with.”

*

One more thing I must relate regarding The Secret.

When I read Simmons’ “Big Book of Basketball,” I was privately thrilled and jealous The Sports Guy got Thomas to reveal The Secret to him.

Back in 1998 when I wrote for Sport Magazine, I had tried to get Thomas to tell me what The Secret was, after reading about it in “The Franchise” a decade earlier.

Thomas didn’t give me the full 411 like he did with Simmons in 2009. But the point guard’s words to me in '98 did serve as a foreshadowing to his revelation years later. And it’s so apropos here for this story on the Spurs.

“Magic, Bird and Jordan never, ever gave away those secrets, in terms of how you win championships. That’s a learning process and that’s a knowledge that one has to acquire. When you look back over the last 20 years, you’re really only talking about five or six players. Jordan, Bird, Magic, myself, Olajuwon, Julius. Is there anyone else in that group that I’m missing?”

No, you got the leaders, I tell him.

“Over the last 20 years, those have been the dominant players on the sports scene. When you get that knowledge, you pay a helluva price to get it. And I’m not gonna like just give it all out in a magazine now.”

Add that classic Isiah laugh right here.

“You pay the price to get that knowledge. And the thing that separates champions from great players is that champions are willing to pay that price to get that knowledge. Great players won’t pay the price.

“When I got into the league, I spent a lot of time with Magic. I spent a lot of time with Bird. I was in the Celtics locker room after they won the championship, I was in the Celtics locker room after they lost. I was in the Lakers locker room after they won the championship. I was in the Lakers locker room after they lost.

“I found out what it was like, I wanted to know what it was like to be a part of that. You have to see what it is to chase it.”

It’s at this point, as I Hot Tub Time Machine myself back from 1998 to 2011 today that I recall the words of Spurs guard George Hill: “I’ve learned from the very best in my time here in San Antonio.

"Tony and Manu are both All-Stars. They could go down as the best backcourt ever. Tim is a walking Hall of Famer. How can you not get better? I keep on improving here because the learning never stops because I’m with these guys every day.”

Isiah had to travel cross-country all postseason long, following Magic and Bird, paying the price, to discover The Secret.

All these young Spurs have to do is show up to practice every day. Listen when spoken to. Do as they’re told. Make the extra pass. Take the open shot.

The rest, as they say, is history.


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