With all the NBA teams lined up behind the start line, the clap announced the start of the race. And off they went! The Spurs kept a fast, impressive pace, but they never switched it into an unnecessary high gear. Other teams began to sprint to the finish and exchanged leads, but the Spurs always remained in striking distance. And as each racer ran out of stamina and stumbled too early, the Spurs took the lead again. Contenders came and fell, but the Spurs kept their pace. By the time the finish line was in sight, the steady tortoises found themselves winning more than most of the fast sprinting hares.
The last decade and a half of the NBA has been one long marathon for Tim Duncan, Gregg Popovich, and the San Antonio Spurs. In this time, contenders have come and gone, teams have refreshed their entire look, superstars have retired, new superstars have been born, teams have relocated, teams have been created, teams have challenged, and teams have fallen away. But the Spurs have steadily remained the same, hovering near the top of the Western Conference each season and making five Finals appearances over the course of 14 years with their coach and star player tandem.
On June 25, 1997, The Spurs selected Duncan with the first pick of the 1997 Draft and he teamed up with Popovich to give birth to a rare, successful era. In June 2013, Duncan and Popovich, who have paced themselves for the long run while also being aided by a handful of other future Hall of Famers on the way, find themselves just one win away from their fifth championship together.
How rare has the San Antonio model been? The only active player to enjoy a longer tenure with one team for his entire NBA career has been Kobe Bryant, who has spent all 17 seasons with the Lakers. Duncan has been in San Antonio for 16 seasons, while his co-partners in success Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have spent 12 and 11 years all with the same team respectively. Only Dirk Nowitzki (15 years in Dallas), Paul Pierce (14 years in Boston), and the Heat duo of Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem (10 years) can count themselves in the short list of active players to have spent a decade or more with only one NBA team.
Loyalty is rare in todayís NBA, but the Spursí marathon men have proven that if a team remains loyal to their once-in-a-generation superstar, their once-in-a-generation coach, and makes smart transactions along the way, then loyalty can serve up the ultimate rewards.
Duncanís Spurs won a championship in 1999, in the first season since Michael Jordanís retirement from the Bulls and signaled the start of a new era in NBA history. From that point on, they outlived the three-peat Shaq-Kobe partnership in LA, kept winning through the rise and fall of the Pistons in the East, outlasted Bostonís Big Three and the Lakersí second surge with Kobe and Gasol, and now find themselves head-to-head with the NBAís new power, the Big Three of LeBron James, Wade, and Chris Bosh in Miami. This trip to the Finals is the fourth Finals that the trio of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili have played together in.
We could talk of the past 14 years as if they were a long stretch of the same season, with the Coach making slightly different adjustments along the way to fit the evolving needs of his roster and the changing face of the challenger. David Robinson made way for Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, Robert Horry and Bruce Bowen have been replaced by Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard, and the ride keeps smoothly chugging along.
A lot of NBA teams were satisfied with the sprint. Duncan and Popovich got together for the long haul. Sixteen years since their union, their pace and patience could pay off again. Regardless of what happens looking ahead at the Finals, the San Antonio Spurs can be proud of how they ran the NBA marathon unlike any other team of this generation.