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Once Again, Role Players Prop Up Spurs’ Stars

The significant, if unheralded, contributions of the Spurs’ role players have been a staple of San Antonio’s greatness since 1999.

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The San Antonio Spurs won Game 1 of the 2014 NBA Finals on Thursday night, yet hardly anybody is talking about them today.

Sports talk radio and social media are definitely buzzing, but it seems all the discussion is centered on LeBron James’ cramps and the lack of air-conditioning inside the AT&T Center.

Still, the Spurs are used to this sort of treatment. Despite being the most dominant and consistently successful franchise in all of professional sports over the past two decades, somehow San Antonio continues to fly under the radar.

The Spurs’ accomplishments dating back to the late 1990s are legendary at this point. They certainly aren’t the flashiest franchise, and although their old-school approach appeals to many basketball purists, it doesn’t draw as many viewers on national broadcasts. The small-town Spurs may not increase ratings, but they do win basketball games. Since Tim Duncan landed in San Antonio, the Spurs have won more games than any team in any of the four major North American sports.

And of course Duncan, and his longtime coach Gregg Popovich, are the cornerstones of this unprecedented San Antonio success story. In fact, per the Elias Sports Bureau, Duncan (who finished with 21 points and 10 boards in Game 1) became only the third player since the NBA introduced the shot clock in 1954 to have a 20-and-10 Finals game in which he made at least 90 percent of his shots from the floor, joining Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell.

However, another indispensable key to their triumphs has been successfully surrounding Duncan, their once-in-a-generation big man, with complementary role players perfectly suited to surround the team’s superstar.

General manager R.C. Buford and Popovich were way ahead of the curve when it comes to importing European talent. Constantly finishing near the top of the standings resulted in the Spurs drafting late in the first round. However, Buford and Pop overcame this impediment by miraculously finding diamonds in the rough year after year. They selected Manu Ginobili with the 57th overall pick in the 1999 draft. In 2001, they nabbed Tony Parker with the final pick in the first round. San Antonio selected Luis Scola 55th the following year, and Leandro Barbosa with the second-to-last pick of the first round in 2003. They drafted their starting center, Tiago Splitter, from the 28th spot in 2007.

However, the draft hasn’t been the only way the Spurs’ front office has rounded out the roster. Popovich and Buford’s track record on signing affordable free agents has been stellar as well. This dates all the way back to their first title in 1999. Duncan and David Robinson were obviously the focal points of that first title team, but the role players certainly chipped in when needed. Mario Elie, 35 at the time, was signed prior to that 1999 season and was the team’s third-leading scorer during the 1999 Finals. Avery Johnson was a career journeyman when San Antonio signed him for $600,000. Jaren Jackson had played for eight different NBA teams, and numerous other CBA teams, before the Spurs brought him into the fold for the league minimum ($270,000). Jackson scored 17 points and hit five three-pointers in the Spurs’ Game 1 win over the New York Knicks.

Prior to their 2003 championship, the Spurs took a chance on a former second-round pick drafted out of Butler Community College, Stephen Jackson, who had been waived by two teams before San Antonio signed him. Jackson was the team’s third-leading scorer during the 2003 postseason. The best perimeter defender on that 2003 championship squad was Bruce Bowen, who had bounced around the league after being undrafted out of Cal-State Fullerton.

In 2007, the Spurs started undrafted Fabricio Oberto at center. Robert Horry and Michael Finely, both in their mid-30s and past their primes, contributed important minutes off the bench.

Here we are in 2014, and Pop and Buford are still up to their old tricks. Duncan was sensational in Game 1. As was Ginobili, who became just the third player ever to record 15 points, 10 assists and five rebounds while playing fewer than 35 minutes in a Finals game, joining Scottie Pippen and Magic Johnson, per Elias.

However, Boris Diaw’s contributions were also vital to the Spurs’ victory on Thursday night. Despite scoring just two points, Diaw was  an incredible, game-high +30. Diaw was incredibly efficient on the offensive end of the floor and effective defensively as well. He finished with 10 rebounds and six assists.

And in the fourth quarter of Game 1, Danny Green took over, scoring 11 of his 13 points in the final period.

Green is another former second-round pick that the Spurs scooped off the scrap heap. San Antonio signed Green for slightly more than the minimum after he had been waived the Cleveland Cavaliers. Diaw is also a player that San Antonio took a chance on, but has found a home playing for Popovich.

Yes, San Antonio hit the jackpot when they won the lottery and the right to select Duncan. However, the reason the Spurs have been able to continually sustain their incredible success is due in large part to the organization’s remarkable ability to surround their star with the perfect pieces. This is all the more astonishing considering the restraints placed upon teams during this era of the salary cap. The Spurs have done a miraculous finding diamonds in the rough, as Duncan is the only lottery pick on their roster.

If the Spurs do end up winning three more games and capturing a fifth NBA championship, we will all likely spend the majority of our time after the series debating the legacy of LeBron James and whether or not the Miami HEAT will stick together for another season, as opposed to the accomplishments of the Spurs. Nevertheless, it’s probably safe to assume that doesn’t bother Buford, Pop and company all that much. After all, that just means fewer distractions, as they will soon start focusing on preparing for the draft and figuring out ways to affordably re-tool their roster this offseason.



Tommy Beer is a Senior NBA Analyst and the Fantasy Sports Editor of Basketball Insiders, having covered the NBA for the last nine seasons.

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