The saying goes, “Help me help you.”
The San Antonio Spurs take it one step further.
The defending NBA champions are led by a trio of veterans who have clocked over 118,000 minutes between their regular season and playoff games. In order for the Spurs to continue their success, they need their younger players to shoulder some of the weight absorbed by Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker.
These vets pour into their teammates, offering advice, leading by example and setting the tone every game and practice of the season. By helping the younger Spurs become better, it helps them and the entire team.
“I think they’re playing great, they’re improving every year,” said Parker. “We knew that as the ‘Big Three’ is getting older, we’re going to have to do it as a team and that’s what we’re doing. We played great together last year, winning a championship and (are) try(ing) to do it again this year.”
At some point the faces of the Spurs will change. It’s not a matter of if, but an inevitable when. Duncan will turn 39 in April and is playing nearly 30 minutes a night in his 18th season. Ginobili is 37 and Parker is 32. Both guards have seen a lot action internationally along with playing in the NBA. They have been chasing titles together since Ginobili joined the team in 2002, capturing four along the way.
The Spurs (13-4) began adding the pieces for their future in 2011 when they traded for Kahwi Leonard and selected Cory Joseph on draft night. The foundation for the next chapter was laid without having to clean house.
“It’s not a challenge if you have people that have character and people that you don’t have to motivate,” said head coach Gregg Popovich, who pointed to Leonard’s self-enforced drive. “If you have those kind of people, it’s obviously much more enjoyable and it’s a way a program keeps consistency and continues to have people in there that do things on their own. You have enough to do without trying to convince somebody he should work hard or he should focus more. We don’t have those kinds of discussions.”
Over the years, the Spurs have added younger players to their rosters. Some are rookies, some have overseas experience, others are a few years into their careers and eager to be on a contender. More importantly, they want to help their veteran teammates, who have offered so much of themselves, win another title.
“We’ve got to help them,” said Danny Green. “We do our job and make their job easier. My job is to help Tony make shots, help him play defense, guard the point guard for him sometimes to give him a rest. When they don’t play, (we) hold our end of the deal by winning games … or sustain a lead or get a lead back when they’re not on the floor, give them a rest, give them some time off a little bit.”
For some, it starts with overcoming being star struck. Duncan made his NBA debut in 1997. Ginobili was drafted in 1999. Newcomers aren’t just playing with their new teammates; they are playing with childhood icons whose careers have spanned decades.
Green, 27, signed with the Spurs in 2010 following his rookie season with the Cleveland Cavaliers. He struggled to settle in the early stages of his career, especially going from a team with LeBron James and Shaquille O’Neal to another roster stacked with future Hall of Famers. He only lasted a few games that season, before impressing in the D-League and earning a spot on the team the following season that he has yet to relinquish. Being cut seemed like a distant memory when Green set the NBA Finals record for most made three-pointers in 2013.
“My first couple years (on the Spurs) I was very nervous and it took me a while to get comfortable,” Green told Basketball Insiders. “I just remember walking on eggshells, being scared of what to do or where to go … These are guys I watched playing growing up. It’s a culture shock and it’s a celebrity-type shock. It’s just a shocking thing all around.
“Then you become teammates with them, share a locker room and it’s different. They don’t treat you like you’re an alien; they treat you like you’re one of them. You come in, they teach you things, they treat you like you’re part of the team already. It makes it easy.”
Rookie Kyle Anderson experienced the same first impressions this summer when the Spurs drafted him out of UCLA. He was born in 1993, Duncan’s freshman year at Wake Forest University. Anderson moved to San Antonio in August and had a month to “really be in awe of everybody” before the start of training camp. Once the preseason began, the veterans knocked down any barriers a first-year player could have thought existed between them.
“They welcomed me with open arms,” Anderson, 21, said. “One thing that I do give these guys credit for is answering all my questions. I ask them a lot of different questions and they answer them, they never blow me off. I ask them in games, practices, on the elevators, going to the hotel, leaving the hotel … There’s nothing I really could complain about.”
The Spurs have built their success around letting their play do the talking. As such, some of the most valuable lessons are taught on the court. For all the stories the veterans can share, tales of championship triumph they have in their memory banks, the loudest messages are sent through their performances.
Aron Baynes signed with the Spurs early in the 2012-13 season following an international career after going undrafted out of Washington State. He now has the role of backing up Duncan, from whom he has been trying to soak up as much as possible. The big man also credits Parker and Ginobili for his improvements on the pick-and-roll by helping him during game action.
“You’ve seen they’ve had that success and you want to emulate what they’ve done,” said Baynes, 27, who is averaging 11.4 points and 5.6 rebounds in the last five games. “Their message is they go out and do, that’s the biggest part of it. They don’t just tell you what to do. You can see them; they’re the ones leading from the front. … Everything they say is pretty much spot on. Sometimes they’ll say it heated, sometimes they don’t, but you’ve just got to listen to the message of it.”
There are high expectations when playing for a defending champion and annual contender. The younger players are motivated by watching their veteran leaders continually push themselves to meet those standards.
Austin Daye, 26, had been a member of three teams in five seasons before being traded by Toronto Raptors to the Spurs in February. He said he remembers playing on squads that were satisfied with winning just one game on an entire road trip. The Spurs strive for much more. Seeing the veterans held accountable just like the rest of the team makes him appreciate their efforts.
“I can tell a difference in the mindset of a lot of players and the coaching staff. It makes you want to be better for your team in all aspects,” Daye said. “(I’ve learned the most from) the moments when Pop can get on anybody and talk to anybody and really just demand the best out of all of us, even those guys. It goes all the way down the line from them to us.”
Words like “approach” and “routine” were mentioned throughout the Spurs’ locker room when discussing the trio’s dedication. Success comes from focus and commitment, and winning is expected.
One player who thrived early on among this disciplined veteran core is Leonard. He captured 2014 NBA Finals MVP honors at only 22 years old and is already learning lessons that will help the longevity of his career.
“(We see) a good example about their play on the floor and how they approach the game,” said Leonard. “That’s what we look at and we try to match their approach and how hard they work. … They’re able to adjust to their bodies. (They are) getting older and they adjust their game very easily. You could just see that on the court.”
Staying prepared is on the veterans’ to-do list seven days a week. Duncan, Parker and Ginobili don’t have a switch they turn on and off, as Joseph learned his rookie year in 2011.
In addition to crediting Parker with teaching him how to run the team and be an extension of Popovich on the court, the backup point guard also watched how the veterans spend their time when they are not playing. First came ditching the fast food Joseph had enjoyed straight out of college. Then came lifestyle changes, such as sleeping routines and game day habits.
“It’s been great, actually,” said Joseph, 23. “My progress over the years, I feel like they definitely sped it up in a bunch of ways — becoming a better professional, taking care of my body, helping me manage my time better. They helped me learn how to become a man in this league.
“If you extend a hand, they’re always willing to help. They’ve always helped me, genuine help. That’s the biggest thing. A lot of guys can say yeah, but be half-invested into you. They’re fully committed.”
Year after year, the question arises as to when the Spurs run will end. When will time catch up with these veterans? When will this unbreakable trio be split apart by retirement?
On the team with Duncan, Ginobili and Parker is a group of young players who are focused on giving their leaders the best chance to win another championship for as long as they continue playing together. They are making those contributions thanks to the generosity of experience and positive examples set by the trio.
“I just try to help, give them advice,” said Parker. “We always try to cheer them. They’re going to have ups and downs, but so far they’ve been playing well. They’re very positive and it’s a great group. I’m very lucky as a point guard. There are so many great guys on the team and we like spending time with each other on and off the court.”
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