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Spurs' Way is culture of excellence

San Antonio Spurs' Tim Duncan celebrates with the

San Antonio Spurs' Tim Duncan celebrates with the team as he comes down to the bench during the overtime in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals. (May 21, 2013) Credit: AP

The San Antonio Spurs won the 1997 NBA lottery and haven't lost much since.

They drafted Tim Duncan, teamed him with David Robinson and a dynasty was born. Now, 10 years after Robinson retired, the Spurs remain an elite team that receives little hype and hoopla.

That's just how Duncan and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich want it. They enjoy flying under the radar and continue to do so despite 16 years of unprecedented success that includes their fifth trip to the NBA finals together.

LeBron James and the Heat have stolen most of the headlines in recent years, but it's too soon to know if the Heat has the Spurs' staying power or whether James will stay in Miami after next season.

The Spurs are a model franchise built on defense, selflessness and playing together. They have won four NBA championships since Duncan and Popovich joined forces (1999, 2003, 2005, 2007) and continue to display an incredibly consistent level of excellence.

"They're the best-run organization in the NBA and have been for a long time," said P.J. Carlesimo, who won three titles as a Spurs assistant coach from 2002-07. "They've got guys that care about the team more than they care about themselves."

It's a basic premise that all players and teams should follow -- but frequently don't. The results are proven. The Spurs are 888-376 since drafting Duncan. Their .703 winning percentage leads all the teams in the four major professional sports during that period.

The Spurs, who beginning Thursday will face the winner of the Heat-Pacers series, have star power. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have some flash and a fiery nature to their games, more so than Duncan, whom Shaquille O'Neal nicknamed The Big Fundamental.

But the Spurs don't appeal to the masses and often are overlooked and underappreciated because they don't have the sexy names and players the Heat, Lakers and Knicks do.

"It is vanilla," said ESPN analyst Bruce Bowen, the starting small forward on three of San Antonio's championship teams. "You might look at vanilla and say, 'It's boring. I want a little bit of Ben and Jerry's Chunky Monkey.'

"Chunky Monkey is not viewed worldwide as vanilla is. The special thing about vanilla is you can add to it to make it more special. You got Tim Duncan, vanilla. You add a little whipped cream with cherries and some type of strawberry something with Tony Parker. You add some nuts and caramel sauce or chocolate sauce with Manu. The next thing you know, you have a great sundae.

"The ingredients were basically vanilla in the beginning. So even though it was vanilla, it doesn't discount the fact that all these other things that are involved make it so special."


The Spurs' Way

The NBA had "The Decision" and "Melo-Drama" and "Dwight-mare" during the last several years, in which star players left teams for bigger markets and improved chances of winning a championship.

James got his. Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony and Lakers center Dwight Howard still are chasing their first ring. This whole notion is foreign to Duncan and the Spurs.

They stick together and continue to grow and build on the principle that the team is more important than the individual.

"It's how can I make my teammates better?" Bowen said in describing the Spurs' Way. "How can I make Tony better? How can I make Manu better? How can I make Tim better? What little play can I do? It's sacrificing to make someone else better."

It comes from familiarity.

Popovich is the only coach Duncan has had. In that same time, the Wizards have had 12 head coaches and the Grizzlies and Warriors have had 10 each. Duncan and Parker have been together since 2001. Ginobili joined them a year later and they have won three titles since.

It also comes from the culture created by Popovich, who graduated from the Air Force Academy. He gets on all his players, including Duncan. But he also has instilled in them that the Spurs come before any personal achievements, and they buy in.

Robinson was first. Duncan came next. Then Parker and Ginobili. Everyone else understands the mission statement, and if each man plays his role, the Spurs have a chance to win big.

"Timmy and David have empowered Pop from day one," said Carlesimo, the former Nets interim coach who is serving as an ESPN analyst through the Finals. "Pop can tell people to stand on their head, and the first guys that are going to do it are going to be Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. In the old days, it was David and Tim.

"When your best players support you like that and play for you and respect you the way those guys respect Pop, that's the formula."


Duncan delivers

Duncan learned from Robinson about being professional and knowing you can't be "The Man" forever.

Robinson gracefully passed the torch to Duncan shortly after his arrival and they won two titles together. Duncan, arguably the greatest power forward of all time, did the same for Parker and Ginobili in recent years.

The Spurs went from being a slow-it-down post-up team that runs the offense through Duncan to one that's more spread out and features Parker probing and creating shots for himself and his teammates.

"Tim's most happy when others have a chance to succeed," Bowen said. "People don't realize with Tony being able to dominate in the Finals in 2007, Tim was his biggest cheerleader. You don't see it with some of the big men that were in the game. Big men are like, 'Give me the ball. Give me the ball.' It's not about that.

"I think that's the difference in Tim. He's comfortable with who he is and he realizes it's not just about him, it's about supporting others as well. When you support others and all that they do, it creates an environment of wanting to see guys succeed."

Duncan, 37, turned back the clock by losing about 20 pounds in the offseason. He averaged 17.8 points and 9.9 rebounds and made the All-NBA first team.

"There is no way you would see Shaq shedding pounds to become a different kind of player other than the dominant force he was," Bowen said. "That lets you know how special Tim is. Not everyone can do that."


Building a winner

Owner Peter Holt, Popovich -- who also is the Spurs' president -- and general manager R.C. Buford have created a winning environment. Their staff is good at scouting and finding people who will do what's asked and expected of them.

Consider this: Duncan was their last lottery pick. So they have had to be creative and do their homework to build this juggernaut.

The Spurs picked Ginobili 57th in the 1999 draft, Parker 28th in 2001, Tiago Splitter 28th in 2007 and DeJuan Blair 37th in 2009.

They acquired Kawhi Leonard and Matt Bonner in trades and signed Gary Neal, North Babylon's Danny Green, Boris Diaw and Patty Mills as free agents.

The Spurs' top nine rotation players also were on the team that lost to the Thunder in the Western Conference finals last year.

"You see the continuity," said NBA TV analyst Steve Smith, who played on the Spurs' 2003 championship team. "They don't turn over a lot of people. They do a good job of finding guys that want to win."

The Spurs have had so many of those guys, from Steve Kerr, Brent Barry and Danny Ferry to Malik Rose and Speedy Claxton.

Former Hofstra great Claxton spent one memorable year in San Antonio and helped the Spurs knock off the Nets in the 2003 Finals for their second championship.

Although Claxton's time with them was short, he called the Spurs "my boys" and picked them to win their fifth title.

"Once you're a Spur, you're always a Spur," Claxton said, "especially when you win a championship."

Bowen, who played for three other teams, said that sense of family and accomplishment sets the Spurs apart from other franchises.

"Even if you come up short of the goal of championship, you can still relish in the fact that your life has changed because you've been in this environment," Bowen said. "Once you're in that environment, you go elsewhere, nothing is ever the same."

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