CLEVELAND (AP) — Their blueprint, shaded in tones of silver, white and black, is based on defense, discipline and teamwork. The San Antonio Spurs have never wavered from it, making them the NBA’s current standard of excellence.
They aren’t the first dominant team, nor will they be the last.
The Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls preceded them, but nobody does it better these days than the bland-yet-becoming Spurs, now one win shy of a fourth championship in nine years — and perhaps a special place in history.
“They’ve become the class of this league, there’s no question about it,” said Utah guard Derek Fisher, whose Jazz team lost to the Spurs in the Western Conference finals.
An elite team? Undoubtedly.
A dynasty? Hmmm.
That was the word being kicked around the court inside Quicken Loans Arena on Wednesday as the Spurs prepared for tonight’s Game 4 and a possible sweep of the Cleveland Cavaliers, first-time finalists who have copied San Antonio’s model.
However, one person didn’t want in on the dynasty discussion.
“That’s all psycho babble,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said, using one of his favorite expressions to downplay the notion. “When I think of dynasties, two come to my mind real quick — UCLA and Bill Russell. Everything else is just talk.”
Let’s talk about the Spurs’ run for a second.
Beginning with their 1999 title, they’ve qualified for the playoffs every season — no given out West — made it to the semifinals eight times and advanced to five conference finals.
They are 3-0 in the NBA finals, and unless the cold-shooting Cavaliers begin knocking down jumpers and become the first team in history to overcome an 0-3 deficit, the Spurs will be a perfect 4-for-4 in the finals — a 1.000 batting average in any arena.
Getting their hands on a fourth Larry O’Brien Trophy would also put the Spurs with the Celtics (16), Lakers (14) and Bulls (6) as the only teams to win four titles since the league’s 1947 start.
Los Angeles’ three straight championships from 2000-02 are sandwiched by the Spurs, who also won it all in 2005.
Fisher was a key member on those Lakers teams led by Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, and although it’s tough for him to admit it, Fisher feels what the Spurs have accomplished has eclipsed what he and his teammates did.
“I hate to say it,” Fisher began, “but they’re probably surpassing us, to be honest. We had that great four-to-five-year period, but you have to kind of look at the Bulls and the Celtics and the Lakers teams of the ’80s that dominated an entire period.
“I can honestly say they’re surpassing us in terms of recent dynasties and teams that have been able to sustain that level of excellence over a long period of time.”
Tracing the Spurs’ path to prominence leads to one point: the 1997 NBA draft lottery, when the club won the rights to Tim Duncan, their unappreciated star and perhaps the greatest power forward ever.
Duncan has been the foundation around which the Spurs have built their empire, one that has been raised through savvy business decisions, adept international scouting and a family oriented philosophy laid out by owner Peter Holt and implemented by general manager R.C. Buford.
The Spurs went overseas to find All-Star Tony Parker, their Road Runner of a point guard, as well as super sub Manu Ginobili and starting center Fabricio Oberto, who are both from Argentina.
San Antonio has also been able to lure free agents such as Brent Barry, Michael Finley and Robert Horry, valuable role players who joined the club with hopes of winning an NBA championship, or in Horry’s case, a seventh one.
Finley spent eight seasons with Dallas, but it took him heading south in Texas to land in his first finals. The 12-year veteran remembers marveling at the Spurs’ consistency while he was with the Mavericks.
“From the outside looking in, we thought they were a perfect team, a team that didn’t make mistakes, a team that went out and played perfect ball,” he said. “But once I got here, it was those imperfections that made them a good team. It’s not a perfect team. It makes mistakes. But the way it comes back from those mistakes and doesn’t crumble to adverse situations is what makes it a great team.”
NBA teams are no different than those in the NFL, where the best ideas and brightest talents elsewhere are either borrowed or stolen.
Thus, the Cleveantonio Spurvaliers.
The Cavaliers’ first visit to the finals in 37 years has been orchestrated by former Spurs. GM Danny Ferry played four seasons in San Antonio and spent two others as their director of basketball operations. Assistant GM Lance Blanks won two titles in San Antonio’s front office and coach Mike Brown was an assistant under Popovich for three years.
Both were hired by Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert, a Detroit native and longtime Pistons fan, who began remaking the Cavs in San Antonio’s likeness after the Spurs beat his former favorite team in the 2005 finals.
Like the Spurs, the Cavs have a superstar in LeBron James, who needs to be surrounded by better talent for the team to win its first title.
“When you want to be the best, you want to try to mirror image the best, and they’re definitely the best team in our league at this point in time,” James said. “You want to try to do exactly what they do.”
On what could have been their final day of practice this season, none of the Spurs would bite on talk of them being a dynasty.
“Maybe 10 years from now, I’ll be able to discuss that,” Barry said. “But right now the focus is trying to win a championship.”
James, though, has seen enough of them in three games to offer his opinion on the Spurs, who rarely get their due.
“They have a dynasty already at work,” he said. “They don’t have the greatest athletes in the world, they don’t have the greatest shooters in the world, but they probably have the greatest team in the world.
“And that’s what this sport is all about. It’s not about an individual.”