An efficient, fundamentally sound & first class basketball program is what comes to mind when you think of the Spurs. Top notch winning culture, beautiful team basketball & humble people. The recent exodus of players & souring of locker room camaraderie is just a reflection of the precarious nature of great qualities of the Spurs system that treaded delicately on thin waters for decades. The players are under rated, sometimes under appreciated (by media & endorsement deal-makers) and often overlooked by casual fans.
Below the highly raved ‘Spurs (Greg Popovich) system’ is a myriad of well-planned international recruitments & under rated college signings. The tradition of Spurs is one that prides itself with no ego, grooming the most efficient & selfless basketball player, typically with players that attract zero attention or hype at college or international level.
Notice that the earlier success stems from drafting level headed, cool team players who are over with themselves & plays almost selflessly to the extent of discounting personal excellence (financially in terms of endorsement deals, marketability & salary negotiations) for the sake of team culture.
The Spurs have drafted shrewdly during each generation for a stable, quietly industrious leader who walks more than talking, who shows the team players that you can win without drama or ego. Look at Sean Elliot, Artis Gilmore, George Gervin, David Robinson & Tim Duncan. One key piece to last a decade or more. Then surround that keystone with several strong supporting cornerstones. Fill it up with many firm role players that cement the entire foundation. That’s how the silver & black dynasty was built.
The tumultous locker room drama, spilling over to media outcries, trade demands, exit of (veteran leader) Tony Parker & (rising junior) Kyle Anderson & impending exodus of (superstar) Kahwi Leonard is totally uncharacteristic of the stability in the Spurs organization.
If you examine the business side of the Spurs, you will see how much the past players have sacrificed. Take the most recent pillar, Duncan, for example. Being drafted in 1997, the Spurs made a marginal increment to his annual salary from 3+M (1997) to 10+M (2000) to 15+M (2003) to 20+M (2007). He also took pay cuts to help the team retain more players after their Championship runs. Duncan drew a minimal 5+M in the final few years, which is comparable to rookie contracts. In his prime, he voided his contractual clause for early termination, meaning that he cannot exercise his player rights to chase higher salaries elsewhere. That is a huge sum of money left on the table for a top Hall-of-Fame caliber player. Just for comparison sake, Shaquille O’neal was paid 4.3M for his rookie contract and upped it to 17+M (1996) and increased his salary to 30M (2003). He drew 30M for three straight years and 17+M for seven years. All these occurred against the backdrop of the newly negotiated collective bargaining agreement (CBA) that saw a mega lift in salary cap space due to influx of media, advertising rights & years of players’ union fighting.
With the alpha dog setting the example, all the Spurs players followed suit under the strong figurehead in Coach Popovich. It is an unsaid code of conduct for Spurs players to demonstrate mild & blue collar personalities & flamboyance or loudness is almost blasphemy in the team. The result of which is little to no interest from big-name corporations when they are seeking brand endorsements or ambassadors from NBA superstars. Almost shying away from any media attention, the Spurs are tucked one corner in the rodeo state without any news whatsoever, almost hermit-like.
Is it reasonable to expect all players to be meek & mellow like the Spurs predecessors? Maybe not. Will players prioritize winning on top of personal needs? Maybe not. Will a college player turn down greater earning opportunities through side gigs or endorsement deals for the sake of maintaining the Spurs code of conduct & tradition? Maybe not.
The retirement of Tim Duncan, injury & re-injury of Kahwi Leonard marked the start of some uncertainty in the organization. Winning, like they say, cures all bad memories. However, it seemed that the Spurs making the playoffs with a subsequent 1-4 exit in the first round is not strong enough to wipe out the spewing bad waters. Media leaks, blatant shots, locker room meetings all but settled the brewing troubles. The culmination probably came when Tony Parker left to sign a 2-year contract with the Charlotte Hornets. Kahwi Leonard stood up and demanded a trade to the Lakers. With two of your best players, Finals Most Valuable Player at that, waving the red flag, it makes you wonder what went wrong with the top class organization.
Some say Duncan’s retirement left a hole in Coach Popovich’s system (& heart?) which LaMarcus Aldridge tried very hard to fill. Some say the frustration of the repeated injury incidents of Tony & Kawhi led to impatience of the staff. Some say the new generation of players don’t buy in to sacrificing their star power (and say) for winning anymore.
Maybe it is simpler. Look at James Harden a few years before he became MVP, he was an elite player that choked up in playoffs repeatedly. Failure to perform on the grandest stage but showed consistency in the regular season. Those years, Kahwi was the youngest Finals MVP at 22 years old, came off subsequent back-to-back years of reigning league Defensive Player of the Year, bagging All-NBA honors along the way.
With this simple display of results, one would expect Kahwi to have better personal brand, marketability & hence financial attraction than James (he is great, Kahwi was better then). But no. A simple Adidas deal gave James Harden 200+M, Kawhi Leonard earned 500,000 for his shoe deal. Why? Media perception of marketability. We have not talked about the success of peripheral businesses, freedom of media involvement, impact on the team coaching & hiring decisions, charitable movement success and more.
All these are perhaps the unspoken benefits & privilege that comes with being an elite level NBA superstar but the prerogative of a Spurs organization compels their players to not let their personalities shine through. Reminiscent of the communist spirit or servants serving in ancient Chinese dynasties, the strict decorum or Spurs DNA may be the invisible cloak that players of the future find it hard to don. As personal branding & relatable personalities become increasingly important for adoration from companies seeking endorsement and media seeking sensationalization targets, it is a tall order for elite players to conform to the uniformity of a Spurs mold. As such, the Spurs meltdown may be a symptom that points to a deeper need for organizational change to stay relevant with the changing times.