NBA Dynasty: Spurs Repeatedly Find Diamonds in the Rough
Duncan, Robinson had to believe in Spurs' plan
By David Aldridge
Special to ESPN.com
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The hardest sell was Manu Ginobili.
Tim Duncan knew who Ginobili was, having played against him four years ago at the Tournament of the Americas in Puerto Rico. But David Robinson didn't know him and didn't really seem to care, and he said so last fall in the local papers.
"I was almost feeling badly for Manu," Spurs general manager R.C. Buford recalled. "On top of that, Manu was hurt, and now he's shortchanging himself in practice or he's not playing in games like we know he can. It made Manu's ascension even more difficult, to get the confidence he needed. David doesn't sit there and watch USA Basketball. He's in Hawaii all summer, and he's not watching TV."
David Robinson, left, and Tim Duncan waited patiently through the rebuilding plan of Gregg Popovich, right.
But in the end, Robinson -- and Duncan -- opted to believe in Buford, Gregg Popovich and Sam Schuler, the Spurs' management braintrust, and it's gotten them to the Finals. Just as when the three brought in Terry Porter and Jerome Kersey and Danny Ferry to surround Duncan and Robinson during the Spurs' first title run. That track record -- that trust -- is at the heart of why the Spurs have been able to rebuild so quickly, and seemingly so effortlessly. And it's a big part of the reason why San Antonio is poised to be on top of the L for years to come.
It's very hard to find a superstar who's willing to play with lesser-known mortals. Most of them only want to go for the sure thing, the opportunity to play with others as good as they are. That this is nearly impossible in the salary cap age is not of importance. But Duncan and Robinson signed off on the idea that the Spurs would go for smaller names -- and cheaper prices -- in order to be able to cash in this summer on the free agent bonanza.
"I think the best answer -- the honest answer, which is usually the best answer -- is that we're blessed with two guys that just trust us," Popovich said. "Not because we're wonderful people, but because that's their nature. They are respectful, mature guys who believe in people. Until we prove them wrong. If we started bringing in guys and it was failure, failure, failure, then they might look at us a bit (different). But they trust us, maybe because we've done some other things."
"When they think it's time, then they bring them in," Duncan said. "And those guys have done a great job of that. They have done a great job of scouting and recognizing talent ... with Tony (Parker) and Manu and Jack (Stephen Jackson), all of these guys are guys that kind of got passed by."
Having patience with the building process is especially impressive in Robinson's case. One, he had to take a severe pay cut just to be on the Spurs' roster this season. Two, he's retiring after this season, so what should he care about developing young players now to help the Spurs in the future?
"The only thing you know is that people like to be stroked," Robinson said the other day. "You know if the talent is there, if you can shape the character, then it's going to work for you. And that's been our team's strength, taking guys and shaping (their) character to kind of fit the team. Stephen's just a young guy. That's the thing that struck me when I first met him. I was like, 'You're just a kid, man. Get your act together and you could be something in this league. You could really play.' "
Think about this. By the time he got to San Antonio, Jackson was a guy that had been found wanting by the Nets, the Grizzlies, the Suns, the CBA, the Dominican Republic, Australia and Venezuela. He was invited to camp off a good performance at a tryout with 25 other shooting guards and small forwards, and that camp took place basically only because the Spurs had failed to land free agent swingman Tyrone Nesby when the Clippers matched San Antonio's offer sheet. (Popovich desperately wanted to keep Raja Bell, who'd also played well with Jackson at the tryout camp, but could only take one guy. The Spurs thought so much of Bell that they put a highlight reel of his performance at the camp together and sent it to Larry Brown, who signed Bell to the Sixers.) After the Spurs signed Jackson in 2001, they hid him for a year on the injured list just about all season so he could learn how they did things. He chafed at the lack of playing time.
Now, Jackson is the Spurs' starting small forward. But it's the rare star that would wait that long for the payoff.
"That's why I think me, Geno and Parker have so much respect for Tim and David," Jackson said. "They know we're young and they're willing to have patience with us. They know we're going to make mistakes and we're excited to be here, and some games are going to move too fast and be out of control. For those guys to have confidence in us and to bear with us on the court -- especially in big games and in the Finals -- it shows they have confidence in us, and it makes it easier for us to perform."
But give Duncan credit for an assist on Jackson, too.
"The year that he got cut by the Nets, we played them here and he had a great game against us," Duncan recalled. "I was impressed by him. When I saw him on the free agent list, I didn't know why he was there, and I asked Pop about it, so they kind of looked into it."
Duncan and Robinson have embraced just about every move to bring in another NBA urchin. Duncan says he "didn't know a thing" about Parker when Popovich and Buford began singing his praises. Still, they kept the faith when management started to retool.
"I think a lot of it begins with Avery Johnson," Popovich said. "Everybody said you can't win with Avery Johnson, and Avery can't shoot, and Avery can't do (this or) that, and we went and gave him a four-year contract, the first time he ever had anything extended in his life. And Tim and David and everybody else realized what a great leader he was, and the great things he did to help us do what we did. It probably instilled a bit of confidence with him.
“ If Tim Duncan says to me, 'I can't play with that guy,' or 'What the hell do we want that guy on our team for?' I don't think it's smart on my part to go get that guy. ”
— Gregg Popovich
"We brought in other people, (like) Mario Elie when nobody wanted him any more, and Jaren Jackson. So we had a little bit of a record of bringing in people that we thought would fit for a variety of reasons, and it worked. So when we talked to them about these (new) guys, they said, 'OK, fine.' But mostly it's because they are trusting people and we had a history of it working before."
San Antonio's current roster is littered with guys who passed over other teams' radars. Malik Rose was the 44th pick in 1996. Ginobili was the 57th player taken in '99. Jackson and Bruce Bowen weren't drafted at all, and even though Bowen had played well for Miami, most people around the league viewed him as strictly a defensive specialist, certainly not a starter. The Sixers wanted John Salmons instead of Speedy Claxton. Kevin Willis, nearing 40, had been passed around in recent years like a bowl of soup at a homeless shelter.
And the current group of role players also has something in common with their former brethren -- a toughness that has allowed them to get up time and time again after being discarded. (Steve Kerr was even shown the door by the Spurs once, having been traded to Portland in the Steve Smith-Derek Anderson deal before getting sent back to the Spurs last summer in the Antonio Daniels trade.)
Robinson also says that Popovich has evolved as a coach. Less firebrand, more mellow -- or as mellow as an ex-Air Force guy is going to be.
"One of the greatest coaches for me was John Lucas, when I really saw how important that was," Robinson said. "John's a big cheerleader. You watch him, and the players want to play for him. And I think Pop has really, really matured in that area as a coach. He's really begun to understand that. His first few years here, I don't really think he did that well. But now he's kind of starting to put some stock in those guys and giving them a place and saying 'Go ahead and make some mistakes, and we'll find out what you've got.' "
"David and Tim both had confidence in Pop," Buford said. "We didn't necessarily know that those guys were going to be our key players. In the past, our strength had been bringing in (veteran) guys ... that had been the strength of our staff, putting together short-term pieces, role players that may not have fit other places as significantly as they fit us. The opportunity to have Manu and Jack and Tony grow and blossom was in addition to the pieces like Steve Smith ... their development as quickly as they did helped convince Tim and David."
It doesn't mean the Spurs are yet set anywhere other than power forward. As recently as Sunday, Popovich had to yank Jackson off the floor following a couple of ill-advised rocks and a couple of turnovers. But they have some promising pieces to mold around Duncan and money to bring in some more. The braintrust will consult the Big Fundamental on every move it's contemplating, and he will likely give his blessing.
Says Popovich: "If Tim Duncan says to me, 'I can't play with that guy,' or 'What the hell do we want that guy on our team for?' I don't think it's smart on my part to go get that guy