It's a phenomenon so consistent that it seems silly to even start here, but the San Antonio Spurs are once again one of the best teams in basketball. Forty-five games into their season, the Spurs have won more games (and a greater percentage of their games) than any team save for the Golden State Warriors. This, in itself, is not all that surprising. After all, the Spurs have been doing this for decades—literally. In the 49-year history of the franchise, the Spurs have missed the playoffs only five times, and never in back-to-back seasons. In the last 20 years, they have won fewer than 50 games in a season only once: the lockout-shortened 1998-99 campaign where the NBA season was only 50 games long and the Spurs played at a 61-win pace.
If there is one thing that has defined the Spurs organization over the years, it is that consistency. Consistency of ownership: Peter Holt and his wife, Julianna, have owned the team since 1993. Consistency of executive leadership: R.C. Buford has been with the team since 1994, first as head scout, then Director of Scouting, then Vice President/Assistant General Manager, and since 2002, General Manager. Consistency in the coach's chair: Gregg Popovich also came to the team in 1994, when he was named General Manager and Vice President of Basketball Operations. Pop installed himself as coach after firing Bob Hill 18 games into the 1996-97 season and has served in that capacity ever since.
That consistency extends from the front office to the court, with the Spurs being led year in and year out by a superstar talent. Tim Duncan, of course, served as the team's stalwart for 19 Hall of Fame seasons, but he picked up that torch from David Robinson and then, at the tail end of his career, handed it off to Kawhi Leonard, who willed himself to stardom under the watchful eye of the Spurs' development staff.
Stars being consistently excellent, though, is not exactly out of the ordinary—that's how they get labeled stars in the first place. What is extraordinarily unusual about the Spurs, among several other things, is the consistency with which they have gotten excellent bench play.
NBA.com has five-man-lineup data going all the way back to the 2007-08 season. Assuming that a team's "starters" are the five players who are on the floor together more than any other group (which seems like a pretty good definition), the Spurs have never once in those ten seasons had a negative Net Rating (points scored minus points allowed per 100 possessions) with at least one bench player on the floor. Last season, they had the single best bench in the NBA. Faced with more roster turnover than at any time during the Popovich era coming into the 2016-17 season, the Spurs responded by again constructing the NBA's best bench.
How have they so consistently found success when turning to their subs? "I think it starts with figuring out what players you want to put around your best players," Popovich says. "Finding people who have gotten over themselves, who want to fill a role and don't just talk it, but who will be satisfied with their role. Because a lot of players can tell you that and they might do it for a year, but then it's contract time and they're no longer a role player. They're doing other things. So, you have to do your work to make sure you're bringing in people around your stars that will do that in perpetuity."
To their great credit, the Spurs have done that better and more consistently than any team in basketball. They've even been willing to move on from clearly positive players who nonetheless don't (or even might not) fit that ethos—players like Luis Scola (traded before he ever played a game with San Antonio), Richard Jefferson, and Stephen Jackson, for example.
In the meantime, they have continually cycled through useful rotation pieces alongside super-sub (and best bench player of all time) Manu Ginobili. Pieces like Brent Barry and Kurt Thomas; Robert Horry and Drew Gooden and George Hill; DeJuan Blair, Matt Bonner, Gary Neal, and Tiago Splitter; Boris Diaw, Cory Joseph, Marco Belinelli, and Jeff Ayres; and now, Patty Mills, Jonathon Simmons, Kyle Anderson, David Lee, Dewayne Dedmon, and Dejounte Murray. They've acquired some of those players via trades, some in traditional free agency, others in international free agency, in the draft (first or second round), post-draft free agency, and by scouting the D-League. They've found talent by scouring every possible corner of the basketball world.
And while Ginobili has long been the lynchpin of the bench, Pop says the Spurs don't actively seek out players who can fit in around him. Rather, they look for certain skills that can be useful alongside any kind of star. "It's more (trying to) have enough defenders, enough rebounders—that kind of thing," he says. "You can stick those people with the first team or the second team depending on injury or that kind of deal. We don't bring people in saying, 'Hey, they're gonna be really good with the second team.'"
This year's crop of reserves is more eclectic than most. There's Ginobili, of course, who has long been the team's exception to its own rules. Even Pop himself admits this fact: "When Manu was in his prime I had to zip it to a certain degree and let him maybe do something that I personally thought was crazy because he's gonna do four things after that, that win you the game," he says, with a rare light in his eyes. "And I can't worry about always the right way or this way or the conventional way because he was so creative."
Mills is now in his sixth season as a vital sub, and he's working on career highs in minutes, scoring, and true shooting. He essentially splits the point guard minutes with Tony Parker now (Parker averages 25.8 minutes per game while Mills is at 22.1 per game) and has started a few contests, as well. He's an ace three-point shooter and is often the fastest player in the floor, which helps San Antonio rev things up and play to the strengths of the athletes they have coming off the bench with him.
Of that group, Simmons may be the most athletic, and this week he was rewarded for his hard work over the years with an invitation to the Rising Stars Challenge. Undrafted out of the University of Houston in 2012, Simmons bounced around for years before making it to San Antonio's active roster. His career started with a team called the Sugar Land Legends, who play in the American Basketball League. (It's real. I swear.) He averaged 35.6 points per game for that squad and subsequently got a tryout with the then-Austin Toros, who are now the Austin Spurs, San Antonio's D-League team. He played for the Toros/Spurs for two full years and killed it, especially in the second season, during which he put up a 15-4-4 line and made the All-Defensive Third Team. The summer of 2015 was his big break: a standout performance with the Nets' Summer League team in Orlando led to an invite with the Spurs' squad in Las Vegas. Simmons led Becky Hammon's team to the championship and was named Summer League MVP. Two days later, San Antonio signed him to an NBA deal.
He bounced back and forth between the big squad and the D-League last season, flashing a nice shooting stroke, all-court defense on the wing, and crazy bounce. This year has seen him bring more of the same, more consistently. He's played in all but one of San Antonio's games and is getting 18 minutes a night. The Spurs are spanking opponents by 12.8 points per 100 possessions with Simmons on the floor, fueled largely by a defense that has been more than eight points better per 100 in that time.
Anderson has been brought along more slowly than nearly any other Spurs prospect—fitting, given that his nickname is Slow-Mo. He's a whip-smart passer and a pretty decent rebounder, and he knows where to be and when. His lack of a shot renders him less useful offensively than the rest of his skill set suggests he should be, and he's not a great defender, but he can seamlessly fit in any kind of lineup. He's exactly the kind of guy the Spurs love to bring off the bench.
It's the bigs off the pine who Pop considers the bench's saving grace this year, though. Duncan's departure left a huge hole in the starting lineup, and jettisoning Diaw in order to create space to acquire Pau Gasol depleted the bench of useful bangers. Enter David Lee and Dewayne Dedmon.
"David and Dewayne have been wonderful for us all year," Popovich says. "We were really worried about not having Timmy and just having Pau and LaMarcus (Aldridge) there. We didn't really know how those two were gonna join in or how they were gonna be used. And in Dewayne's case, he's one of those guys that's such a neophyte, basketball-wise; he started really late. But, rebounding and playing D and giving energy with the second group has been special for us, coming from him. And David Lee has played an all-around wonderful game for us. Scores a little bit, rebounds, heck of a passer."
Lee is starting now with Gasol injured, but he and Dedmon fit seamlessly together off the bench. Dedmon's speed, athleticism, and rim protection helped cover up for Lee's defensive shortcomings, while Lee's ability to move the ball and play in space freed Dedmon to not have to do any more than he's capable of offensively. "Just run the floor, rebound, set screens, roll, dunk," as Dedmon says. A player with his athleticism on the front line is not something the Spurs have had in the past, and it's been a bit of an adjustment for some of the holdovers to play with him. "Definitely. 'Athletic big' is not something they're used to. So, I mean, it's definitely still a work in progress."
Still, his skill set and his knack for simply outworking the guy opposite him is one that has opened things up for the other Spurs on the floor. "Some people take it for granted," Dedmon says. "You beat somebody down the floor, it gives your team not only somebody that's close to the hoop, but opens that corner three for somebody, too."
Finally there's the 20-year-old Dejounte Murray. He only recently started to get real minutes, and Popovich has come away remarkably impressed. "I didn't know what to expect from Dejounte," Pop says. "I just thought it would take time and didn't really expect him to do anything this year, to be honest with you, except mature, get stronger, play in the D-League and get some experience in what it takes, and learn about pick-and-roll and the NBA game. But once we put him down there he played so well that I wanted to have him around so that he'd get the feel of what it's like to travel and do this and play. And when Tony's been hurt these times and he's started, he's done a good job."
Murray has started each of San Antonio's last four games and averaged 13.3-3.3-3.3 in 25.3 minutes a night, shooting 56 percent from the field and 43 percent from three. San Antonio won all four games, including three on the road, one of which was against the defending champs. "He didn't blink in Cleveland," Popovich notes. "It's a big game on TV, the lights are on—I worried about that, what he's gonna do. And he wasn't fazed." Murray had 14 points on seven-of-ten shooting, and dished out six assists. Mills closed the game but Murray was out there for the stretch at the start of the fourth quarter when the Spurs took the lead for good. He appears well on his way to earning Pop's trust.
Young or old. American or international. Pedigreed or unknown. The Spurs will plug and play pretty much anyone who is willing to know, and play within, their specific role and who can execute the offensive and defensive system. That's all a whole lot easier said than done, and yet the Spurs—because they're the damn Spurs—have found a way to find those guys year after year.
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