Philadelphia, PA – The San Antonio Spurs are back in familiar territory, that being the NBA Finals.
Truth is, it only seems like familiar territory. After four NBA titles in a nine-season span, the Spurs haven't been this far since 2007. In six years, things have changed, but one that hasn't, is the core of the San Antonio franchise.
Tim Duncan is one of, if not the best big man in the history of the sport.
Tony Parker is one of, if not the best point guard in an era dominated by ball-handlers.
Manu Ginobili is one of, if not the best creative guard coming off the bench all-time in the lore of the NBA.
And Gregg Popovich is on the fast train to Springfield, not to visit Homer and Marge, but to be enshrined into the Hall of Fame.
"You don't expect that to happen maybe this late in the game with the same group," Popovich said. "It's tough to do, to maintain something that long, but it just shows the character of those three guys and their ability to play with whoever else is brought in around them. They deserve a lot of credit for that."
Those three guys as Pop refers to them have been wonderful. Duncan is enjoying a career Renaissance this season. He returned to the All-NBA first team for the first time since the 2006-07 season.
Part of the reason for Duncan's best season in years at the age of 37 was an offseason workout regimen. He dropped 15 pounds, Popovich limited his minutes and sat him games to keep him fresh for the postseason.
"Nothing's promised," Duncan said. "Teams get better every year. We seem to make minimal changes and continue to play and compete at a high level. To get over that hump, you don't know when you're going to get it."
We'll address the minimal changes in a moment, but back to this trio. They have been together for 11 years. Parker and Duncan have been teammates for 12. The next closest teammates who've been together that many seasons are Udonis Haslem and Dwyane Wade for 10. Due respect, but Haslem hasn't impacted the Heat's success quite the way Ginobili or Parker or Duncan has with the Spurs.
Funny thing is, each has nearly found himself outside San Antonio. Prior to the 2000-01 season, Duncan almost bolted to the Orlando Magic as a free agent. Popovich tried to trade Parker several times in order to land Jason Kidd and Ginobili was almost sent packing just last offseason.
But Popovich and the rest of the Spurs' upper management brass (don't be confused, Popovich runs the show), stuck with these three players. Patience paid off (and a Russell Westbrook injury for the Oklahoma City Thunder), and the Spurs are back in the championship round.
The main reason is Parker.
He has transformed into an elite star over the past five seasons. Prior to spraining his ankle in the winter, Parker was being touted as an MVP candidate by his head coach. Parker missed 16 games but still made the All-NBA second team.
In years past, Parker was an unstoppable force getting into the lane. He's not as quick as he once was, but still penetrates at will. What's made Parker into a lethal point guard is that he's connecting on the jumper as well.
Parker scored 37 points in the clinching Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals against the Memphis Grizzlies Monday night. He handed out six assists and shot a traffic-stopping 15-for-21 from the field.
"It's an honor to be the guy for a franchise like the Spurs and you've got Timmy and Manu and all my teammates, they're counting on me and Pop shows so much confidence that it makes me want to play great," Parker said.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Parker is the second player in NBA playoff history to have two games with over 35 points while shooting 70 percent from the field. He finished the four-game sweep with 98 points and 38 assists. The only other player in postseason history with those kinds of numbers in a four-game sweep was Jerry West in 1972.
That's pretty stout company.
Now let's get back to those "minimal changes" Duncan referred to. The only other player on the current Spurs roster who was there for the last championship in 2007 was Matt Bonner.
To say Popovich and his talent evaluators are brilliant is an understatement. They are geniuses.
Danny Green was cut by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2010 and signed by the Spurs. He led San Antonio in minutes played this season.
Kawhi Leonard was traded for George Hill on draft night in 2011. He was selected 15th.
Tiago Splitter was chosen 28th in the 2007 NBA Draft, stashed away and is a reliable big man.
Gary Neal was an undrafted free agent.
Boris Diaw was waived by the Charlotte Bobcats. Read that again - Boris Diaw was waived by the Charlotte Bobcats.
Those are the role players. The stars didn't fall into San Antonio's lap, either.
Well, Duncan did.
But Ginobili was the 57th overall selection in the 1999 NBA Draft. One other player besides Ginobili, Jim Eakins, made an All-Star team taken 57th. Marcin Gortat and Scoonie Penn were the only two names I've heard of taken 57th besides Ginobili.
Parker went 28th in 2001. Kwame Brown went first. Next topic.
It's easy to say the Spurs got lucky with these choices. Lucky is finding a $20 bill in your winter coat pocket, or getting the first pick in the 1997 NBA Draft Lottery despite having the third-worst record in the league.
Drafting solid, foreign players, or Americans who may not have extraordinary physical statistical numbers that a modern evaluator covets, is just good business.
But the ultimate strategy was keeping their version of the Big Three. To be disciplined enough to keep a core together in today's sports world is pretty remarkable. Players are constantly moved mostly because of salary anchors or because they clash with the coach.
Well, this team has kept its coach since 1996. That's the kind of stability almost no other team in any professional sports league can boast.
"I think a lot of people think the grass is greener on the other side, and if we could change this coach or trade these guys, it's all going to be nirvana after that," Popovich explained. "I think if you stay the course and you've got leaders who are quality character people and you follow them as long as you can.
"I've been hanging on Timmy's coattails for a long time."
Yes, you have, Pop. Now, you're riding them back into the finals.