Originally published in SLAM 178

by Yaron Weitzman

February in Brooklyn, and Nets General Manager Billy King is standing courtside watching his team warm up for a game against the shorthanded Spurs. He’s also engaged in a conversation with a reporter, helping explain what, in his opinion, has been at the heart of San Antonio’s incredible 17-year run.

“It starts with your best players,” he says. “They have to buy into what you’re doing. After that, everybody else will too, and the Spurs have had that with Tim [Duncan] from day one.

“If you get that, then you’ve got the culture that you want, and that leads to the system on the court. That leads to execution. You don’t take bad shots, you share the basketball. When a play is called, you don’t break off, and the coach doesn’t even have to say anything. And all that’s got to start from the best player.”

King is then asked about Tony Parker’s role in all this.

“It’s still Tim’s team,” he says with a smile. “If Tim says, ‘Tony, we’re doing this,’ Tony’s going to say OK. It’s kind of like the way it was with Magic and Kareem. Magic was there, but that was still Kareem’s team.”

***

He came into the League as a 19-year-old kid, tall enough to be a point guard at 6-2, but also scrawny and weak. “Everyone talks about Kevin Durant not being able to bench press the bar at his Draft combine,” says Mike Brungardt, the former strength and conditioning coach for the San Antonio Spurs, “but Tony was worse.” He also couldn’t really shoot from the outside, and he did not yet posses a true point guard’s feel and eye for the game. 

He bombed in his first pre-Draft workout for the Spurs, in 2001, failing to hold his own against Lance Blanks, an ex-NBA player and former member of San Antonio’s front office. Banks was 34 years old at the time. The Spurs, though, decided to give the prospect another look. Speed, after all, is one of those skills that can’t be taught, and there was no questioning the fact that the young Frenchman was fast with the ball. He had a nose for the paint, too, and so he was brought in for a second workout, one in which he shined. A few days after that, thanks to some luck and oversight from the rest of the League, the Spurs were able to select Tony Parker with the 28th pick in the Draft.

Now, 13 years later, Parker finds himself acting as the conductor for an offense that is the envy of the rest of the Association. As of this writing, the Spurs are scoring 108.4 points per 100 possessions this season, the fourth best mark in the NBA. This will be the fifth-straight year in which the Spurs finish with a top-seven offense. According to NBA.com, San Antonio’s crunch-time offense, with its 123.8 rating, is also the best the League has seen since the 2011 Mavericks.

And now, thanks to the Player Tracking Data on NBA.com, we know that no Spur has the ball in his hands as much as Parker (his 6.2 minutes of possession per game nearly triples Patty Mills at 2.3, the Spur with the next highest number), and that no Spur creates more scoring opportunities for the team as frequently as Parker, who ranks second in the NBA (behind Ty Lawson) in drives per game and points per game created on drives. 

“Our offense is a motion one, based off reads,” says Spurs forward Matt Bonner, currently in his eighth season in San Antonio. “What we run depends on what is initiated by the point guard, and when you have Tony Parker as that point guard, that offense is going to work a lot better.”

For Parker, it often starts with a quick outlet pass from a teammate. Or a screen for a pick-and-roll. That’s when he’s at his best. When the floor is spaced and the defense is on its heels. There he can use his assortment of moves. The hesitations, and quick-changes of direction, and floaters in the paint that you don’t see from anyone else, and footwork that TJ Ford—a longtime friend of Parker’s who played four months for the Spurs two season’s ago—says is “as sound as anyone’s in the game.”

All of this comes naturally to him, Parker says, the result of him being small when he was growing up and having to find ways to adapt on the court. “There are videos of me playing when I was like 10 years old, and even in those you can see me doing some of that stuff.”

The key, according to Parker, especially on the pick-and-roll, is to be aggressive, and this is where he’s made his strides. When he first came into the League, Parker was Gregg Popovich’s whipping boy; these stories are well documented but it’s worth noting that if you ask Parker today what he believes to be the greatest obstacle he’s ever overcame, his answer is “my first few years in the League when Pop was really tough on me.” Eventually, though, Parker says he learned—how to be aggressive but not reckless, how to be both a scoring and true point guard.

The goal was always to shoot 50 percent from the field and to be the kind of player who teammates would like to play with. “That was really important to me,” he says. “To make sure I keep my teammates happy and help them get open shots.”

It took five years for him to accomplish the first of those goals (he shot 55 percent in 2005), and it has been a mark that he’s missed just three times since. #tony parker slam quote

As for the second goal, well, the results speak for themselves. As does Popovich’s decision to take the reigns of the offense out of Duncan’s hands in order to place them in Parker’s, a change that Parker says was made prior to the 2011-12 season following the team’s Playoff loss to the Grizzlies, which marked just the fourth time in NBA history that a No. 1 seed had fallen in the first round.

“Timmy was getting older,” Parker says, “and I was playing with the [French] national team and doing great.” That summer Parker led France to a second place EuroBasket finish, its best finish in the tournament in 62 years. “Pop decided to transition the team to me and have us do more of the stuff that I do best.”

The result was a return to the Conference Finals, where the Spurs blew a 2-0 series lead against the Thunder. The year after that they made it to the Finals, where they were inches away from knocking off the defending champion Heat. What would Parker’s place in basketball history be if not for Ray Allen’s miraculous three? 

“I don’t really think about legacy and things like that,” Parker says. “When I’m 90 I’m sure I will, but now I just focus on the present.

“The career I’m having is like a dream,” he adds, “and I want to keep going and not wake up. When I do, that’s when I’ll sit down and reflect. With Pop and wine.”

***

Everyone wants to play like San Antonio and do the things that the Spurs do. Every team wants its players to constantly swing the ball from side to side, and to take great shots instead of settling for good ones (a favorite saying of Popovich), and to have the corner three—the most valuable shot in the game—be a major part of its offense.

“More and more, we’ll get a scouting report and it will be full of our plays,” says Bonner. “Now we’ve got assistants running things in so many different places—a lot of teams are mimicking our offense.”

Which brings us to the enduring mystery that is the Spurs. Playing the style of basketball that every fictional high school coach, from Norman Dale in Hoosiers to Samuel L. Jackson in Coach Carter, has preached is not exactly revolutionary. And it’s safe to assume that any innovative idea that the Spurs have had over the past 15 years has also been implemented in the new homes of the many assistants and disciples that have been pried away by other teams.

And yet the Spurs remain the Spurs, a team that seemingly always knows something that the rest of the League doesn’t, one that manages to somehow combine the simple with the complex in a manner that no other team can. This year, they have once again surprised, except that since they are the Spurs, they no longer can surprise with excellence. There have been injuries and new players and a crazy amount of starting lineups—only the lowly Lakers have been forced to use more—and, as always, none of it seems to matter.

Not only is San Antonio scoring with ease, but it’s also holding opponents to 100.4 points per 100 possessions, the fourth best number in the NBA, and once again, with the Playoffs on the cusp, the Spurs find themselves riding a double-digit win-streak and in possession of the best record in the League.

“They make us all want to throw our hands up in the air and just give up,” says one Eastern Conference scout. “It’s just crazy what they do over there.”

Certainly, there are many answers to this question and many aspects to this celebrated system. The presence of a brilliant coach, an astute GM and a unified organization. For example, Brungardt, the team’s former strength coach, says that he was constantly communicating with the Spurs’ basketball people. “This,” he says, “is not as common as you might think.”

The Spurs, though, also happen to possess the NBA’s most precious and rare commodity, and it’s here where perhaps the explanation lies for why all those teams that, as Bonner says, “mimic” the Spurs have eventually wound up failing in their quest to emulate them.

For years now, the Spurs have had great players. Three of them, to be exact. One, Tim Duncan, will go down as one of the best to ever play. Another, Manu Ginobili, will be remembered as one of the most unique.

And then there’s Tony Parker, a player hard to define.

He’s the best player, and has been for a few years now, on a perennial contender. He’s won three Championships, is a six-time All-Star, and was a Finals MVP. Assuming he makes the Hall of Fame—as he should—Parker will be just the fourth point guard enshrined in Springfield with more than two rings (the other players on that esteemed list are Bob Cousy, Dennis Johnson and Magic Johnson).

Parker is also everything the Spurs are. Admired, yet underappreciated. Respected, yet constantly overlooked. All-time great teams have never had just one great player, and this Spurs team is no different.