SAN ANTONIO — The Spurs have long been the NBA’s gold standard when it comes to drafting and development, preferring to roll up their sleeves and scour the globe to find the right players to slot into well-defined roles in San Antonio.
They have more international players on their roster than any other team in the NBA, and even their American players don’t come straight from America to the league.
It’s the hard way to build a roster, requiring patience, discipline and investment that few teams are able to muster these days. And it’s paying off in a big way for them in the NBA Finals.
There is Danny Green, who was cut three times and spent a summer in Slovenia, drilling every 3-pointer in sight and running away with the finals MVP award.
There is Gary Neal, who was undrafted out of Towson University and spent three years kicking around Turkey, Spain and Italy before being discovered by the Spurs, scoring 24 points in a Game 3 victory that put them back in control.
There is Boris Diaw, the once-promising Frenchman who was on his way out of the league before the Spurs brought him in, playing surprisingly stingy defence on LeBron James and finding Manu Ginobili cutting to the basket for easy buckets in a Game 5 win that moved the Spurs one victory away from the franchise’s fifth title.
How do they find these guys?
General manager RC Buford has assembled an unparalleled scouting staff and worked with Gregg Popovich to establish a system and culture over the last 15-plus seasons that allows them to identify the exact attributes that will allow a player to succeed in San Antonio.
“Our management staff, RC does a great job with his scouts showing us who is out there, who is available,” Popovich said earlier this season. “And we all sit down and decide who we want to bring in. Once we bring them in, we do take a lot of time trying to develop them.”
It takes communication. It takes trust. It takes commitment to do what the Spurs do. It also takes a willingness to think outside the normal parameters of team building, to consider players that don’t fit the prototypical mould.
“When you look at a basketball player and you’re trying to evaluate someone, in my opinion you’ve got to look past the typical biases and preconceived notions on what an NBA player is and should look like or should be; what their pedigree or path should be and really get down to the guy’s talent and character and work ethic,” said forward Matt Bonner, who played in Italy and was acquired in a trade from Toronto. “Is this person going to make our team better and can he play? I think when you do that you can get a more accurate portrayal of a player and what their value potentially could be.”
The commitment to drafting and developing came early for Buford and Popovich. Situated in small-market San Antonio, they knew they couldn’t afford to throw millions at the free agent market every summer to fill holes in their roster. They certainly got lucky getting the No. 1 pick in 1997 when Tim Duncan was available, but their moves to surround him with a championship-calibre supporting cast all came the hard way.
Game 6 is Tuesday night in Miami, where Duncan will have a chance to win his fifth title 14 years after his first. Along the way he has gone from the focal point to a supporting role, all thanks to the system the Spurs have in place.
“I think development is a big part of that,” Buford said. “The better prepared you can be to fill in the holes behind that success of an aging group, the smoother the transition might be.”
Tony Parker was the 28th pick out of France in 2001. And despite being well known and coveted thanks to his stellar international play for Argentina, Ginobili fell to the second round in 1999 and didn’t come to the NBA for another three seasons.
“Ginobili that was a pick that a lot of people knew was going to be good,” Timberwolves president of basketball operations Flip Saunders said. “It’s just at the time a lot of people didn’t want to wait for him.”
The Spurs were willing to wait, and it’s paid off handsomely with the left-hander helping them win three titles and then registering 24 points and 10 assists in their Game 5 victory over Miami. He has also helped other foreign players like Tiago Splitter and Nando De Colo make the transition to the United States.
“The first years I started to feel like a guide to the new guys, it felt great, because I needed that at the beginning,” Ginobili said. “Being sort of an icon or staple player on this team feels really good. I’m very lucky. And at the same time, it’s great to have so many international players that went through some of the things you went through.”
Assistant coach Chad Forcier also deserves plenty of credit. He worked hard with Green to smooth out his jumper and has spent countless hours with many of the projects the Spurs have taken on over the years. The long and winding road that many of these players have taken to get here comes through in the hunger they show on the court.
“Just dealing with the reality that I wasn’t going to get drafted, that’s like a crossroad for a lot of guys coming out of college,” Neal said. “You realize you’re not going to get drafted and there’s a great chance that you might not become an NBA player. You kind of have to make your mind up that you want to continue on professionally and take the European route and take it seriously.”
When they arrive in San Antonio, they see a lot of other players just like them. A bond is formed and a support system is fostered.
“I think there’s a lot of guys with the Spurs who didn’t have the easy way, one-and-done in college and then bam, you have a career,” Bonner said. “A lot of guys on our team have had to go through the journey of maybe all four years of college, maybe the D-league, maybe overseas. I think that builds character and it makes you appreciate playing in the NBA and playing for an organization like the Spurs that much more.”