CHICAGO – Tim Duncan was the most famous; OK, maybe co-famous with David Robinson.
Though Gregg Popovich might eclipse both with his coaching record and irascible demeanor. Manu Ginobili has perhaps the most panache, but Tony Parker probably symbolizes the San Antonio Spurs better than any.
Parker rarely ever is talked about among the elite guards in the NBA, subordinate to the likes of Chris Paul recently and Steve Nash in his prime, for instance. Though neither even has been to an NBA Finals while Parker has been the starting point guard for four NBA champions and has been a Finals MVP. Now John Wall as well, a top-five MVP candidate this season. Trying for his first conference finals appearance.
Heck, the Spurs didn’t even take Parker seriously. After winning the 2003 NBA title in a sweep over Jason Kidd and the New Jersey Nets, the Spurs put on a full-court free-agency press to sign Kidd and make him their point guard.
The narrative then was Parker could move to shooting guard. Though shooting was the weakest part of his game. The Spurs had surreptitiously scouted Kidd all season, regularly at his games, and then wined and dined Kidd to the point he verbally agreed. Then riding back to New York with the Nets panicking with a big contract and Kidd’s wife hopeful of a New York City TV career, Kidd changed his mind.
Parker wasn’t exactly thrilled to be the fall-back option.
And probably sacrificed for financial reasons with the financially vigilant Spurs.
But then led by Parker and Ginobili as Popovich adjusted the Spurs power game to accommodate his two athletic perimeter players, the Spurs continued to build the era’s most successful franchise with NBA titles in 2005, 2007 and then 2014 after a stunning loss in the 2013 Finals to Ray Allen’s magical shot.
And now is it finally over?
After all, Duncan just retired after last season, Ginobili may be in his final season as a free agent coming off career lows in scoring and minutes played, and Parker, despite one year left on his contract, isn’t even due back until the middle of next season with surgery on his ruptured quad after being injured in the conference semifinals against the Houston Rockets.
It would hardly be a surprise to see Parker back, and the Spurs for more than a decade now have made fools of everyone counting them out just about every other year.
With Kawhi Leonard, who has grown into one of the top-five players in the NBA, the Spurs with their system of play are coming off another 60-win season with record consecutive 50-win or more seasons.
Don’t be surprised if they add 10 more.
A word about that system, which really is just sound, fundamental, disciplined play.
You’d say then, OK, why doesn’t everyone do that?
Obviously, you need the talent. The Spurs have it with a superstar in Leonard. Once you have one, you have a chance.
Then it goes to Popovich, who does what every other coach does, like demand hard- working defense and unselfish offense. It’s just there have been maybe a handful of coaches in the history of the game who could enforce that.
The Spurs way has been to first make it clear it’s their way or the highway.
They’ll take a chance on chancy guys, like Stephen Jackson. But then when he acts out, goodbye.
Look at what happened with Pau Gasol this season. The future Hall of Famer was the Spurs’ big offseason free-agent acquisition. He wasn’t cutting it on defense, so he was benched for Dewayne Dedmon.
Where else would Ginobili be a career sixth man?
It began with Robinson and Duncan, two of the most unselfish superstars ever. Then everyone followed. It’s all about accountability and discipline and everyone has to accept.
Virtually every NBA coach fears challenging or alienating their stars. There have only been a few ever, Red Auerbach, Pat Riley, Phil Jackson, and now Popovich, who have combined the individual demands with the team-wide discipline, aggressiveness and theory.
Everyone knows how it’s done; it’s rare when someone can enforce it.
Regarding playing, the Spurs actually have adjusted to everyone else going from the power interior game with Robinson and then Duncan to a drive-and-kick shooting perimeter game to accommodate Parker and Ginobili.
Their players, including Parker, often have signed for less money than market value contracts to enhance their personnel in the smaller market San Antonio. Many have made the mistake to dismiss the Spurs.
You get the feeling you’ll be asking this again in 2027.
You’d also be mistaken to underestimate Tony Parker.
No one much took the French kid born in Belgium seriously, the son of a former U.S. college (Loyola of Chicago) and European basketball player and Dutch model mother. A slightly built 188-cm guard, Parker played in France a few years and declared for the 2001 NBA draft.
His workout with the Spurs was so bad, Popovich said not to consider him. The staff persuaded Popovich to take another look and he reluctantly agreed to take Parker 28th in the first round.
In his rookie season in the conference semifinals, the Lakers backed way off Parker, daring him to shoot. It was Lakers in five. The Spurs won the title the next season against an overmatched Nets team, but Parker slumped in the playoffs. His last three games in the Finals of the Spurs sweep, he averaged seven points on 8 of 31 shooting.
The Spurs had seen enough; but as it turned out, they weren’t Kidding.
Or getting him, so both had to live with one another.
Tony took shooting lessons and Pop didn’t yell quite as much.
It became a love story.
Parker developed a knock-down mid- range shooting game and even evolved in recent seasons into a credible 3-point shooter. Meanwhile, his amazing quickness enabled him to get into the lane and find those shooters spread around the court.
The Spurs never have been an organization to celebrate itself; the message carried throughout the roster. For the first few years of his career, Parker would pretend he didn’t understand English to critical questions. So the media didn’t pry.
Popovich became famous for his growling responses; Duncan was preternaturally reticent and San Antonio was difficult to get to with a small airport in southwest Texas. They always were there for the playoffs, though with an occasional hiccup, like when the Grizzlies knocked them out in the first round in 2011.
Yes, the Spurs were dead. Until then going to back-to-back Finals led by Parker with Duncan beginning his decline. And then with Leonard assuming a dominant position, Finals MVP in 2014, with Parker there in support. Parker in the 2007 Finals when he was MVP averaged 24.5 points and even shot 57 percent on 3-pointers.
That next season, Paul, Nash, Deron Williams, Kidd and even Baron Davis were considered the league’s top point guards.
Parker just kept on directing the most successful NBA band over the last two decades. There’s never a hesitation when someone asks about the greatest player from Europe, and it’s certainly Dirk Nowitzki. But Parker has the titles and a EuroBasket MVP award in 2013.
The Spurs will go on; they have the magic key to the NBA’s secret door.
It’s also in large part thanks to Tony Parker, often overlooked, but never to be forgotten.
Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”
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