Monson: Spurs became dynasty after being roughed up by Jazz
NBA • After being roughed up by Jazz 15 years ago, San Antonio is chasing its fifth title.
Published: June 4, 2013 05:34PM
Updated: June 4, 2013 11:34PM
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San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan (21) drives to the basket as Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol (33) defends, during Game 4 of the Western Conference finals NBA basketball playoff series in Memphis, Tenn., Monday, May 27, 2013. The Spurs defeated the Grizzlies 93-86 to advance to the NBA finals. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)

Fifteen years ago, in their second NBA Finals run, the Jazz eliminated San Antonio from the playoffs in five games. And for the seventh time in eight postseasons, the Spurs failed to make it out of the second round. Utah had opened the trapdoor on them in three of those playoff losses.

San Antonio had a problem: It was almost always good, never great.

But there was something different about the Spurs in that particular set of games than in eliminations of the past, and that thing was the young Tim Duncan. He troubled the Jazz in a major way, and might have troubled them straight into the offseason had he not suffered an ankle injury that hampered his effort.

After competing against Duncan in Game 1 of that series, watching him drop 33 points on the Jazz and barely miss a game-winner at the end, Jeff Hornacek said of the rookie: “He’s got the complete game. He’s a great player who put them in a position to win.”

Antoine Carr described the Spurs this way: “San Antonio isn’t a team that lays down. Ever. They play hard. They have a young team that needs time.”

Well. They didn’t need much. Duncan, who lost to Karl Malone on that occasion but has since replaced him as the best power forward ever, went on finding his greatness, so often not just putting the Spurs in a position to win, but also actually winning for them. As for time, it’s been good to that once-young team in need.

Look at what’s happened since:

The Spurs have won four NBA titles, including their first in 1999, just one season after the Jazz chased them out, and now are playing for their fifth against Miami starting Thursday night. They’ve never lost a Finals series. Only Boston, the Lakers and Chicago have won more championships.

In a lot of ways, the Spurs are a model franchise that has taken a key player and successfully built around him from start to finish. The only questionable element to their enduring presence at or near the top of the league is the manner in which they got Duncan. Not playing David Robinson and Sean Elliott for long stretches of the 1996-97 season put them in an advantageous spot to win the draft lottery, which is exactly what they did. Hello, Timmy.

Anybody wonder if the Jazz have given that shrewd move any thought?

From there, though, the Spurs not only have been talented, they’ve been smart. General manager Gregg Popovich, to begin with, was intelligent enough to see obvious emerging possibilities with the club, so he dumped Bob Hill as head coach and made himself Hill’s replacement. Since drafting Duncan, San Antonio has never missed the playoffs.

The Spurs have done their damage by surrounding Duncan with effective complementary players. Early in the era, they already had Robinson, but they rounded out that complement with guys like Mario Elie and Jerome Kersey. And, then, they were sharp enough to draft Tony Parker, a point guard the Jazz — along with a bunch of other teams — could have taken, but passed on in favor of Raul Lopez. Prior to that, the club also had the brains to select Argentine guard Manu Ginobili.

Everybody knows what’s transpired since with the Big Three. But the guys playing alongside that core have rotated through the years, from players such as Stephen Jackson and Bruce Bowen to Robert Horry and Michael Finley to Tiago Splitter, Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard. The deal that brought Leonard to San Antonio demonstrates classic Spurs acumen: They sent George Hill to Indiana and got the San Diego State product, who had been a No. 15 pick in the draft, in return.

It was a keen move, a move that will be upgraded to brilliant if Leonard can help the Spurs bounce out of their mini-championship drought — they haven’t won it all since 2007 — by slowing down LeBron with his defense and adding just enough offense at the other end.

Either way, the Spurs, who swept Memphis and have been waiting and waiting and waiting for their shot at the defending champs and watching and watching and watching the difficulties the Pacers caused the Heat with rugged defense, inside scoring and rebounding, are an enlightened, inspired franchise. The fact that they also are a small-market club that has shown the NBA it not only can contend for titles, but also win them, is an added bonus, not just for Spurs fans, but for observers of basketball everywhere.

Their model may not be easily or exactly replicated, but it is proof, much like Green Bay’s in the NFL, that championships are not the exclusive domain of big cities and big-market teams.

Gordon Monson hosts “The Big Show” with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM, 1280 AM and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.

NBA Finals

O Thursday

San Antonio at Miami, 7 p.m.

Sunday

San Antonio at Miami, 6 p.m.

Tuesday

Miami at San Antonio, 7 p.m.

Thursday, June 13

Miami at San Antonio, 7 p.m.

x-Sunday, June 16

Miami at San Antonio, 6 p.m.

x-Tuesday, June 18

San Antonio at Miami, 7 p.m.

x-Thursday, June 20

San Antonio at Miami, 7 p.m.

x - if necessary

All games on Ch. 4

Spurs in the Finals

Season Opp. Series result

2006-07 Cleveland W, 4-0

2004-05 Detroit W, 4-3

2002-03 New Jersey W, 4-2

1998-99 New York W, 4-1