Monday, January 31, 2011

Attention back on the Weberian Spurs

by Charvaka

The Spurs are atop of the league and absolutely rocking when compared to the competition. Typically guarded about their success and cautiously optimistic of their championship possibilities, the Spurs are going about their business as "normally" as possible. But the reaction nationally (and internationally) to the Spurs dominance of 2010-11 has been till now, puzzling.

The Spurs have either been relatively ignored or dismissed — remember all those experts who said an injury is waiting to happen to derail the Spurs' chances —in recent years. This is in comparison to the near frenzy coverage afforded to the much touted Miami Heat(les) or the atypical big market teams including the over-hyped New York Knicks. Chris Sheridan of ESPN New York for example, embodies the derision for the Spurs and the hyper-love for the mediocre Knicks the most, as he tries to make a mountainous story out of every molehill quote from a Knicks organisation person, while striving to undercut the euphoria for the winning Spurs based on his irrational expectations of “inevitable” health problems for their main players. Then, there is the Car'Melodrama' that seems to define this season more than any other story. 

But as the Spurs' juggernaut rolls on, that kind of attention or lack thereof cannot any longer continue. Now, you have a grudging acceptance of the Spurs' contending status. Advanced stats based experts of the game — the relatively more objective lot – are already calling express attention to the Spurs' dominance. The storyline back in some conscientious outlets hovers around the Spurs' sound fundamentals — the fact that the team has consistently won since Tim Duncan's drafting, the value based culture that has spawned the winning and the continuity of all of it, the Spurs' value addition to the league in the form of front office, coaching and scouting expertise and the "Groundhog Day" phenomena about the organization. This article from a Nets beat writer is the best example recently speaking to all of the above and how the Nets are keen to emulate the Spurs. 

To the long time Spurs fan, all this is again expected. The lack of continuous love for the Spurs and attention to its winning ways and the reasons for its squad's renewed dominance is a function both of the fact that the team plays for a smaller market and also that the squad is low key by the league's terms of glamor and showmanship. Apropos the latter, while across the league, those attributes are necessary to fuel emotions and give cutting edges to athletic abilities; in the Spurs' case, these are seen as distractions from the core of its way of playing basketball. But let us dwell on the former aspect.

The NBA, as the cliché goes is just a business. Albeit, a highly regulated one, with tendencies toward equalization of talent and team performance through the restrictions on spending — the Cap System and through the Lottery-Adjusted-Reverse-Order-Priority drafting system. And through a Collective Bargaining Agreement between the owners (Capital) and the players (Labour), it has managed to keep interests of both the main parties in the business relatively alive.

Yet, despite this, the big markets are at a greater advantage, helped by the free agency process which accords freedom to players to go to a market of their choice. Invariably marquee players have preferred the bigger market to leverage the potential of extra-earnings through endorsements and the likes or teams from smaller markets are forced to overpay some marquee players just to keep them on the same team. At times, buoyed by their spending power, some big market teams have screwed up their leverage by simply overpaying free agents or lacking in proper decision making — the Knicks for example. But the key point remains — teams from smaller markets are hamstrung despite the friendly regulations to close the gap — and bad ownership can only make matters extremely worse for such teams— as seen financially in the case of the New Orleans Hornets, who are now under the caretaker-ship of the NBA itself. 

It has required some kind of luck with the type of ownership that has very deep pockets— the Dallas Mavericks owned by billionaire Mark Cuban or the Orlando Magic owned by Richard DeVos (of Amway) — for relatively smaller markets to be able to continue to thrive in this difficult environment. No wonder there is this big talk of a “franchise player” clause in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement.

The Spurs' ability to buck this trend and to remain relevant despite their deficiencies— a relatively small market, not so extremely rich owner— is a function of the manner in which they have conducted themselves since being helped by the NBA's Draft Equalization rule to snag Tim Duncan in 1997. Since then, the Spurs have managed to be a power by creating a value based culture and finding players, front office executives, coaches and scouts all fitting that culture, with the ownership allowing enough autonomy for its executives to keep that vision going. 

In a way, the Spurs have managed to stay true to a Weberian model of capitalism — maximizing virtues with a single minded pursuit of excellence and profit through winning while moderating that with a lack of aggrandisement from both its players or the organisation staff. No wonder the Spurs have more or less kept their spending within reasonable limits, going over the luxury tax only at times and that being an exception rather than a norm.

Even as they keep piling up wins in the regular season, their focus is on improving their defense to a point that makes them impregnable in the post-season. The Spurs work toward reaching a point of excellence and that governs their rationality— may it be the way they ration the minutes of their aging stars or the way they privilege the necessity to improve their defense. 

The rationality that drives Spurs' excellence is therefore different from what is the norm elsewhere. Basketball as a vocation is what it is — a recreational game invented by Naismith that provides a good livelihood for its practitioners and the hangers on. To the extent that this vocation can be used to create a winning culture, all that is required to do so from within the structure of rules are strove for, while the moral virtue of living life the right way is retained. This unusually open interview of Gregg Popovich reveals the values that Spurs' executives have tried to instil in their organisation. And it is confirmed in a recent piece from  Marc Spears' of Yahoo! Sports.
Former Spurs television play-by-play announcer Greg Papa interviews Gregg Popovich before Spurs-Warriors game
One only hopes the circumstances that endowed the Spurs with this philosophy are retained forever. But capitalism goes through ebbs and flows. We, Spurs fans are fortunate to be seeing this phase of ebbs. 

One can also hope that the mainstream NBA media takes a leaf out of the Spurs' book and focuses more on the aspects of the game that matter most rather than the glitz and glamor. It would be doing a service to the fans of the game as well, helping them aspire to do the same things the Spurs do, in their own vocational pursuits.


  1. This sounds like a piece I wrote on the Spurs but back in 2005!

  2. Guess that's a good sign if the Spurs are bringing about similar thoughts of championship yesteryear, wouldn't you say?

  3. Would love to read from a link, Andrew. And yes, considering that the Spurs are winning a lot for years now, every good thing you write about them gets back a deja vu moment :)