The last time the San Antonio Spurs reached The NBA Finals, Kawhi Leonard was a high school sophomore in California. Tiago Splitter was a 22-year-old playing in Europe. Danny Green was a sophomore at North Carolina averaging five points a game and backing up Reyshawn Terry. Gary Neal was finishing his college career on a Towson team with a below-.500 record in CAA play.
For all the talk of their age and experience, the Spurs are the younger team in the NBA Finals. They have five players on their roster older than 30. The Heat have 10.
Over the last six years, San Antonio rebuilt their roster around their Big 3. Matt Bonner is the only role player left from 2007. With the exception of Boris Diaw, every player in their rotation on Thursday was acquired either through the draft or the free agency bargain bin. The Spurs' ability to find and develop young players is the envy of the NBA, but there aren’t any secrets to what they are doing. R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich find diamonds in the rough because they always look through the rough!
The Spurs' front office has an eye for talent, but that isn’t what separates them from their peers. They place far more value on the draft than most contending teams. They don’t sell their picks and they almost never use them in trades. When they draft a player, they make sure he gets enough playing time to show what he can do. It’s asset management 101. Over the last six years, the Spurs have had their fair share of misses in the draft. The difference is they took enough swings to make up for it.
Much of their reputation for drafting comes from the heists of Tony Parker (30) and Manu Ginobili (57) at the turn of the millennium. There weren’t many NBA teams actively looking for players overseas back then. Three months before Parker slipped to the end of the first round, he had 20 points and seven assists in the Hoop Summit. Thirteen years later, Dennis Schroeder may have played his way into the lottery with an 18 point, 6 assist showing at the Hoop Summit. The basketball world is smaller than it once was.
Splitter, the No. 27 pick in 2007, may have been the Spurs last steal from the international ranks. Because of a hefty contract with his European team, he didn’t come over until 2010. Most front offices have neither the patience nor the job security for that. The same year, the Suns sold the No. 24 pick (Rudy Fernandez) for $3 million, far less than the excess value San Antonio received from Splitter’s rookie-scale contract. It’s that type of penny-wise, pound-foolish thinking that has the Suns where they are.
In 2008, the Spurs took George Hill at No. 26. Finding a starting-caliber player at the end of the first round is impressive, but 2008 was one of the deepest drafts in recent memory. Everyone was finding good players. Ryan Anderson, Courtney Lee, Kosta Koufos, Serge Ibaka and Nic Batum were the five picks before Hill. When the Spurs took him, Darrell Arthur, Nikola Pekovic, Mario Chalmers, Omer Asik, DeAndre Jordan and Goran Dragic were all on the board.
The 2009 draft was one of the rare years San Antonio traded their first-round pick, using it to acquire Kurt Thomas at the deadline. Many teams without a first-round pick mail in the draft, but the Spurs pounced when DeJuan Blair fell all the way to No. 37. Blair was widely heralded as one of the draft’s biggest steals, but he’s fallen out of the Spurs rotation, for good reason. It’s hard to make deep runs in the playoffs with a 6’7, 260 center who doesn’t play defense.
With the No. 20 pick in 2010, the Spurs may have flat-out missed on James Anderson. In three seasons in San Antonio, the former Big 12 Player of the Year played in only 87 games and was largely unproductive in his time on the floor. While Houston picked him off the scrap heap this season, it’s unclear whether he will stick in the NBA. Anderson has some talent, but he is a shooting guard who has shot 39 percent from the field and 33 percent from three as a professional.
The common theme isn’t Buford running rings around the rest of the NBA. It’s Pop developing young players and being willing to live through their mistakes. In Hill’s rookie season, he averaged five points a game on 40 percent shooting. How many coaches would have demanded a reliable back-up point guard at the trade deadline? Blair looked like a steal because Pop fed him minutes early in his career in spite of his defensive liabilities. Anderson had plenty of chances in San Antonio before he was let go.
Even in the middle of a playoff race, Pop was able to keep an eye on the future. His patience with Hill was rewarded in 2011, when Buford turned him into Kawhi Leonard, the type of high-upside first round pick most contending teams never get. Rather than signing a veteran behind Parker, the Spurs developed a young player, knowing he could be flipped for more assets at a later date. They’re trying to do it again with Cory Joseph, who is coming on in his second season.
As a small-market team, the Spurs can’t afford to overlook the draft. However, leaning on veteran free agents is a short-sighted policy for any team, regardless of market size. Older players are more expensive, more prone to injury and are guaranteed to get worse every season. With the stringent new luxury tax penalties in the CBA, splurging on older role players can cripple a franchise. It makes far more sense to put cheap young players with upside around established stars.
After all, a contending team like San Antonio is the perfect place for a young player to establish himself in the NBA. Instead of being asked to do much, they can grow into a role in a rotation while learning the ropes from a veteran locker room. There isn’t much Duncan and Ginobili can teach a 35-year-old, but what 22-year-old wouldn’t benefit from watching them practice every day? Where would Norris Cole be today if Minnesota had not dealt him to Miami?
If the Heat want to have a run as long as the Spurs, they need more young players like Cole. They traded out of the No. 27 pick this year, but they would have been better off using it. While Arnett Moultrie (27) and Perry Jones III (28) didn’t play much as rookies, both would have been intriguing long-term assets for Miami. Any athletic big man with finishing ability can look good next to LeBron James. As San Antonio has shown, the key to contending with stars in their 30’s is having players in their 20’s around them.