The Spurs of the 21st century are known for many things. Among those things are high IQ basketball, Tim Duncan‘s timeless dominance, low TV ratings, and importing basketball talent from overseas. With nearly half of the players on the Spurs roster having budded from somewhere other than the United States, it’s clear that R.C. Buford is thinking outside of the borders. It’s proven to be a great strategy; San Antonio has been able to sign highly valuable players without having to spend risky amounts of money or trade up for high draft picks.
“In America, we’re obsessed with the superstar. We expect (and sometimes even demand) our athletes to embrace the spotlight”
This is about more than just taking advantage of a less competitive player market, though. The Spurs have built a unique type of basketball culture that contradicts the league’s image and fits the brand of basketball that Popovich and Duncan have been endorsing for years.
In America, we’re obsessed with the superstar. We expect (and sometimes even demand) our athletes to embrace the spotlight , achieve individual greatness, and let their egos shine in front of the public in the most entertaining ways possible. NBA games are marketed as “Russel Westbrook versus Lebron James” rather than Thunder vs. Cavaliers, and a growing number of fans are even following a particular player over an entire team. It’s a culture that has trickled down all the way to the high school and youth levels of American hoops, one in which we see coaches giving leeway to the team’s best player and where we always expect the best player to take the last shot.
Overseas, things are done a little bit differently. The influence of soccer (a largely team-first sport) over European basketball is evident; many of the teams there are actually named after soccer clubs. The idea of a basketball superstar isn’t nearly as prevalent, and the heavy dosage of zone defense many of the squads over there throw at their opponents results in more cohesive, synergy centered basketball teams. Amidst NBA MVP discussion, Cleveland Cavaliers coach and former European head coach David Blatt recently explained how much less focus is put on the best player award overseas. “It’s not something that’s constantly gauged and written about or spoken about. First and always it’s what the teams are doing in the various competitions that they’re playing and then at the end of the day, they decide who the MVP. But it’s almost never talked about.”
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This team-first attitude is why R.C. Buford has been able to so successfully turn foreign basketball leagues into Tim Duncan-teammate-producing factories since the turn of the new millennium. The Spurs are using imported talent to it’s fullest advantage, from French stars Tony Parker and Boris Diaw to outback phenom Patty Mills, and it’s helped in more ways than just the trophy cabinet. The small market San Antonio franchise has gained international attention and fans from countries that normally wouldn’t pay attention to such a team.
It’s the thing that makes the Spurs so successful, as well as the thing that makes Peter Holt’s rant during last years finals celebration that ended with “The United States of America! The greatest country in the world!” a little bit ironic. But anyone with good enough eyes to view the roster will see that the glue of the Spurs era has been its foreign roots.