Like almost every other basketball fan, the San Antonio Spurs are almost certainly watching ‘The Last Dance’, here’s what they can learn from it
Like many of the players on the San Antonio Spurs roster today, I didn’t grow up watching Michael Jordan. While His Airness was on his campaign for the 1998 NBA Championship, the subject of ‘The Last Dance’ documentary series, I was just a three-year-old running around the backyard. Most of the stories I heard of Jordan came from my parents.
For many of the young Spurs, this documentary series is likely the most in-depth look they’ve ever had at the fine details of those dominant Chicago Bulls teams of the late 90s. But their path to success wasn’t a consistent rise, there were pitfalls and obstacles they had to overcome along the way.
The San Antonio Spurs can learn a lot from this documentary series. Like the Bulls, the Spurs had an impressive run of success over the past two decades. And like the Bulls, they’re struggling to find their new path after the end of an era.
For the Bulls it was Michael Jordan, for the Spurs it was the Big Three. Both franchises built their names around legendary players and both struggled to find their way after they were gone.
‘The Last Dance’ can bring more than just entertainment value to Spurs players, it can also be a teaching tool for how to get back to the level of success that they previously had. Here are a few lessons the team can take away from the highly watched documentary series.
Next: Reloading, not rebuilding
Can the Spurs rebuild and keep their streak alive?
One of the biggest storylines we covered this season was around the San Antonio Spurs historic playoff streak. Before the season was suspended it looked like the Spurs would miss the playoffs for the first time in over two decades. It wasn’t set in stone but it was getting there.
The question facing the Spurs now is if they can return to title contention while also keeping this impressive streak alive. It’s a tricky task. Their best route to making the playoffs is by keeping established veterans like DeMar DeRozan on the team. But DeRozan’s presence is directly impacting the minutes of players like Lonnie Walker and Keldon Johnson, players the Spurs need to develop if they want to have success long after DeRozan moves on.
It’s a difficult thing, rebuilding without tanking. It’s a tough line to walk and requires smart, decisive action by the front office. Action that we haven’t seen from Brian Wright, at least not yet. That needs to change if the Spurs want to be able to get back to the postseason without tanking.
For all the flak that Jerry Krause is taking in this documentary, he was a major part of the Bulls’ success. His bold acquisitions of Dennis Rodman and Toni Kukoc made the second three championships possible. Take away Rodman and Kukoc and those three titles might not happen.
Those moves weren’t positively received at first. Rodman had a long history with the Bulls from his time with the Detroit Pistons and Kukoc was on Jordan and Scottie Pippen‘s bad side from day one as he was viewed as Krause’s boy.
But those decisions, no matter how unpopular they may have been at the time, ended up being key to the Bulls’ success. Can Wright make similarly tough decisions to help prepare the Spurs for their next few years? Only time will tell.
Next: Ignore the noise
Ignore outside noise
More so than most franchises, the San Antonio Spurs do an outstanding job of keeping the noise around their franchise to a minimum. Thankfully they don’t have players claiming they “changed the game of basketball” or an owner like James Dolan who is going to make news every other week for some boneheaded move. They move in relative silence and focus on their work.
That said, it seemed like there was more outside commotion around the team this year than in previous years. The playoff streak was called into question, fans loudly clamored for Lonnie Walker to start over Marco Belinelli, we treated Dejounte Murray politely suggesting that he and Derrick White share the floor together like it was a major development.
Through it all the Spurs remained focused on their play and what they can control. Every time DeRozan was asked about his pending free-agency he kicked the ball down the road and said he would figure it out when the season was over. That kind of mindset is something he shared with Jordan.
In the most recent episodes of ‘The Last Dance’, we saw Pippen’s trade demand as a centerpiece of the story. Through it all, Jordan was differential, saying that he had no control over what Scottie did. He took the same approach with questions about his future with the team in light of Phil Jackson‘s rumored departure. He was focused on what he could control and let everyone else worry about the rest.
Maintaining that kind of composure is crucial in any line of work but more so in the NBA. Spurs players won’t be able to control the narratives that build around the team throughout the season but keeping focused on the task at hand will help them get back to the Finals sooner rather than later.
Next: Adapt or perish
Be willing to make adjustments
One of the funniest moments from ‘The Last Dance’ was when Jordan and others discussed Rodman’s request for a 48-hour party spree in Vegas. I mean, I get it. Sometimes you just have to blow off a little steam in order to get back on track. Jordan and the rest of the team understood, to some extent, that that was what they needed to let Rodman do to get him back at his best.
Now, I don’t foresee Derrick White or anyone else asking for hall pass in the middle of the season but the simple fact that the Bulls let Rodman do something so wild speaks volumes about the level of understanding that the team had with one another. That’s something that the Spurs need to work on.
Going back to Murray’s request to play more with White, that’s something that looks good on paper, but was never put into practice by the coaching staff. Gregg Popovich and the rest of the staff kept the lineups fairly entrenched and didn’t make many adjustments throughout the season.
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The team started out playing faster than ever before, but by the time the season was suspended they were back in the middle of the pack in terms of pace. They regressed back to what had worked before, steering away from experimentation as they chased that playoff spot.
There’s wisdom to that. Playing around with lineups and styles of play is something you do in the offseason and preseason, not while there are actual games at stake. But as the futures of the Spurs midrange stars are in question we’re likely approaching a crossroads with how we see the team play.
San Antonio has found success by leaning on the midrange games of DeRozan and Aldridge but that’s not going to lead the team back to the Finals. They will have to adapt to the modern NBA eventually, preferably sooner rather than later. How the organization decides to go about that is going to be a deciding factor in how the team’s fortunes look over the coming years.
For all the entertainment value that ‘The Last Dance’ is providing NBA fans, it can be more than just a fun way to kill two hours on a Sunday night. The San Antonio Spurs would be wise to take some learning points away from this series as we continue to learn more and more about how Jordan was able to will his team to success.