Evolution Of a Champion

By Mike Wise
Friday, June 15, 2007

CLEVELAND Tim Duncan and LeBron James shared one on those personal moments between stars, exchanging hugs and words in a waiting area outside the postgame podium. "Don't worry about it," Duncan closed with as James nodded. "It'll be your league in a little while."

"In a little while." Isn't that what the San Antonio Spurs have been saying to everyone for almost a decade?

Since Gregg Popovich calls any talk of dynasty other than Bill Russell's Celtics and UCLA "psychobabble," maybe calling the Spurs an outright dynasty is too strong; after all, they haven't even won back-to-back titles. But what San Antonio has done, especially the past five years, is more a testament to resilience than any wire-to-wire perennial champion.

Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili had their crown taken away twice since 2003 and got it back both times. They dealt with labels of "too old and slow" in a league ablaze with young stars. They dealt with a return to an explosive style of play, in which Phoenix and Dallas could routinely put up 120 points a night.

They adapted offensively, but in a sea-change NBA they never truly altered their identity -- who they were, what they were about and what they needed to do to win again. And in this immediate-gratification league, where everyone is after the quick offseason fix, they should be saluted on the night they won their fourth championship in nine years and third in the past five.

LeBron and his game-but-not-yet-good-enough teammates went down in four straight to less of a team than a novel idea in professional sports. Staying put and working with the nucleus you have won out over all the hope brought on by a kid who can fly. Consistency over a decade beats all the teams who played with their own chemistry in order to find the right mix.

"Stability still counts for something," said Bruce Bowen on the night of his 36th birthday. The veteran who shadowed LeBron for four games stood inside the cramped, cigar smoke-filled, champagne-soaked Spurs locker room after San Antonio had quelled Cleveland, 83-82, in a pulsating Game 4. He smiled and added, "If you stay with what you got, you can still get where you want to go."

The defining moment in this series: LeBron took a bad fade-away jump shot on one end early in the fourth quarter that clanged off the rim. The eventual series MVP gathered the rebound and beat five Cavs down the floor, scoring on a layup and drawing a foul. Parker, the little Frenchman with fewer physical gifts than LeBron, made the smart basketball play and went to the rack; the youngster didn't. Simple as that.

On a night when not even Duncan had to play well for his balanced team to earn a fourth championship ring in four tries, the Spurs persevered and ended it in the minimum number of games. In the Greatest Big Man of His Generation conversation, Duncan is now squarely on par with Shaquille O'Neal and his four titles with two different teams.

Nine years after Michael Jordan's Bulls ended their run, Duncan's Spurs are the closest thing to NBA royalty.

For more than a week, we've been playing a fruitless game of "What If?" with the Spurs. What if Manu Ginobili hadn't fouled Dirk Nowitzki in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals a year ago and Derek Fisher hadn't made that insane shot to win Game 5 of the 2004 playoffs? Would San Antonio be going for five straight?

What if Jason Kidd had come via free agency in 2003 and Tony Parker was jettisoned? Would Parker ever have developed into a Finals MVP? Would he ever have met a Desperate Housewife?

On the hypotheticals went. What if Duncan left for Orlando as a free agent to join his friend Grant Hill in 2000? How much would that have altered the balance of power in two teams and two conferences? Further back, what if Boston, which had the best chance in the 1997 draft lottery of getting the top pick, had gotten Duncan instead? Is Rick Pitino a Hall of Fame NBA coach now instead of a traveling salesman like Larry Brown?

To their credit, the Spurs never played that game. They never dealt with What Ifs; they deal with What Is. They let go of what they couldn't change, didn't obsess about the past and, as assistant coach P.J. Carlesimo said, "moved on."

In the process, they became the league's best advertisement for continuity. Forty-two players won championship rings the past nine years because of Duncan. Jaren Jackson won a title with San Antonio. Stephen Jackson, too. Nazr Mohammed. Malik Rose. Glenn Robinson won at the end of his career with San Antonio in 2005. Big Dog went out a champion. Michael Finley's legacy was altered when he got here.

He got his first ring after many stellar seasons in Dallas. The knock on Finley early in his career was that he was just a one-on-one gun, a guy who could drop 30 on any given night but did not have the desire to play in a structured offensive system. As he got older, Finley sacrificed some of his game to become part of something larger, part of what it is to be a Spur. He embraced the game ball afterward almost as tightly as he embraced Duncan; a very nice scene.

There is no shame in being swept by San Antonio, especially for a Cleveland team that arrived here ahead of schedule -- four, remarkable years after 17-65. They just found their level, is all.

LeBron will take a hit for losing this game after some of his supporting cast contributed to a riveting comeback in the fourth quarter. He shot 10 of 30 and was just careless with the game in the balance. Hey, he's 22. He'll learn. Without him, the Cavs are Memphis or Milwaukee.

If Danny Ferry has one job ahead of him this summer, it's to find a complementary player who won't just witness; he'll drop in 25 points occasionally. It's going to be a real challenge for Ferry, because the Heat, Wizards, Pistons and Nets are all trying to upgrade enough to contend next year.

And even if those teams add that missing piece, it remains to be seen whether they develop and remain healthy enough to beat three bona fide NBA all-stars next June. You think Cleveland feels bad? If Pop, Timmy, Tony and Manu keep this up, the Suns and Mavericks might go down as the two of the greatest teams to never win a title. That's how good and consistent the Spurs have been.

"So many teams worry about what other teams are doing," Bowen said. "We won by not worrying and doing what we do."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company