SAN ANTONIO — The Larry O’Brien trophy rested between Tim Duncan’s legs as he wrapped his arms around Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the duo that has been with him for four of his five championships with the San Antonio Spurs. To the right of the winningest playoff trio in NBA history sat Kawhi Leonard, the future of the franchise who had to babysit a Finals MVP trophy amidst the celebration.
Soon the Spurs’ white championship T-shirts would be covered in beer and expensive champagne and smelling of cigars. It would serve as the culmination of a surprisingly dominant title run that few outside of the locker room could have imagined just last season, following a devastating loss to LeBron James and the Miami Heat. But the Spurs built upon that defeat, used it as motivation to claim the title that had eluded the organization for seven years.
“It’s so sweet to win a championship the way we did it. I would change nothing,” Parker said after the Spurs completed a five-game rout of the two-time defending champion. “It makes it even better, the fact that we had to go through a tough loss in Game 6 and Game 7 [in 2013], and to come back, it just makes the journey even more worth it.”
The Spurs’ fifth championship was significant on many levels. Duncan joined Kobe Bryant with the most titles in the post-Michael Jordan era. Coach Gregg Popovich joined Phil Jackson, Red Auerbach, John Kundla and Pat Riley as the only coaches with five rings. And San Antonio now ranks fourth among NBA franchises behind the Boston Celtics (17), the Minneapolis/Los Angeles Lakers (16) and the Chicago Bulls (six).
But it also is a testament to continuity, consistency and longevity, phrases that are rarely uttered in professional sports, in which change is the only constant. Since Duncan arrived in San Antonio in 1997, the franchise has won at least 50 games every season except one — the 50-game lockout shortened season in 1999, when the Spurs won their first championship.
Duncan now has the second-longest span between his first and latest titles, behind only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who won his first in 1971 and his last in 1988. Abdul-Jabbar not only changed names during that time; he also changed teams, which makes what Duncan and the Spurs have accomplished even more impressive.
They won titles in 1999 and 2003 — bookends to the Shaquille O’Neal-Kobe Bryant three-peat with the Lakers. They won two more in 2005 and 2007, reached the Finals last season and won it all this season.
Jackson also coached the Lakers to five championships in that span, but he took a season off after being dismissed following a Finals loss to Detroit in 2004. Popovich and Duncan have stayed on the same journey, with no interruptions, for 17 years.
No matter how timeless Duncan’s game has remained at age 38, he eventually will have to retire. And Popovich has always said he will step aside with Duncan.
“I don’t have any plans on doing anything,” Duncan, who has a $10.3 million option for next season, said recently. “I’m going to figure it out when it comes. I’m not saying I’m retiring. I’m not saying I’m not retiring. I’m not saying anything. I’m going to figure it out as it goes. I’ve always said if I feel like I'm effective, if I feel like I can contribute, I’ll continue to play. Right now I feel that way, so we’ll see what happens.”
Spurs General Manager R.C. Buford said over the weekend he hasn’t been given any inclination that either plans to leave but often wonders what will happen when the Duncan — and possibly Duncan-Popovich — era comes to a conclusion.
“We’ve already got Tim’s successor picked out,” Buford said, joking it would be the 30th pick of the 2014 NBA draft. “I can’t predict when that will happen, nor know when you have one of the great players of all time and one of the great coaches of all time how you’re going to fill those shoes, because you’re not.”
Teams don’t usually win championships seven years apart without a dramatic roster makeover, but the Spurs have managed to get it done while keeping their core of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili intact.
“There were times that other people said we should be breaking it up. But what’s the alternative? Our best alternative was to keep the group together,” Buford said.
The commitment seemed admirable, but a championship seemed far-fetched after the Spurs suffered a first-round loss to Dallas in 2009, a second-round loss to Phoenix in 2010 and another first-round loss to Memphis in 2011. After each defeat, eulogies were written. But the Spurs kept coming back, with Duncan, Parker and Ginobili taking less money whenever their contracts came up because they trusted Buford and Popovich to find the right pieces.
San Antonio reloaded in the most unique manner, swapping a valued reserve in George Hill for the 15th pick to get Leonard, signing Boris Diaw after he was cut by Charlotte and picking up Danny Green from the scrap heap. Those moves, in conjunction with signing Patty Mills and creating a more wide open offense, helped the Spurs become contenders again.
“I never really cared about what people said about us,” Ginobili said. “There’s not one season since I’m in the NBA that I really didn’t truly believe that we could’ve won it. Playing with the teammates I’ve always played, coached by the guy that is coaching us, I always felt that we had a shot.”
And if they all decided to come back for at least one more run, there is little reason to doubt San Antonio doesn’t have another one.