MINNNEAPOLIS — With so many years of experience, the Minnesota Timberwolves’ new front office general is accustomed to using past examples from the past as illustration.
Kevin Garnett’s his favorite. “We drafted Garnett, and that was pretty good,” former coach Flip Saunders said Monday when asked about navigating this year’s draft.
“You look at Magic” — Johnson, that is — for a player whose 3-point shooting prowess developed over his time in the league. “You look at the Blazers” to avoid passing on talent for need, given they didn’t draft Michael Jordan. “You look at this year’s playoffs” and see how direly a Timberwolves team that shot a league-worst 30.5 percent from the 3-point line needs guys that can light it up from outside.
And with plenty of time to experience the 2013 N Playoffs as a spectator, you look at the San Antonio Spurs for a lesson in remarkable sustainability. The kind that has you playing — not watching — in championship after championship.
No one’s completely replicating general manager R.C. Buford and coach Greg Popovich’s blueprint for a ridiculous 15-year run that’s included four NBA titles, five Finals appearances, eight conference championship berths and an uncanny knack for raising players’ talent ceilings several stories.
But there are central, San Antonio-born components you can bet organizations at the bottom of the heap are discussing this week in personnel meetings and war rooms across the league.
Minnesota may be in the best position to take a page from the Spurs’ guide to building a winner.
No two franchises are exactly alike. At present, the Timberwolves’ payroll’s $7 million less than that of San Antonio. Their market’s about twice as large, and there are three other big-name pro franchises with which to share real estate here.
But when it comes to seeking examples of a solid organizational foundation, there’s no better hunting ground than the home of the Alamo.
Despite what your 12-year-old scooting around the driveway in a LeBron James jersey might think, the Miami Heat’s “Big 3” initiative was far from innovative. Even the Boston Celtics, with their ultra-talented trio that includes Garnett, were behind the times when compared to the Spurs.
Though the league’s youngest and arguably most talented big-time threesome just snuck past the original “Big 3,” the fusion of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker helped change the way championship-caliber teams are crafted.
One, even two franchise players, are no longer enough.
Minnesota has three. They go by the names of Kevin, Ricky and Nikola. No, they don’t all appear destined for the post-career accolades and near-handful of championship rings sitting in the Spurs three-spot’s jewelry drawers, no, but there’s enough talent there to build around.
Kevin Love, if he stays healthy and maximizes his potential as a scorer and rebounder, has enough career left and enough physical tools to rank as elite when his biography hits bookshelves (or whatever we’re reading from by then). Ricky Rubio could go down in history as this generation’s most unique point guard with an already unmatched ability to distribute. Nikola Pekovic’s one of the few true centers left in professional basketball and emerged as Minnesota’s leading scorer in the wake of Love’s costly hand injury last year.
But a Spurs-style Big 3 is much more than a conglomeration of the best talent.
It’s the presence of time-tested continuity, from the top down.
Before Buford took the reins, Popovich managed San Antonio’s personnel decisions. It was him that brought Duncan and center David Robinson together. It was him that chose Buford to succeed in the general manager spot so he could focus on coaching. He and Buford are the two and only masterminds behind this dynasty, and they’ve managed to keep Duncan, Parker and Ginobili together in an ever-fluid world of roster shuffling and contract disputes.
“Teams continue to change,” 37-year-old Duncan said after the Western Conference Finals. “Teams continue to get better every year, and we seem to make minimal changes and we continue to play and compete a high level.”
Less than two months is hardly a precise sample size, but at 58 years old, Saunders appears to have enough energy to stick around a while. In a world that’s all about cultivating relationships, he and his still-forming staff have a lot of years to put before reaching San Antonio-esque longevity.
But if the Spurs are any indication, that’s the cost (along with a lot of nice dinners and checkbook balancing) of keeping a core group together.
The first test of Saunders and friends’ ability to do so is already here.
Pekovic’s a restricted free agent this offseason, and Love — who expressed displeasure at not receiving a max deal from former president David Kahn — has a player option two years from now.
When fully healthy, Love, Rubio and Pekovic — none of whom are older than 27 — can be a perennial playoff-caliber trio. Keep them here through a few contract cycles, and you’ve got a three-man wolf pack around which to build for years.
That last bit’s the tricky part.
With every smoothly-drained 3-pointer on the way to a new NBA Finals record, Spurs shooting guard Danny Green provided the NBA D-League added credibility.
He also highlighted San Antonio’s keenness for plucking under-the-radar talent.
Few journeys to professional championship series stardom have been as fluid as that of Green: drafted by the Cavaliers in 2009 and waived a year later, signed by the Spurs, waived six days later, signed by the D-League’s Reno Bighorns, re-signed by the Spurs, a stint in Europe during the 2011 lockout, then finally breaking out in the NBA last season.
But he never knocks down 27 treys against Miami if the Spurs don’t scour the D-League for unattached prospects. And Cory Joseph, another D-League alum, isn’t around to spell Parker when he suffers a minor injury, either.
Saunders is committed to a similar emphasis on the D-League, especially after former Minnesota affiliate the Sioux Falls Skyforce entered a hybrid agreement with Miami.
The Timberwolves have yet to announce a new affiliate, but whether they’re assigning and calling up players isn’t as consequential, Saunders said.
“The D-League’s a little bit of a misnomer how they used it,” Saunders said of the Spurs. “I think scouting the D-League is important; you have to do that, but not necessarily if you have a (D-League affiliate) does that mean that you’re gonna be good at it. You’ve got to stalk, really, the whole league.”
And the whole world.
It’s the overstatement of the year, promulgated by Ginobili and Parker’s continued top-of-the-line exploits in the latter stages of their careers.
No franchise in NBA history has done a better job of scouting, developing and maximizing international talent than the Spurs.
The French point guard and Argentine swing man are the mainstays. Big men Boris Diaw (France) and Tiago Splitter (Brazil) played pivotal roles this year. Even off-the-bench sparkplug Gary Neal spent three years in Turkey, Spain and Italy before landing in San Antonio.
It’s primarily a product of patience. The Spurs weren’t afraid to let Ginobili continue to mature overseas for three seasons after drafting him in 1999. They weren’t afraid to take a flier on Diaw, who appeared on his way out of the league. They weren’t afraid to put the ball in Neal’s hands during Game 3 of the Finals, when he scored 24 points in San Antonio’s victory.
Ever since the league’s scouting view turned outward in the 1990s, San Antonio’s sent representatives to the ends of the international basketball world to forge relationships with foreign players and teams. It currently has the most overseas imports (eight) in the league.
If this sounds familiar on a local level, it should. The Timberwolves have six international natives and, like the Spurs, possess five players who didn’t play high school or college basketball in the United States.
Under Kahn and former president Kevin McHale, nondomestic athlete-harvesting was a staple, even overemphasized at times. Saunders’ firing of international scouting coordinator Steve Philo exemplified his take on the subject.
“I don’t care where he’s from,” Saunders said recently. “If he can play, whether he’s from New York City or whether he’s from Moscow, Russia, it doesn’t really matter.”
But that doesn’t mean a complete shift in philosophy. Rubio, for example, was drafted in 2009 but spent two more years in Spain before signing with the Timberwolves, and Saunders has no qualms with that.
And with every team putting more and more emphasis on international scouting, Minnesota can’t afford to fall far behind. The days of a guy like Ginobili slipping to the second round are long gone.
“What (the Spurs) have done, is they’ve got a lot of players that they either got in the second round or made trades for — just kind of throw-in players — and they let those guys develop overseas,” Saunders said. “Everybody’s trying to do that. It’s what happened with us — look what happened with Ricky Rubio. He was developing (in Spain) and then coming over here and now really starting to flourish over here.”
Another one of those retrospective examples.
The Spurs’ roadmap to dominance includes a stop on the AT&T Center hardwood in San Antonio.
It’s there that Popovic and company concocted a unique offensive system, one built upon sharing and creating opportunities for teammates — not unlike Rick Adelman’s Princeton offense he’s instilled in Minneapolis.
With Duncan at the epicenter, the Spurs’ scheme features a heavy dose of post-pounding on the blocks and kick-outs for corner 3-pointers — a perfect harmony of inside-out basketball. Adelman’s old-school approach showcases more read-and-react, rapid ball movement from set of hands to set of hands.
But when executed to perfection, both coaches’ ideals stress the idea of selflessness. It’s a completely countercultural phenomenon in today’s NBA, where offense has been whittled down to clearing out for a superstar like LeBron James or Kobe Bryant and letting him drive-and-dish or spot up. But it’s part of the reason San Antonio’s been so hard to defend, no matter how much its style fells regular-season television ratings.
No flash. Just finish.
The same could be said for the Spurs’ collective off-court demeanor. Duncan’s never been one to ruffle many feathers. Parker simply speaks with a boyish love for the game. Ginobili’s been brash at times, but never enough to elicit venom comparable to that directed at James, Bryant, and the league’s other polarizing figures.
Love still needs to be Minnesota’s go-to guy. Rubio still needs to draw attention before sneaking in a deft pass to a wide-open teammate.
A culture of cohesiveness, however, both in terms of strategy and locker-room environment, certainly won’t hurt the Timberwolves’ chances at ascension.
Minnesota won’t ever be San Antonio. The Timberwolves won’t ever be the Spurs.
Neither has to be. But there are too many lessons flowing past the Riverwalk in south-central Texas for the folks who keep offices in the Target Center to ignore.