If there is anything that has been a constant in the NBA during the past 15+ years, it’s this: the Spurs are smarter than anybody else. While big-market teams and some of the NBA glamour franchises can wave big bucks at free agents and offer the sweet sight of warm weather, iconic cities, and NBA history, the Spurs have never had much to flaunt but the idea of playing for Gregg Popovich, having a chance to contend every year, and the relative peace and quiet of San Antonio.
Just as the NBA officially closed its 2014-2015 year and free agency began, the Spurs did it again and completely retooled their roster in just a couple of days. While it was widely assumed that their tight cap situation didn’t give them much chance to pursue big free agents or at least keep much of their 2014 roster intact, GM R.C. Buford and Coach Pop worked their magic to unload Tiago Splitter on the Hawks, re-sign Danny Green to a below-market deal, and grab one of the offseason’s most coveted free agents in LaMarcus Aldridge.
Even as Aldridge is no spring chicken, he turns 30 this summer, his acquisition seems to be the perfect bridge from Tim Duncan’s eventual retirement to a new potential run of success for San Antonio. Aldridge’s signing lifted the Spurs as 2-1 favorites to win the West in 2016, according to many Vegas outlets, while they are in a close race with Cleveland as the top favorite to win it all.
With Duncan committed to return, Tony Parker ready to bounce back after a tough, injury-plagued season, and Manu Ginobili in advanced talks to give it another go, even the addition of Aldridge and the ascent of the Spurs’ new generation cannot shift away the attention from the franchise’s iconic Big Three. After 14 straight seasons playing together, 5 Finals appearances, and 4 championships, they will go down in history as one of the best nucleus ever assembled.
However, all that success was certainly not only a product of San Antonio’s Big 3. The franchise’s knack for undervalued assets and perfect role players has elevated the team’s game, while also bringing out the best of some guys who couldn’t replicate that kind of performance elsewhere. Today we highlight some of the most important yet unheralded players of San Antonio’s dynasty, just as the team prepares to gradually move on from the Big 3 and establish a new kind of power.
Stephen Jackson (2001-2003, 2011-2013)
Let’s face it, Cap’n Jack was never really a great player. He finished his career with a below average PER, and had his best years in the NBA as part of the Warriors. And yet, odds are that he will be most remembered for his contributions in San Antonio. He won an NBA title with the Spurs as their starting shooting guard at age 24, and then came really close to winning a second one as a 33 year-old bench ace that shot .605 from 3-point land during the 2012 playoffs. Even as he was waived mid-2013 and could not be part of the Finals squad, he can be considered as one of the traditional low-key players that have been essential to the Spurs.
Bruce Bowen (2000-2009)
Bowen was known mostly for two things: he was kind of a dirty player as a defensive enforcer, and the guy could really shoot threes. His infamous scuffles with Vince Carter are well documented, but so is his proficiency from outside, as he now sits as the 50th-best 3-point shooter in NBA history with a .3929 percentage. That number was elevated to .422 in the playoffs, where Bowen was part of three championship teams with the Spurs. In typical San Antonio fashion, Bowen had gone undrafted and twice been waived before arriving in Texas, where he never earned more than $4.125 million in a single season.
Robert Horry (2003-2008)
By the time Horry arrived in San Antonio as a 33-year-old, he had already won 5 NBA titles as part of the Hakeem Rockets and the Kobe-Shaq Lakers, but he was widely believed to be near the end. And yet, all he did was play five more seasons and win two extra titles with the Spurs. Horry was instrumental in the 2005 Finals, and served as a veteran leader in 2007 as well. Big Shot Rob will go down in history as one of the NBA’s best role players, and one that was rejuvenated by San Antonio’s magic.
Boris Diaw (2012-2015)
By age 30, Diaw was considered a coach’s nightmare that had bounced around 3 franchises with below-average results. The Spurs made Diaw commit to a regime to get him in shape, and he quickly bought in to become the glue guy for a team that was still waiting to regain its luster after last making the Finals in 2007. Diaw’s unique passing ability as a big man has been essential to create the spacing and quick passes that have been part of the modern Spurs, and was the unofficial team MVP in their consecutive trips to the Finals in 2013-2014. The French national is signed through 2018 with the Spurs on a cheap deal that still is based on certain conditions favorable to the franchise.
Kawhi Leonard (2011-2015)
At this point, it may be hard to relegate Leonard as just “another guy”, but we are still living in a Big 3 world out here. And yet, it may be him and LaMarcus Aldridge who take over the team and convince Coach Popovich to stay way past Timmy’s retirement. Leonard already won a Finals MVP and was voted the 2014-15 Defensive Player of the Year, all be the tender age of 23. While players like Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis, and even Kevin Durant are considered the future of the NBA, the Spurs can take solace in having the underrated Leonard as their building block.
Honorable Mention: Matt Bonner (2006-2015)
Okay, so Bonner has never really been essential to the Spurs by any means, and he owns an awkward shooting mechanic, but he is the perfect reflection of what the franchise can do with marginal talent. He was drafted 45th overall, and acquired by San Antonio in a trade for the immortal Rasho Nesterovic. In his tenure in San Antonio, Bonner has become a fan favorite despite averaging 16.4 minutes per game and only getting 104 starts over 9 seasons. Bonner’s trademark, shooting three-pointers in a weird way, has placed him 15th on the all-time list (and 8th among active players) with a .414 accuracy mark. Bonner has been part of two championship teams, and he remains one of the league’s most unique players.