They run in different sporting circles but are on parallel tracks of sustained excellence, one in the Southwest, the other in the Northeast.
It’s hard to know if we should call the San Antonio Spurs the Patriots of the NBA or the Patriots the San Antonio Spurs of the NFL.
Either way, both franchises are worthy of appreciation and admiration as paragons of team-building and winning in an era where leagues are rigged for parity. The Patriots and Spurs are the two winningest organizations in major North American professional sports since 2001, winning 76 percent and 71 percent of their regular-season games, respectively. They both have institutionalized winning.
It doesn’t take much convincing in these parts to get folks to root against the great LeBron James, who has been unfairly lampooned for cramping up in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. But just in case anyone is on the fence between the Miami Heat and the Spurs in these Finals, which continue Sunday with Game 2 in San Antonio, remember that the Spurs and Patriots are kindred sports spirits.
It’s hard to watch the venerable Spurs in their quest to win a fifth NBA championship before their window closes and not think of the Patriots and their pursuit of a fourth Super Bowl title before sports’ ultimate champion — Father Time — declares victory.
It’s easy to see in Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and big man Tim Duncan the same symbiotic coach-player partnership that Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have down at Patriot Place.
The teams are built the same way, on a foundation of stable, influential ownership, brilliant coaching, and a franchise cornerstone player.
Pop and Belichick would get along famously.
Both are known for their erudite approach, for demanding a metronomic level of precision from their teams, and for a certain, ahem, brevity and brusqueness with the media. Both are of Croatian descent. Popovich is the son of a Serbian mother and a Croatian father. Belichick’s father, Steve, was the son of two Croatian immigrants, whose given last name was Bilicic.
Both were shaped by military backgrounds. Belichick grew up in Annapolis, Md., home of the United States Naval Academy, where his father was a longtime scout and assistant coach. Popovich played at the Air Force Academy and served a five-year military commitment. The Spurs coach was an intelligence officer in eastern Turkey. Belichick acts like football is all state secrets and subterfuge.
Popovich could give Belichick a run for his money when it comes to stunting media inquisitors.
A 2013 Sports Illustrated profile of Popovich said, “True, a certain Belichickian atmosphere hangs over the Republic of Pop, where the Spurs consider league rules governing media access to be the most casual of suggestions . . . ”
Ignoring the anguish of knowing that Duncan could have been a Celtic with a propitious bounce of the ping-pong balls in the 1997 NBA Draft lottery, you can appreciate Duncan through the spectrum of Brady.
The cosmopolitan QB and the understated power forward/center who dresses like a college sophomore might not appear to have much in common. But both are classy, dedicated leaders, defined as much by their athletic IQs, innate feel for the game, and fundamentals as their talent.
Duncan, who entered the NBA three years before Brady was drafted, has led the Spurs to four NBA titles, six Finals appearances, and nine conference finals appearances. He is perpetually fielding questions about his athletic senescence. He turned 38 in April.
Brady has led the Patriots to three Super Bowl titles, five Super Bowl appearances, and eight conference title games. He will turn 37 in August and how much he has left has become a constant source of debate, conjecture, and angst. A recent article that theorized that Brady was no longer an elite quarterback was regarded like saying the world is flat.
The other noble shared trait of these two franchises is the ability to change out parts, but keep the winning the same. The Patriots have authored 11 straight 10-win seasons. The Spurs have 15 consecutive 50-win seasons.
The Patriots are known for their bloodless approach to player personnel, labeling most players as replaceable parts in an unstoppable machine.
San Antonio has done a remarkable job of swapping players in and out around their Big Three of Duncan, point guard Tony Parker, and shooting guard Manu Ginobili, who have won three championships together.
The Patriots are adept at finding talent in unexpected places. They turned an undersized college quarterback into their best wide receiver (Julian Edelman). They plucked Danny Woodhead from obscurity and the New York Jets’ practice squad. They took someone else’s trash, LeGarrette Blount, and turned him into a treasure.
The Spurs can do the same thing. Guard Danny Green was waived by the Cleveland Cavaliers, cut twice by the Spurs, and played in the NBA Development League. Versatile power forward Boris Diaw was waived by the Charlotte Bobcats in 2012 before he resurrected his career with the Spurs. The Spurs are Marco Belinelli’s fifth team.
San Antonio is proficient at finding premium talent later in the draft, too. They selected Parker with the final pick in the first round in 2001, seven picks after the Celtics selected Joseph Forte.
It’s hard to say which team’s run is more impressive. The Patriots have a higher degree of difficulty in maintaining their success because football demands 53 bodies to do it. In basketball, three players can define a team, just ask the Heat.
However, the Spurs have usually had tougher competition to reach the title round than the Patriots, by virtue of playing in the NBA’s Western Conference, having to deal with the Kobe and Shaq Lakers, the Kobe and Pau Gasol Lakers, and Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks.
Tomato, to-mah-to. Parsing excellence isn’t always necessary.
These teams share a common bond, a common drive, a common goal, and uncommon success.