How San Antonio's NBA Finals charge was spurred by an international brigade
For most of 2013-14, and certainly during the postseason, the San Antonio Spurs looked like the best team in basketball. Their victory over the reigning-champion Miami Heat in , which gave them their fifth championship in franchise history, only made it official.
Since San Antonio hired head coach Gregg Popovich and landed Tim Duncan they have earned a reputation as a model sports franchise and have arguably become the best, or at the very least most consistent, team of the 21st century.
One of the key reasons for their success has been their commitment to finding, signing and developing foreign-born and international basketball players.
The 2013-14 Spurs line-up reads like something from the feverish nightmares of an anti-immigration zealot. Gathering for Sunday night's trophy ceremony, several Spurs players carried the flags of their home countries – a common enough expression of national pride while the World Cup is going on.
The eclectic makeup of the Spurs begins with their their own big three. Power forward/center/big man/possible robot Tim Duncan hails from the US territory of the Virgin Islands – so we'll give him partial credit for that. Point guard Tony Parker, however, born in Belgium and raised in France, played almost exclusively overseas before the Spurs drafted him in 2001. Argentinian shooting guard/greatest sixth man of his generation Manu Ginobili was drafted in 1999 but played in Italy before joining the Spurs in 2002.
Duncan was considered a surefire All-Star by most, although nobody could have imagined that he would be this great. Parker and Ginobili were seen as gambles – it was far easier to project college players than players on different continents, not in the era of dial-up modems and long-distance phone calls. when he entered the league, after barely avoiding falling to the second round. Ginobili was so far from a sure thing that the Spurs were able to get him with the 57th overall pick in the 1999 draft.
There is an alternate universe out there, a rather unexciting one by the standards of speculative fiction, in which Popovich shipped Parker out after one of the arguments that defined their early relationship and Ginobili played to the level of most 57th picks. Do the Spurs continue to focus on international talent? Does Popovich keep his job? Does Duncan bolt to the Rockets to join Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady?
In the actual universe, Popovich and the Spurs were rewarded for taking a chance on foreign-born players that other teams shied from. As Duncan, Ginobili and Parker emerged as the Spurs' core players, the front office became increasingly willing to devote more roster space to players from outside the US.
Australia's Patty Mills, despite impressing at the 2012 Summer Olympics, never really got a shot. While the Spurs were making their incredible and then heartbreaking , he was at the very end of the bench, his contributions reduced to towel waving and "three-goggling”. Basically, he was the Australian Brian Scalabrine.
Given chances to play meaningful minutes in 2013-14, partly because of Popovich's commitment to keeping his veterans healthy, Mills turned out to be a key scorer off the bench. While his five-for-eight shooting from the three-point line on Sunday wasn't typical, it wasn't a fluke either. In fact, the only thing Mills has timed better than his three-pointers in Game 5 has been the fact that he will be a free agent this summer. He might just be due for a raise.
(Nor is he the only Australian player in line for the win: Aron Baynes, who was born in New Zealand but plays for Australia, also had a few cameos in the finals, although he seems to have mostly taken up Mills's old spot on the bench.)
Italy's Marco Belinelli, who by no means had a memorable series, nonetheless hit a few key shots as his team cruisied to victory.
Boris Diaw, much like Mills, was a talented player who no team seemed to know how to employ. After being bounced out of the Charlotte Bobcats in the year when they had the worst winning percentage in NBA history, the Frenchman had the fortune to land with a Spurs team that has a knack for plugging the right role players into the right situations.
Indeed, the Spurs' series turned round when they took the struggling Brazilian big man Tiago Splitter out of the rotation for Game 3, and inserted Diaw. After a mostly competitive win in Game 1 and a deflating loss in Game 2, the Spurs shifted into a higher gear. They won the next three games, two of them in Miami, in blowout fashion.
While it's easy to fall into a "correlation equals causation" trap here, there is no doubt that Diaw stepped up with the promotion and the Spurs played better ball. Near-perfect basketball, really.
Obviously, the major reason for the Spurs' remarkable success has been . Plus, there is the 22-year-old Kawhi Leonard, , the youngest to do so since Duncan in 1999.
And there has been, predictably, a wave of xenophobic garbage directed towards the foreign players. Perhaps at this very moment, there's a radio host or talking head complaining about sports becoming "social experiments”.
This of course, is a ridiculous charge to level at the Spurs, who began searching for and taking chances with players from different countries because, at the time, it was a mostly untapped pool of talent.