How the Mighty Fall: Signs of decline applied to the NBA

by

Empires fall. The history books are littered with them. The Greeks. The Romans. Spain. Britain. Maybe someday even America. The same holds true for nearly every major power that’s ever risen to the top, be it nation, corporation, or basketball team.

Especially basketball teams. After all, unlike nations or corporations, basketball teams rely solely on physical assets (players) whose value depreciates relatively quickly. But does it have to be this way? If given the proper warning signs can a team stave off decline?

A year ago author Jim Collins of  How the Mighty Fall talked to Business Week explaining the five stages of decline. It’s an interesting read and one that is not only applicable to business. In it, he poses an interesting question:

“When you are at the top of the world, the most powerful nation on Earth, the most successful company in your industry, the best player in your game, your very power and success might cover up the fact that you’re already on the path of decline.” That question—how would you know?

The premise of the book is simple–if you can identify signs of decline AND react accordingly, you can reverse the course of decline if not avoid it all together. The San Antonio Spurs have sat near or at the top of the NBA hierarchy for two decades.

Have the Spurs begun their own descent? Apparently. They’ve gone from perennial title favorite to merely just another good team. But with the latest offseason additions they are also far from fallen. And if you are to believe what’s written in the linked excerpt, the notion of the Spurs continuing their run with Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford at the helm is not so far fetched.

Stage 1: Hubris Born of Success

Great enterprises can become insulated by success; accumulated momentum can carry an enterprise forward for a while, even if its leaders make poor decisions or lose discipline. Stage 1 kicks in when people become arrogant, regarding success virtually as an entitlement, and they lose sight of the true underlying factors that created success in the first place.

When the rhetoric of success (“We’re successful because we do these specific things”) replaces penetrating understanding and insight (“We’re successful because we understand why we do these specific things and under what conditions they would no longer work”), decline will very likely follow.

In my opinion, herein lies the greatest strength of the San Antonio Spurs enduring run. The common link between each member of the Spurs–and they’ve ranged from choir boys (Avery Johnson, David Robinson) to auto-tune hero to Stephen Jackson–is that they have, as Gregg Popovich puts it, “gotten over themselves”.

The book identifies one trait commonly found amongst all great leaders:

The best leaders we’ve studied never presume they’ve reached ultimate understanding of all the factors that brought them success. For one thing, they retain a somewhat irrational fear that perhaps their success stems in large part from fortuitous circumstance.

Popovich often jokes that when Tim Duncan retires, he will join him shortly out the door. Much of his success, Popovich quickly attributes to the lucky bounce of a few ping pong balls, which is the sort of attitude one would expect from a man who once lived in the dorms of Division III Pomona-Pitzer before rising up the NBA ranks.

Luck and chance are essential to any bit of success. Those who understand this, that retain that irrational fear, often drive themselves to be better positioned when that luck runs out.

Perhaps the best example of a team succumbing to stage 1 is the Shaq led Los Angeles Lakers. As great a dynasty as they were, there was the lack of condition on Shaq’s part. The massive egos tearing the team apart. And ultimately a team that lost sight of what carried them to success in the 2004 NBA Finals against a hungry Detroit Pistons team.

Popovich and Tim Duncan have created an identity in San Antonio. They understand why what they do is successful (jump shots come and go, but defense is a product of effort and as such can always be consistent), and under what circumstances they no longer work.

It can be argued that the Spurs have moved slightly away from this identity, but if they have, it was not due to hubris.

Stage 2: Undisciplined Pursuit of More

Hubris from Stage 1 (“We’re so great, we can do anything!”) leads right to Stage 2, the Undisciplined Pursuit of More—more scale, more growth, more acclaim, more of whatever those in power see as “success.” Companies in Stage 2 stray from the disciplined creativity that led them to greatness in the first place, making undisciplined leaps into areas where they cannot be great or growing faster than they can achieve with excellence—or both.

Chris Paul wants out of New Orleans, and unless something drastic happens the Hornets will eventually find what could have been victimized by their own undisciplined pursuit of more. The New Orleans Hornets were never great, but they could have been.

Enticed by the promise of their young franchise point guard and a playoff appearance, the Hornets signed a slew of bad long-term contract for aging players in a market that could afford neither. Rather than putting a young team with cheap assets (i.e., draft picks) to grow around Chris Paul like the Oklahoma City Thunder have done with Kevin Durant, the Hornets reached a one-year peak and fizzled.

Chance has led to the Spurs success in this regard, but Popovich and Buford have done a masterful job of capitalizing on it. Pairing a rookie Tim Duncan with David Robinson put the Spurs immediately in the hunt as title contenders, meaning patience was a nice but unnecessary virtue.

Still, the team has done little to move beyond their means, always maintaining flexibility to upgrade around their core despite comparatively limited monetary resources. The patience to wait on developing foreign draft picks has landed them Manu Ginobili and Tiago Splitter.

And while the Spurs could have traded away any number of their assets to try and push them into championship contention for a one-year shot, their faith in the system and their young players has quietly left them with a promising young nucleus of George Hill, DeJuan Blair, Tiago Splitter, and James Anderson moving past the Tim Duncan Era.

Stage 3: Denial of Risk and Peril

As companies move into Stage 3, internal warning signs begin to mount, yet external results remain strong enough to “explain away” disturbing data or to suggest that the difficulties are “temporary” or “cyclic” or “not that bad,” and “nothing is fundamentally wrong.” In Stage 3, leaders discount negative data, amplify positive data, and put a positive spin on ambiguous data.

Those in power start to blame external factors for setbacks rather than accept responsibility. The vigorous, fact-based dialogue that characterizes high-performance teams dwindles or disappears altogether. When those in power begin to imperil the enterprise by taking outsize risks and acting in a way that denies the consequences of those risks, they are headed straight for Stage 4.

The next two stages present an interesting case study between three NBA teams: the San Antonio Spurs, the Phoenix Suns, and the Cleveland Cavaliers. It is between stages three and four that visible signs of decline first begin to manifest themselves.

The Spurs have continued on their steady pace while the Suns and Cavaliers have each dealt with stage four in different ways with one holding off Stage 5 (at least temporarily) by returning to their roots and the other charging full force into ruin.

The book offers a risk-taking concept it calls the “waterline principle”:

Think of being on a ship, and imagine that any decision gone bad will blow a hole in the side of the ship. If you blow a hole above the waterline (where the ship won’t take on water and possibly sink), you can patch the hole, learn from the experience, and sail on. But if you blow a hole below the waterline, you can find yourself facing gushers of water pouring in, pulling you toward the ocean floor. And if it’s a big enough hole, you might go down really fast, just like some of the financial firm catastrophes of 2008.

Successful powers take big risks, but never those that put holes below the waterline.

For the Suns, the waterline risks presented themselves in two ways: unwavering belief in a system to the point that the powers that be deemed it unnecessary to tweak, and the belief that the team could leverage all of its draft picks for financial gain and still succeed.

In Phoenix, the Suns playoff failures can be defined by Mike D’Antoni’s press conferences: “Our defense/system/effort was fine, we just need to push the ball more”, and pinning losses on external factors, injuries, suspensions, etc.

In short, the Suns management believed so much in its system that any failures had to be someone else’s fault and not the fact that the team had no depth because it sold off all of its draft picks, which helped contribute to injuries because the extended minutes a short rotation had to play, and the failure to take responsibility for their player’s own actions (coming off the bench).

In Cleveland, regular season success and the growth of LeBron James led Danny Ferry to continuously build on to the team in the belief that the Cavaliers were merely one piece away without considering the possibility that their might be a fundamental flaw to their system, core, or even their superstar.

In Stage 3, success had led to the demise of self evaluation and in turn has led to risks without consideration of consequences–mostly because of the organizations own self delusions of where they stand.

In San Antonio, the Spurs experience their share of peaks and valleys, but the team always gives an honest evaluation of itself and acts accordingly. Popovich refuses to allow the team to blame external factors, always keeping focus on what it can control.

The team identifies and attempts to correct fundamental weaknesses, sometimes taking risks, but never at the expense of punching a hole below the waterline. Even in the Richard Jefferson trade, the team a.) gave up little to acquire him, and b.) gave themselves an out (his opt-out that resulted in a reasonable deal when you consider what they gave Splitter).

Stage 4: Grasping for Salvation

The cumulative peril and/or risks gone bad of Stage 3 assert themselves, throwing the enterprise into a sharp decline visible to all. The critical question is: How does its leadership respond? By lurching for a quick salvation or by getting back to the disciplines that brought about greatness in the first place? Those who grasp for salvation have fallen into Stage 4.

Common “saviors” include a charismatic visionary leader, a bold but untested strategy, a radical transformation, a dramatic cultural revolution, a hoped-for blockbuster product, a “game-changing” acquisition, or any number of other silver-bullet solutions. Initial results from taking dramatic action may appear positive, but they do not last.

The obvious example of Stage 4 is the Phoenix Suns, who experienced new leaders (Terry Porter/Steve Kerr), a radical transformation, a dramatic cultural revolution, and a hoped-for blockbuster product in the “game-changing” acquisition of Shaq.

As the decline of the Phoenix Suns became apparent, they reacted by going in a drastically different direction to try and put them over the top, moving away from what made them so successful.

In Cleveland, it was always about that one more piece. If only they could get a high scoring point guard to pair with LeBron James, or a big man to contend with Dwight Howard, or an increasingly popular “stretch four”. Their grasp for salvation led to the acquisitions of Mo Williams, Shaq, and Antawn Jamison, limited flexibility to rebuild around LeBron, and the departure of LeBron.

In the Spurs, the Richard Jefferson trade is the lone move that might be interpreted as a sign of Stage 4, but even then it’s hard to fault the move and this summer they quickly returned to their roots.

If there remains any panic in Spurs fans, they need to simply take Collins advice under consideration and look at how the Phoenix Suns reversed course last season by returning to what made them great and staying the course. Which has always been my argument for not trading away a piece of the Big Three in haste.

Stage 5: Capitulation to Irrelevance or Death

The longer a company remains in Stage 4, repeatedly grasping for silver bullets, the more likely it will spiral downward. In Stage 5, accumulated setbacks and expensive false starts erode financial strength and individual spirit to such an extent that leaders abandon all hope of building a great future. In some cases the company’s leader just sells out; in other cases the institution atrophies into utter insignificance; and in the most extreme cases the enterprise simply dies outright.

Sadly, for the Cleveland Cavaliers, this appears to be where their beloved basketball franchise has landed. The organization’s leader, LeBron James, abandoned all hope of building a great future and “sold out”, taking his talents to South Beach.

The Spurs might not be at the height of their powers, but they are not mortgaging their future because of it. And because of that, there is always an opportunity for a triumphant return.

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  • DirtyP1

    I love your site, but isn’t this a bit overanalyzation?
    We’re talking basketball here. I had to scroll up a couple of times and make sure I was reading the right blog. Come on man, give me summer league updates or what Tiago’s doing, or maybe I’m too simple?

  • Jason

    If you are truly a spurs fan you should be a fan of the franchise and thankful for the leadership they employ. The fact that we can look at the moves the front office makes and see that they have an objective eye on the future is a gift. That gift is the knowledge that they are committed to putting a quality product on the court; even if that exact product has to be tweaked a couple times a decade. I love the franchise as a business breakdown every now and then… and getting a steady stream of basketball content in the off months.

    Thanks

  • SA_Ray

    I couldn’t listen to this and not think of the Cleveland Cavaliers. They spent the last 2 years in the 4th stage, grasping and grabbing and over reaching with players. Each time it produced a small amount of optimism or small uptick and then it failed. It ended up using all their resources (cap space, picks, LeBrons patience, etc). Now they sit stage 5.

    Good video.

  • Justin

    Great article. DirtyP1 you’re just simple. Summer League doesn’t really mean shit. I just wish everybody would calm down about Tiago and wait to see how he produces when the season starts.

  • Francesco

    In my humble opinion, the most relevant part is the one about needing luck.

    - we won the lottery the year Robinson came out
    - we won the lottery the year Duncan came out
    - as good as our scouting department is, we had no idea Manu and Parker would turn that good (correct me if I’m wrong but back then there had been debate between Manu and Giricek, and between Parker and just about anyone who wasn’t French)

    Also, you could see not trading or re-upping Parker as a sign we have failed to recognize a clear need.

    That said, best f…in’ FO in the association.

  • TrueFan

    Excellent “thinking man’s” article again. While I might quibble with a few minor points, Jesse is to be commended for putting together an interesting read on the heels of Tim’s “Genoism” piece last week. This site doesn’t need to become a MENSA forum, but neither should its authors shy away from articles that engage the gray matter once in a while — especially during the doldrums of the NBA offseason.

    I throw out the following questions for consideration:

    1) Is Pop’s refusal to play young talent (e.g. playing Bogans over Hairston last year) an example of Stage 1: “Hubris Born of Success?”

    2) Was trading for Richard Jefferson an example of Stage 2: “Undisciplined Pursuit of More?”

    3) IF the front office is indeed dead-set against trading Tony Parker, could that be seen as an example of Stage 3: “Denial of Risk and Peril” (i.e. that he will leave at the end of the season)?

    I’m definitely a “fan of the front office” (to borrow Jason’s phrase above) but I do think these are interesting questions to consider in light of Jesse’s article.

  • Stephen

    One quick point, America is not an empire. She never has been and it doesn’t look like she’s going to start becoming one any time soon.

    Please don’t be flippant about such things, it makes you look uniformed and not well thought out, both of which are clearly not true.

  • New York City

    Best. Post. Ever.

  • Hobson13

    Good article, 48MOH gang! I can tell at least one writer is a student of business and organizations. Jim Collins is one of the best writers in the business world having written “Good to Great” and “Built to Last”. You guys have seen some very interesting parallels between what Collins writes and how certain teams (Cavs, Suns, Spurs, etc.) have performed over the past few years. Very intellecutally stimulating conversation. Keep up the good work.

  • Rey

    I honestly thought that this blog would bore me to death, but I was surprised to find out that I was already reading the last sentence before I realized that this actually caught my full attention.

    But isn’t this the same situation that the Utah Jazz has fallen into? I mean, per conference, there would always be eight teams that would go to the playoffs. That would inversely mean that seven teams would be lottery fodder. That would mean that the playoffs would include the top eight teams per conference and not necessarily the best teams with regard to the ability of the players to be championship contenders.

    I mean no disrespect, but in the past years, the Spurs have been in the bottom of the playoffs teams in the West. In 2009, we were taken off the first round (which was blamed on a one-footed Manu) and in 2010, we got swept off by the Suns after practically throwing everything but the sink to the Mavs. Is the Spurs going the Jazz’s way and just being a perenially “good” team but not really championship contenders?

    With the acquisition of Tiago Splitter, Gary Neal and Anderson, and the (hopefully) maturing of Hill, Blair and Jefferson, the Spurs seem to be going back to their “roots”: creating a competent team from scratch and trying to make them grow through the season. However, I’ve observed that it’s the veterans who get to play more during the season and the relatively newer kids are left in the sidelines. I mean, how many disappointments have the Spurs had in the past seasons: failed projects like Ian Mahinmi and (yes, I’d include him here) Malik Hairston, unproductive acquisitions like Marcus Haislip and that center dude we eventually traded to Charlotte (I honestly forgot his name as I write this), and even Keith Bogans and Roger Mason Jr.

    With the next season coming, will we be championship contenders – ready to face the Lakers, the upstart Thunder and the aggressive Mavs and Suns in the West, and the Diesel-powered Celtics, consistent Magic or the Three Am-Egos in Miami? Or are we just being the Utah Jazz-tribute team – an “almost-there-but-not-really” team that’s always the bridesmaid but never the bride?

    Are we just prolonging the team’s demise by just being “good enough” but not exactly championship material?

    (Please do forgive me for this post. I just really want to be assured that after the dizzying off-season, there’s still reason to believe that the Spurs would be at least making an appearance to the Conference Finals.)

  • Ro

    Great article. Maybe I’m not as smart as some, but I still wouldn’t put any other team except for the lakers ahead of the spurs… At least not at this point.

  • Francesco

    The article mentions the Suns as a team who used excuses to justify its shortcomings.

    What about us?
    2008- didn’t have any gas left after the New Orleans series + Manu not 100%
    2009- no Manu and half Duncan
    2010- no shooters and no PnR defence
    2011- choose your own

    Aren’t these excuses to cover for the obvious (the core is old and injury prone) and a lack of players?

    Just to be clear about this, I’m not being critical of our FO here, but of the people who write in this blog

  • Hobson13

    Francesco
    August 12th, 2010 at 9:07 am

    “The article mentions the Suns as a team who used excuses to justify its shortcomings What about us?
    2008- didn’t have any gas left after the New Orleans series + Manu not 100%
    2009- no Manu and half Duncan
    2010- no shooters and no PnR defence
    2011- choose your own”

    You do make an interesting point. However, unlike the Suns and Cavs, we didn’t (and haven’t) attempted to bring in big name players (Shaq, Jamison, etc.) in a last ditch/home run hitting effort to win championships. Neither did the Suns nor Cavs experience the injuries we have been forced to endure. The injuries that Duncan and Manu experienced were not imaginary excuses, but legitimate reasons why we couldn’t win. I beleive Manu is back to 100% healthy and Splitter should help take a load off of Duncan so our injury situation has been addressed.

    The Suns, on the other hand, refused to play defense for years and the Cavs failed to adequately assess what kind of person/player Lebron really was. IMO, the FO biggest failure in the past 5+ years has been their insistence upon slotting old veterans into the lineup (Horry, Barry, Finley, etc.) instead of replenishing the organization with fresh legs and young talent. However, I think they have begun to realize this oversight.

    Rey
    August 12th, 2010 at 8:30 am
    “With the acquisition of Tiago Splitter, Gary Neal and Anderson, and the (hopefully) maturing of Hill, Blair and Jefferson, the Spurs seem to be going back to their “roots”: creating a competent team from scratch and trying to make them grow through the season.”

    Absolutely. From what I can tell, the FO has attempted to rectify the situation and are doing so nicely. This previously mentioned group of young players is what seperates our FO from the Suns and Cavs FO. We realized we were screwing up so we made a change and began the Post Big 3 transition into a younger Spurs team. With these youngsters, the future is bright for us. I can’t say the same for Phoenix or Cleveland.

  • drew

    Great article. I love that this site is continuing to write interesting articles even when NOTHING is happening in the world of professional basketball. I’m ready for basketball season to start.

    Side note to Stephen – America might not be an empire by the dictionary definition of the word – but shares enough qualities (worldwide trade, extensive cultural influence, a language used globally as the world’s “business” language – much like Greek in Roman times, super super rich, etc.) with some of history’s strongest civilizations that it is worth mentioning the possible future fall of America.

  • lvmainman

    @ Rey, @ Truefan,

    I agree with your posts. More questions need to be asked. Are Spurs being content with playoff caliber, but not championship caliber?

    The refusal to play young talent is puzzling. Mahinmi, Hairston, Haislip, etc. Wear out the veterans during the season, so come playoffs they’re worn out and young talent isn’t prepared for the playoffs?

    Standing pat after a good summer of signing McDyess, trading for Jefferson, drafting Blair for the year. But not being proactive to use any of 6 EXPIRING Contracts to upgrade the team knowing that if all 6 left, Spurs would be over the salary cap and unable to sign ANY free agents.

    More questions need to be asked of the front office and Popovich.

  • GMT

    Well, Rey, all I have to say is that before Timmy, we’ve always been that “almost-there-but-not-really” team. Actually, you could even say that we were the epitome of that, not the Jazz. The Spurs/Chaparrals have only missed the playoffs 5 seasons in the franchise’s existence. The only other team that has so far managed that is the Lakers.

    The Spurs are also the 3rd winningest franchise, behind, guess who, LA & Boston. If anyone is trying to predict the future, it helps to refer to past success, which our SPURS have plenty of. All we can do is believe in our squad, no matter who’s out there on the court. Most of the time, that’s all that you can ask for, and we are really some of the most fortunate fans there are.

    You can check my info, and plenty of other fun facts at basketball-reference.com.

  • lvmainman
  • Mike G

    That article right there is simply genius. The Spurs, as said near the end, are at a constant. There is nothing that says they are on the decline. The front office noticed a decline was imminent, and they have acted accordingly for the future. They have brought in the pieces, and now it is time to see how they work. George Hill, a rising star, and the future 6th man of the team, after Ginobili retires in a few years. Tiago Splitter, the MVP from Spain, the future “Man-in-the-middle” for the Spurs, will learn from Duncan in Tim’s final two seasons. Dejuan Blair will continue to be a rebounding force, and gain better experience this season. James Anderson and Gary Neal come in to provide outside scoring, something the Spurs have lacked since the departures of Brent Barry, Bruce Bowen, and Michael Finley. Now with these pieces, a healthy “Big 3″, and a returning RJ, who will be more comfortable this season, the Spurs are back on track. And don’t forget the front office, who is said to be bringing Danny Ferry back to take over Dell Demps position. Watch out Los Angeles.

  • aq

    This is indeed fascinating stuff, and can be argued, thought about, and expanded in any number of ways.

    One of those ways is looking at the other side, namely ways in which the successful organizations adhere and deviate from this analysis. Granted, this is difficult because of the paucity of successful orgs, and even more so the lack of continuity for most orgs. The obvious ones, it seems to me, are San Antonio, Utah, and and the Lakers. And although it would be simplistic to put down all of their success to the superstars, you can’t ignore that TD and Kobe are the consensus best two players over the last 15 years. So, ironically, the one team without any banners has arguably the best claim to doing the most to stave off decline.

    And, I don’t think it can be overstated how much of the success of these orgs derives from the continuity provided by management, personified by Sloan, Pop, and Jackson. These management teams consistently take the long view, and it has paid off in consistent winning. One could certainly argue that the disparity in Championships derives from the inherent advantages and disadvantages that the teams have.

    The Lakers seem to have done well with the waterline principle, particularly in dealing Shaq, for which they were pilloried at the time, but which looks positively brilliant in hindsight. They took a huge hit, but didn’t sink, then patched up and sailed on.

    Some other teams that could be on the list of successful franchises offer equally interesting fodder; Portland, for instance, as well as Dallas and Miami..

  • Francesco

    @

    “The injuries that Duncan and Manu experienced were not imaginary excuses, but legitimate reasons why we couldn’t win.”

    I agree with you, but my point was that Manu had missed time before and never played more than 30 a game, while Duncan was never athletic to begin with, blew his knee in 2000 and started slowing down(phisically) as early as 2005.
    So we can’t say that them being banged up was an unpredictable circustance

  • BlaseE

    I can’t even explain how awesome this article is. Great read.

    From the comments and the original article, I think a major thing that is missing is an explicit definition of success, or maybe my problem is with the implied sense of success being tied to championships.

    As a sports fan, I believe the main goal for a player should be a championship. I don’t think franchises and fans should see it that way though. The definition of success by a franchise and its fans should be defined by continual excellence and the ability to believe your team can win. That is really the true essence of sports. We are lucky to have drafted Duncan and to have won championships with him, but I don’t doubt for a second that we would have been horrific like Boston was a few years ago had we not had Duncan.

    The Spurs would never leverage a season like Cleveland because our market could never afford what I’m sure they are going to see in ticket sales next season. LeBron built up a huge base of season ticket holders over his time there, and I’m sure the renewal rates for the Cavs are at an all time low. I have faith in ownership and FO to put a winning product on the court every season because frankly, I think we have to unless the fans and franchise can rationalize it and have faith that it was a bump on the path and not a change in direction.

    You can find even more examples of this in college football where it is about maintaining a program for recruiting purposes and maintaining the fan base when a championship takes an inordinate amount of luck and lately, a perfect season in a field that is larger than the 30-team NBA.

  • Kevin

    Great article, very interesting. I agree with some of the posters that this could easily be spun the other way, and only time will tell if this is actually the decline of the Spurs.

    However, I think @lvmainman’s post could not be more incorrect. Signing Splitter and re-working RJ’s deal is “standing pat”? Refusal to play young talent???!? When?! Oh those three guys who will never amount to anything? Great examples. You missed Tony, Tim, George, and Dejuan in your examples of young talent that we “refused to play”.

  • Jim Henderson

    A very though-provoking post, Jesse.

    Excellent points in the “Hubris” section. Spot on. That section is the last of my worries about the Spurs. They’re one of the most self-contained franchises in all of sports. That’s a main reason why I became, and remain a fan.

    “Undisciplined Pursuit of More” is also an area that is far from a Spurs problem, because they’ve always had a great knack for looking deep into all the intangibles — all the non-flashy ingredients that are necessary to win at the highest level, AND to sustain that success over long periods. It wasn’t “just” Tim Duncan that allowed them to win 50+ games for the past 13 straight seasons!

    “Denial of Risk and Peril”? I’ve expressed some concern about this for the Spurs recently. Riding the big three for too long can be a form of denial of risk and peril in the sense that these players are aging, and we need to replenish the team with “quality” youth. Maybe Hill, Blair, & Splitter will help, but the question remains: are we doing enough right now to inject a sufficient amount of quality youth to be able to experience a winning sail again in the not too distant future? Referring to the analogy in the main post; I don’t think the “risks” the Spurs have taken put the hole in the ship anywhere near the waterline.

    “Grasping for Salvation”? The Spurs are certainly not guilty of falling for this pitfall, and I applaud them for that. They’re not rashly going out to lasso in an established “star” as a silver bullet solution. That said, I don’t think they’re pushing the envelop hard enough either. Too much tinkering is going on to keep the ship on a smooth sail, rather than taking enough risk to get the ship sufficiently equipped to win the race.

    “Capitulation to Irrelevance or Death”? As long as Pop and RC are on board, I don’t see this happening anytime soon. The last of my concerns are that the Spurs will at anytime in the near future just crash & burn. My fear is that we sail along in relative mediocrity for far too long because of our reluctance to take appropriate risk to sufficiently fortify the ship for a “winning” sail. I want to have a smooth, enjoyable, and safe journey, but pretty soon, I’m going to REALLY MISS having some magnificent triumphs along the way.

    Stephen
    August 12th, 2010 at 7:57 am

    “One quick point, America is not an empire.”

    I guess it’s fine to merely assert opinions on here, but on what basis are you suggesting that America is not an empire?

  • kornbread

    You can reach pro and con examples of each stage and argue one way or the other. It’s too simple.

    What about the Summer of 2003 (Stage 2)? The Spurs just won a championship, but they were willing to make wholesale changes in their pursuit of Jason Kidd. They didn’t lock up Speedy Claxton and they never found a backup point guard the following year. They traded away their 1st round pick to save the cap space (could have landed Josh Howard). And, they let Stephen Jackson walk instead acknowledging what an important part he played in the 2003 title run. Not to mention that they had a capable point guard and their top priority should have been replacing their center.

    As far as having the younger talent now to keep the success going; that’s more out of necessity. They don’t have the cap space (or appeal) to attract the usable role players they could get over past 10 years.

    Two players in this group are unproven (especially Anderson). Hill and Blair are undersized and works in progress. Right now these guys wouldn’t guarantee a playoff spot. The Team’s draft picks have been mixed results, otherwise we’d be talking about a longer list of players that would be ready to take over.

    That said, I think they recognize their current situation. They know the value of a first round pick. They have realistic expectations about their ability to attract free agents (this is the reason they made the Jefferson trade). They understand that the reason for their success only has a few seasons left. Pop has been a great leader and by the end of the season his teams always compete.

    I’ll now add my “excuse” for last season’s shortcomings: Lack of quality depth.

    They had a rough March and April and still managed to reach 50 wins and make the playoffs. Dallas was a really tough opponent and the steady six were just out of gas by the time the second round arrived. If the opponents were switched they probably would have beaten Phoenix and lost to Dallas. The team has added a couple of pieces this summer and hopefully these guys will earn some quality minutes because the team really needs them to stay competitive.

  • TimmytheSpur

    Love the article and interesting application of Collins’ concepts. Great job! Super read!

    I’d like to see you apply your thoughts to the Spurs if Duncan had gone to the Magic. I agree with previous posts, that the luck of the lottery landed Duncan. We could have continued to be a team like the Suns or Jazz, but wouldn’t have been great had he left without another grand stroke of luck.

    Likewise, I am unsure of a team’s ability to be a perennial contender without some luck. Riley hasn’t done it since he had Magic & Kareem, but may have manuvered his way back…

    I think that the Heat will have to battle hubris… That will be a fun show to watch. Hopefully the will embody hubris and follow this model.

    The Spurs may attract another superstar once Duncan is gone, but we will have to plan differently against the cap than we have done for the past 12 years. You can’t fill role players into gaps between non-Superstars.

    Keep up the good work and let me know how the Spurs would have been judged if Timmy had left to Orlando.

  • lvmainman

    @ Kevin,

    The Spurs decided to stand pat after the summer of ’09 until the summer of ’10 by not doing ANYTHING (except releasing players). They had 6 EXPIRING contracts and didn’t do ANYTHING with them.

    I predicted Jefferson would opt out, because the Spurs had limited options being over the salary cap (by doing nothing) if he left and he wanted a longer term deal. So, Jefferson had the Spurs in a bind. Accept my terms of an overinflated deal of 4 yrs-$40 mil or suffer as a result.

    How do you know Mahinmi, Hairston, Haislip won’t amount to anything? For all you know they could’ve been good role players for the Spurs. Would Mahinmi have helped more than Bonner? I’ll never know. Would Hairston have helped more than Bogans and Udoka the past 2 years? I’ll never know. Would Haislip have been a better fit than Bonner? I’ll never know. It’s only because they never played, that you can assume they’ll never amount to anything.

    People said the same about Bruce Bowen until he got playing time. After he was waived by the Heat, let go by the Heat, let go by the Celtics, let go by the Sixers, and waived by the Bulls, after having played in France and the CBA. Bruce Bowen will never amount to anything.

  • Sam

    Sadly enough, the only thing I thought about while reading this was America…

    Still, good article, and interesting to note that it applies across many different organizations, from sports and businesses all the way up to nations and civilizations.

  • SpurredOn

    Excellent piece and perfect for the offseason. Some good lessons about business and why we should appreciate our Spurs organizational leadership. I couldn’t help but think of the newspaper and auto industries, before forced changes on the latter, and how these stages applied to both. From a sports perspective, the ’70′s Steelers and Cowboys teams that fell in the ’80s came to mind.

  • http://48minutesofhell.com jesse blanchard

    @Francesco
    Those were all excuses made to explain away the Spurs losses, but they were made by us–the fans. The organization itself has not set them as excuses. With the article, I think if the Spurs had stated those as reasons and done nothing about them, then yes, that would qualify. But they admit that their players are injury prone and have done whatever possible to address it (i.e., reduce minutes, rest players on back-t0-backs). I don’t think the Spurs see them as excuses, but rather shortcomings they try to address.

    @Truefan: I’m not sure that the RJ move was the undisciplined pursuit of more. Though some might see it as a desperate attempt. First, they gave up almost nothing. Second, they had an out (a relatively short contract that became a new deal). It might not have been a move that worked, but it’s not going to be one that sinks the Spurs.

    Re: Parker leaving as risk or peril. Looking at the roster, it appears the Spurs are not overlooking the possibility as they have are stocked with combo guards to help lessen the blow of a lost Parker (Temple, Neal, Hill).

    As far as success, I view it simply as being in position to win a championship. When dealing with, like I stated, rapidly deteriorating physical assets…..there are going to be peaks and valleys. Pop’s M.O., as Duncan’s, is to make sure they never get too high or too low. So I do not see a fall as moving out of championship contention, but being rendered irrelevant in the NBA. The Spurs might not be favorites any longer, but they are not irrelevant either.

  • HemisFairArena

    @ DirtyP1–yes, somewhat simple. This just isn’t basketball; it is professional basketball- Big American Business. Topic 1 & 1A for the Spurs fans post-playoff were proposed trades and FA signings, with all the financial jargon–luxury tax, salary cap, mle, veteran’s minimum, etc. talked about along with players’ stats and their type of game. Don’t fret though; 2 months from now it will be all about the jump shot and low post positioning.

  • Jimbo (Aus)

    Great article – I was just going to make the point above, that defining a Fall in the NBA would be a team that is stuck without any chance to “compete” in the playoffs, or doesn’t have a good rebuilding plan in place to get there.

    I think it is almost inevitable that the Spurs will need to re-build after the Duncan era – if we can stay competitive while doing so, great, if not, let’s get back to the top as quick as possible :)

  • Hobson13

    I know this isn’t a political or economic blog, but it is interesting to read Collins’ 5 points with the United States in mind. Out of his 5 steps he mentions, I wonder where we are as a nation? (This is a rhetorical question, I already have my opinion.)

    FYI…this was such a thought provoking topic that I just bought the book this afternoon. Good job 48MOH gang!!

  • Francesco

    @ jesse

    “Those were all excuses made to explain away the Spurs losses, but they were made by us–the fans”

    I did point it out:
    “Just to be clear about this, I’m not being critical of our FO here, but of the people who write in this blog”

    and I wasn’t referring to the blog admins ;)

  • ManuFan

    Rumors are spreading that detroit is willing to trade T. Prince. Do you guys think he could fit as a spur?

  • rob

    From the OP

    “In short, the Suns management believed so much in its system that any failures had to be someone else’s fault and not the fact that the team had no depth because it sold off all of its draft picks, which helped contribute to injuries because the extended minutes a short rotation had to play, and the failure to take responsibility for their player’s own actions (coming off the bench).”

    And…As quoted from the OP….”It is between stages three and four that visible signs of decline first begin to manifest themselves.”

    We’ve been seeing this for a couple of years now and this has transcended to the Spurs as well.

    Bonner having to play significant minutes because of the lack of depth in the post…Not having adequate back ups at all positions…Expecting veteran players who excelled in a different capacity on another team to excell in areas they were never known to be good at prior to learning the Spurs system.

    The turning point to this just may be this off season with Splitter finally signing…being lucky enough to have Anderson available during draft night….Neal being found from overseas and signed…Temple emerging as a prototypical Spur role player regarding the system…Hill and Blair with more experience.

    This year should tell if the Spurs haven’t fallen deep into stage 4. And it’s going to take rookies and journeyman players to tell if “the system” is as good as it was in years past before his inevitable decline when Duncan was at the top of his game…. Ginobili was more dynamic….and the departure of Bowen.

  • rob
  • Kevin

    @lvmainman I understand your point on the standing pat, and I agree we won’t ever really know what would have happened if those guys got some PT… but I will still argue against anyone who thinks Pop “refused” to play these guys based on the fact that they were young. Nothing could be further from the truth, which is why I always name just as many players who were young and got PT.

    I could argue that Pop refuses to play old players, not because they’re no longer any good, but because he hates old players. Just look at Jaques Vaughn! We could have been better had he played more (I hope you see my point, I obviously don’t believe that).

    It’s just too easy an out for you guys to say Mahinmi didn’t play because of some rediculous bias, and would have made a difference, when chances are he wouldn’t have (I trust the professionals’ judgement).

  • Mike

    Wow, what a great post. Really puts things in perspective. Articles like this are why I love this site.

  • Jimbo

    @Manufan, I think Prince would be an intriguing pickup and he would be a decent fit for the Spurs at this point in his career. But he makes a fair amount of money, and the only way I could see the Spurs getting him would be to include Jefferson in a deal. I don’t know if the front office would do that just after inking Jefferson to a 4 year deal.

  • Jim Henderson

    Jimbo
    August 13th, 2010 at 12:46 pm

    “But he makes a fair amount of money, and the only way I could see the Spurs getting him would be to include Jefferson in a deal. I don’t know if the front office would do that just after inking Jefferson to a 4 year deal.”

    I like Prince, but it’s not really sensible to have RJ & Prince at SF collecting over 20 million. And it’s the Pistons that would not want to take on RJ’s long-term deal. We should love the idea of getting Prince for RJ. TP & RJ for Prince, Villanueva, & Stuckey, perhaps, but I don’t think Detroit is really the greatest trading partner for us.

  • Phife

    OFF TOPIC:

    I may come across as a conspiracy theorist, but Lon Babby becoming President of Basketball Operations in Phoenix sorta scares me.

    Hedo is a client of Babby’s and they made quick work in acquiring him.

    Tim Duncan also uses Babby as an agent. His contract expires in 2 seasons. I’m a little worried that the Suns made the move for Babby in part to at least have a shot at Duncan.

    If Tiago doesn’t average 12 and 10 and RJ still sucks, and TP leaves..Duncan would be staying in SA purely out of loyalty.

    Most likely, it won’t happen. Suns fans probably hate Duncan for what he’s done in the past…but it still worries me.

  • bduran

    Awesome, post. We really have been blessed with a great front office. We’ve definitely had some luck, but you don’t get as many 50 win seasons and championships as we’ve had the last 20 years without a first rate organization.

  • Jim Henderson

    Phife
    August 13th, 2010 at 1:58 pm

    I wouldn’t worry too much about that. There’s a 95+% chance that Duncan retires a Spur.

  • Francis

    Great article. Good book too, at least the parts that were mentioned. I hope the FO does stick to it’s roots.

  • http://nbacheapseats.blogspot.com Chendaddy

    I’d say this is the ultimate homer article, except it’s the Spurs, and they have been very intelligent, patient, even self-deprecating in Popovich’s case in their building and rebuilding. I see the same thing happening over in OKC.

    And then you got Cleveland. Hahahahahaha!

  • ChillFAN

    Interesting article, thanks for writing it.
    The Spurs lost last year because we
    Can’t depend on Duncan to carry teamates that are defensive liabilities. I hope and pray that Splitter is a solid defender.

  • rob

    kornbread
    August 12th, 2010 at 12:59 pm

    “And, they let Stephen Jackson walk instead acknowledging what an important part he played in the 2003 title run.”

    I’ve heard this statement numerous times but the fact is….The Spurs didn’t let Jackson walk. The Spurs new how valuable he was and wanted to keep Jackson. Jackson took less money than the Spurs offered to play for Atlanta after the Spurs made their decision to let Claxton go because they wanted to keep Jackson and knew they couldn’t afford to keep both.

    Jackson screwed the Spurs in that scenario because if the Spurs had only known that Jackson was going to walk anyway…they would have made more of an effort to retain Claxton.

  • Hobson13

    rob
    August 14th, 2010 at 5:30 am

    Interesting post. Just a few days ago, I was wondering why the Spurs had let Jackson go. I didn’t remember that the Spurs had offered him more money than the Hawks. However, in the end, it was all a matter of money for Jackson. He was essentially the only decent player on a Hawks team that went 35-47 and was able to pad his stats. This lead to a long term contract with the Pacers. Stephen Jackson essentially turned down a decent offer from the Spurs to pad his stats for a year and roll that into a much nicer long term deal. This was a BIG gamble on his part that paid off, at least financially speaking.

    It’s unfortunate because I believe (this is only a belief, since I can’t prove it) that the Spurs would have won at least one more championship if we had been able to keep a guy who has flirted on numerous occasions with season averages of 20/5/5. Yes, Jackson was a pain in the arse for Pop to coach, but he would have turned the Big 3 into the Big 4. What would have happened if the Spurs had one more big gun in a razor close playoff series against the 2004 Lakers or the 2006 Mavs? Sure, it’s all speculation, but who knows what the outcome would have been…

  • idahospur

    Health and consistency have to be the main objectives of this team, which it would be nice to hear about the players’ off-season work-out (or resting) habits. I remember Pop telling Duncan to take it easy, resulting in a great 1st half performance. Unfortunately, he had to carry the Spurs until Manu resurrected and was tired come playoffs. I am hoping Duncan, Manu, and Parker will be ready to start off the year resulting in not needing that end of the year burn-out just to make the play-offs.
    I am also hoping for a resurrection of the talented RJ from his New Jersey years. Reading the articles posted by the other readers leads me to believe that the jitters of playing with the Spurs may have been too much, leading to him looking like a rookie making it to the show the first time. Him teaming up with Manu was the factor to start turning his game around and hopefully summer practices will get him to understand this system.