Friday, June 20, 2014

How Similar Are the Yankees and Spurs?

In an ESPN "Daily Dime" column Monday morning, J.A. Adande tried to put the Spurs' fifth NBA title into perspective. Here's one sentence that stood out to me:

"[While] Derek Jeter and the New York Yankees have as many championship rings as Tim Duncan, dating back to 2006, Jeter also had more managers and has reached the World Series only once since 2003."

Adande essentially argued that the Spurs have been the most consistently great professional sports team since Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls. He mentioned the Belichick-Brady Patriots and Kobe's Lakers as other teams with a claim to that distinction.

Whether the Spurs were indeed the best franchise of the last 20 years is arguable. It might be instructive to compare them to those aforementioned Yankees. Even if we don't learn anything groundbreaking, it will still be fun to take a side-by-side look at two of my favorite teams ever.


The Cornerstones
Any conversation comparing the dynastic Yankees and Spurs begins with their franchise players. Derek Jeter once said of his Spurs counterpart, "Boring? I'm sure a lot of people would like to be as boring as Tim Duncan." Now, both men have won five championships en route to becoming two of the most respected athletes in recent history.

The fanfare surrounding the two stars usually includes the fact that they've both performed with quiet efficiency and "played the right way." That narrative has become so common that some critics swing the conversation the other way, calling Duncan "boring" or Jeter "overrated."

Lost in that (foolish) criticism are the unbelievable statistics that both men put up during their extended primes. Jeter hit at least .300 in 11 of 14 seasons from 1996-2009. If batting average isn't your thing, he posted an above-average OPS+ during each of those 14 seasons and posted an oWAR of at least 4.0 in all but one of those years. Critics of his defense have been outspoken, but he had some tremendous plays in the field through the years. And according to Baseball Reference, his defensive limitations never dragged his total WAR below 3.0 in any season during that aforementioned extended prime. Regardless of his performance with the glove, among shortstops, The Captain trails only Honus Wagner, Ernie Banks, and maybe Cal Ripken and Joe Cronin in terms of offensive performance.*

*I'm not counting Alex Rodriguez because he moved to third base during his prime. If you want to include A-Rod, that still makes Jeter the sixth-best offensive shortstop of all-time. Yeah, JEETS! 

Duncan, meanwhile, has dazzled with his consistent statistical brilliance. Zach Lowe has written and spoken a lot recently about how the rush to crown him the "greatest power forward ever" has taken attention away from the fact that Duncan is one of the top 10 players of all-time.

Here's what Joe Posnanski wrote in a terrific recent piece about Duncan:

"Look at his per-36 minute numbers:
As a rookie (1997-98): 19.4 points, 11.0 rebounds, 2.3 blocks, 2.5 assists.
In his first championship season (1998-99): 19.9 points, 10.5 rebounds, 2.2 blocks, 2.2 assists.
In his first MVP season (2001-02): 22.6 points, 11.3 rebounds, 2.2 blocks, 3.3 assists.
In his second MVP season (2002-03): 21.3 points, 11.8 rebounds, 2.7 blocks, 3.6 assists.
The year he turned 35 (2011-2012): 19.7 points, 11.5 rebounds, 1.9 blocks, 2.9 assists.
This year (2013-2014): 18.7 points, 12.0 rebounds, 2.3 blocks, 3.7 assists."
Those stats really are incredible, as are Jeter's.
Finally, we can't talk about the leaders of the Yankees and Spurs without mentioning their best moments. Whatever you think about the existence of "clutch" performances, it's clear that neither Jeter nor Duncan shrunk away when it came to pressure situations. Sure, Duncan missed a key shot in last year's Finals and Jeter had a few poor postseasons. But overall, both guys produced way more moments that will be remembered for many years to come.

Jeter will retire after this season, but Duncan may come back for a shot to add to his legacy. Let's just hope he doesn't hold on a bit too long, as it appears that Jeter has.

Homegrown Talent
Photo via
Like most dynasties, the Yanks and Spurs both drafted/signed and developed young nuclei* that carried them to championships. The Yankees' "Core Four" has been discussed ad nauseam, so much so that I pretty much hate the term now. I'd add Bernie Williams to that group, as well. Bernie, Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, and Jorge Posada propelled the Bombers to the five championships of my lifetime. We might not see another group like that in MLB for a long time.

*"Nuclei." Love that word, just like I love the words "antennae" and "fungi."

Similarly, the Spurs drafted each member of their Big Three, with only Duncan selected via a lottery pick. Just as the Yankees found Rivera and Posada in Latin America, San Antonio looked internationally to grab Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. I'd also include Kawhi Leonard -- excuse me, Reigning Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard -- when this group is discussed in the future. (More on Leonard in a minute.)

The Spurs get the edge for continuity here because Gregg Popovich has directed the team from the bench throughout its entire run. But the Yankees have also boasted a few notable managers, as well. Buck Showalter brought the formerly-moribund team to the precipice of its breakout when he steered it to the 1995 playoffs. Joe Torre then took over and won four championships before giving way to Joe Girardi, who matched his jersey number with Championship Number 27 for the Bombers.

Additionally, the Spurs and Yanks have both featured a bunch of high-profile assistants. Popovich mentored current 76ers coach Brett Brown and current Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer. Torre, meanwhile, employed baseball lifers Willie Randolph, Mel Stottlemyre, Don Mattingly, and the late Don Zimmer.

The great coaching mentioned above sowed cultures of professionalism at both Yankee Stadium and the AT&T Center. While the Yanks' no-nonsense attitude might be a little overblown in terms of winning baseball games, the Spurs' teamwork and serious approach on the court certainly played a big role in their success.

Early in their championship runs, both teams featured veteran presences to help nurture their homegrown talent. Duncan benefited from the tutelage of David Robinson, Mario Elie, and Sean Elliott. The Yankees' key players likewise learned from veterans like David Cone, Paul O'Neill, and Joe Girardi. Also, David Wells probably taught some of the young guys how to play half-drunk, which is an underrated skill for New York athletes.

Youth Infusions
In order to continue winning for such long periods of time, both organizations picked up key contributions from young players that were added throughout the years. I've already mentioned Reigning Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, who looks like he might turn into one of the top 10 all-around players in the NBA. Robinson Cano once played the Leonard role for the Yankees. Hopefully, the Spurs can hold onto Leonard when he hits free agency and another team makes an offer equivalent to the one the Mariners gave Cano.

Championship Runs
Ah, the reason we're comparing these teams in the first place.

Okay, so we've established that the Yankees and Spurs each drafted a franchise player, surrounded him with a crew of homegrown running mates, hired the right coaches, and consistently infused the team with young talent. How hard is it to construct a title contender? Are there any vacant general manager jobs that I can apply for?

As a result of their team-building success, the Yankees and Spurs eventually brought home five titles apiece. The Yankees' championships were more clustered together, and their run of four 'ships in five years might never be repeated. The Spurs contended every season, and the 2014 team might have been their best yet. It was certainly the most entertaining to watch, like a mutant combination of FC Barcelona and the 2001 Baltimore Ravens.

Growing from Near-Misses 
Unbelievably, the Duncan-Popovich Spurs made the Finals six times and lost just once. (The 2014 title was their first in an even-numbered year.) Of course, the Spurs also had several heartbreaking misses before last season's Finals collapse, including Dirk's three-point play and a few postseasons in which they suffered untimely injuries. Still, an .833 winning percentage in the Finals is pretty amazing.

The Yankees of recent vintage have been slightly less surefire in the postseason than the Spurs, albeit in a sport that's much more difficult to dominate. The Yanks have reached the playoffs in 17 of the 19 seasons since 1995, though, which has been pretty okay for me as a fan. But like the Spurs (and most other great teams), the Yanks have suffered some gut-wrenching defeats along the way. Think: Sandy Alomar's homer, the Luis Gonzalez Duck-Fart, and the Season That the Curse Forgot. (By the way, I just unleashed more obscenities than Joe Pesci in Goodfellas as I linked to those video clips.)

Both the Yankees and Spurs were able to shake off their near-misses far more often than not, allowing their fans to drown those rough memories with visions of championship parades.


Financial Status
There are really two distinctions to take into account when comparing the finances of the Yankees and the Spurs. The first distinction is between the leagues the teams play in. The NBA restricts team spending with a complicated system involving a salary cap, luxury tax, restrictions on contract length, and many other variables. This system rewards smart teams that maximize their assets and avoid crippling transactions. In baseball, on the other hand, big-market teams have a monstrous advantage over their small-market counterparts, and that advantage was even more pronounced during the 1990s, when the Yankees won the bulk of their hardware.

But we're more concerned with the second distinction, the financial status of the teams themselves. Even though the NBA has a salary cap/luxury tax structure, big-market teams like the Knicks and Lakers can still outspend most others and tend to attract big-name free agents. Therefore, the Spurs' sustained dominance is even more remarkable. They've accomplished so much while playing in the third-smallest TV market in the league. One huge reason they were able to maintain their success was the Big Three's decision to sacrifice some money to stay in San Antonio.

The Yankees, on the other hand... Well, we all know about the Evil Empire and the Steinbrenner family's free-spending tendencies. The front office had said for years that the team planned to move under the $189 million luxury tax threshold by 2013. But, last off-season, the Yanks crumpled up that plan and tossed it away like a soiled napkin at NYY Steak. Which brings us to our next major difference...

Ownership and Upper Management
George Steinbrenner is one of the most infamous owners in sports history, adored by some players (e.g., Derek Jeter) and reviled by others (e.g., Yogi Berra from ages 60 to 75).

The Boss earned his nickname, often meddling in the affairs of his front office, and his sons showed signs of doing the same. In recent years, Brian Cashman has assumed more control of roster construction, but his behavior has been true to his own last name and the legacy of Yankees ownership. The Core Four notwithstanding, the Yankees have signed and traded for a plethora of big-name, big-contract players throughout the years. In 1996, the team re-signed Cone for big money and acquired key contributor Cecil Fielder midway through the season. Since then, it's become almost comical how much the franchise has spent on marquee players. Some have worked out (Mike Mussina), some haven't (Randy Johnson), and some created an entirely new category for themselves (A-Rod).

Meanwhile, Spurs owner Peter Holt -- he of the Caterpillar fortune -- has taken a much more hands-off approach than the Steinbrenners, allowing his capable front office to manage the organization.

As I mentioned above, the Spurs' small-market situation has forced them to make extremely smart decisions. They embraced and utilized advanced statistics before most other teams, and they have gotten more value from international players than any other organization. The Popovich/Buford Brain trust (that's right, brain with a Capital B) has made very few bad decisions as they've made San Antonio the NBA's model franchise.*

*The Spurs also nurtured current Thunder GM Sam Presti, who runs one of the NBA's other highly-regarded organizations. 

Consistency of Style 
For their first few championship runs, the Spurs were a defensive force that played painfully slow, contributing to all those "boring" murmurs. In 1999, the Spurs averaged just over 88 possessions per game, a stuck-in-the-mud pace. (This season, they averaged 95 possessions per game.) Recently, though, they've transformed into an offensive juggernaut. Their offense of the last few seasons has looked like a ball movement drill being practiced without a defense involved.

The Yankees, on the other hand, looked pretty similar for years, with very little stylistic change. Sure, there's been some personnel turnover, but by and large, we've been watching the same type of baseball. The Yanks usually scored a lot, displaying great patience at the plate and boasting intimidating lineup depth. They supplemented that hitting with competent starting pitching and a terrific Rivera-led bullpen. The Yankees' championship teams have mostly relied on one formula, unlike their hoops counterparts in South Texas.


Nobody will ever rival the Yankees of my youth in my heart, but the Spurs have come as close as a non-New York team could. After comparing the two dynasties, I'd probably give a little bit of an edge to the Spurs organization. They've drafted and developed most of their key contributors, and those players have proven eager to stick around and remain part of something special.

Unfortunately, it's almost over. I've already bid farewell to the Yankees of my youth, and this San Antonio core is definitely in the midst of its twilight. Duncan and Popovich might return next year, giving these Spurs a great chance to add to their title haul. If they do that, we might have to re-visit this overly-detailed tale of the tape and proclaim San Antonio the indisputable best sports team of the last 20 years.

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