The San Antonio Spurs made their way to Madison Square Garden on Monday night for the team’s annual trip to New York City. But Knicks fans almost missed out on seeing the Spurs’ aging Big Three because Gregg Popovich planned to sit 38-year old guard Manu Ginobili on the second half of a back-to-back. However, the 14-year veteran wanted no part of sitting, and perhaps he realized that there may not be another chance to play at the World’s Most Famous Arena.
“I don’t really want to play him much in back-to-backs this year, which is really nothing new,” Popovich said. “So we talked about it. I thought we had come to a conclusion. Manu said we hadn’t.
“So we played last night or yesterday afternoon, so I said, ‘Tomorrow’s a back-to-back, so you’re not going to play.’ He said, ‘Pop, I have to play.'”
Over the summer, Ginobili delayed retirement and signed on for at least one more season, and possibly even two more holding a player option worth $5.7 million. Ginobili, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker have been together now for 14 long seasons, winning four championships and forever establishing themselves alongside the best trios in NBA history.
“There are a lot of different factors,” reserve guard Patty Mills told me Monday night when asked about what makes the troika so great. “For me, I think family is a big one for all of them and then understanding that almost comes first before anything else. But the want and need to get better everyday, but not more on an individual level but as a team, want to make the team better and do things that will make the team better. I think that’s a couple of the many factors that makes them great players.”
In April, the lifelong Spurs played their 730th game together to set an NBA record for a trio. Boston’s Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish had held the mark since 1992. With Sunday afternoon’s victory in in Boston, the three Spurs stars became the most successful triumvirate in NBA history, surpassing Bird, McHale and Parish for the most wins by a trio in NBA history (541).
“What they are able to do obviously on the court is one thing, but then how they carry themselves after making history like that you wouldn’t know what they achieved last night was so huge,” Mills said. “There so down to earth, normal people that you just enjoy being around and that’s what makes them such great people.”
The achievement didn’t garner top headlines, and even coach Pop dismissed the accomplishment as something mundane.
“It’s just a historical fact, like Columbus didn’t discover America in 1492,” Popovich quipped over the weekend.
However, there is something more to be said about winning that many games together. More than Bird, McHale and Parish. More than Magic, Kareem and Worthy. More than Jordan, Pippen and Grant. Even more than Russell, Cousey and K.C. Jones.
“Of course it’s not something that happens often,” Ginobili said Friday night of the trio’s latest milestone. “So for sure it’s something big. The thing is we saw it coming. Last year, we were one shy [of tying the record], and we all stayed. So we knew it was going to happen eventually, unless we had a terrible season: 0-82. Of course it feels great. It tells a lot about how successful we’ve been, and these 14 seasons we’ve played together. Even with the wins and all that, playing together for so long is very unique. So we appreciate the fact we’ve been together for so long.”
After a 94-84 victory over the Knicks on Monday, the 39-year old Duncan enjoyed a milestone of his own by recording his 954th victory as a Spur, an NBA record for one player with one team, surpassing Hall of Fame point guard John Stockton, who went 953-551 with the Utah Jazz. Duncan has personally won more games than five NBA franchises: the Charlotte Hornets, the Memphis Grizzlies, the Minnesota Timberwolves, the New Orleans Pelicans and the Toronto Raptors.
Coach Popovich certainly deserves credit in there, too, but he’ll be the first to tell you what he preaches is meaningless if Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili were not so good and bought into what he sold. They should go down as the greatest trio of all time — not just for the wins and titles, but the sustained level of excellence (winning 50 games every full season they played together).
Yankee greats Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada stayed together for 17 years in the Bronx, the longest stretch of playing together on the same team in the history of North American sports. They were also a pretty successful bunch, winning five championships together. But when it comes to sustained dominance—both in the regular season and the playoffs—the Hall of Fame trio of Timmy-Manu-Tony is tough to top.
The Spurs venerable trio has more playoff wins than anybody else, a winning percentage that has never dipped below .610 and they have continually adapted their style of play as the league continually evolves. The league is getting smarter, the athletes are better, the competition is fiercer and it’s nearly impossible to get stars to stick together. But here they are heading into 2016 still going strong and chasing championships.
“Doing this for the amount of years that they’re doing it, you imagine doing anything for that long you’re going to get somewhat bored of it or something, but that’s not the case here,” Mills said. “Who knows if it’s them or if it’s the people that’s around them that gives them that fire to keep going, but whatever it is, it is special and it’s great to experience it with them.”