They absolutely deserve this level of admiration. Regardless of what happens in the series vs. Miami that opens Thursday in San Antonio, the Spurs of this century have cemented themselves as one of the all-time great franchises in pro sports.
My degree of resentment for LeBron James has lessened markedly during his four seasons with the Heat. I'll always believe he took the easy route to a championship by going to Miami, rather than staying in Cleveland, but anyone would have to respect what he's done and how well the Heat have blended together. Winning a title is tough to do, and if the Heat collect a third trophy, they certainly will have earned it.
But how could anybody cheer against the Spurs, at this stage? They used to be merely tolerable, and now they're completely embraceable.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan are the NBA's equivalent of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady in pro football or even better. San Antonio is playing in the Finals for the sixth time in the Popovich/Duncan era, having won four championships. The Spurs would have claimed another title last June, if not for Ray Allen's miraculous shot in Game 6 in Miami.
That should have been the end for the Spurs. Instead, they responded to the emotional toll of that defeat and the wear and tear or another year of competition in the demanding Western Conference with a 62-20 record, followed by playoff victories over Dallas, Portland and Oklahoma City.
Duncan (38), Manu Ginobili (36) and Tony Parker (32) are collectively older than John Stockton (36), Jeff Hornacek (35) and Karl Malone (34) when the Jazz made their last Finals appearance in 1998. The Spurs veterans have been managed brilliantly by Popovich, with nobody averaging even 30 minutes on the court in the regular season. General manager R.C. Buford keeps assembling rosters that complement the Big Three, formerly with the help of Dennis Lindsey, now the Jazz's GM, and now with former Jazz employee Scott Layden as his assistant.
The Spurs landed forward Kawhi Leonard in the Jimmer Fredette/Alec Burks draft of 2011, and they've pieced together a team of castoffs such as Danny Green, Boris Diaw and Patty Mills that enabled them to overcome the effects of age. So maybe it all started when the Spurs lost enough games to draft Duncan No. 1, but this team would not be where it is without a series of shrewd personnel moves and some phenomenal coaching. Popovich is not the most media-friendly guy those biting answers are not reserved only for the in-game interviews everybody sees but he's very smart and obviously effective.
Miami's offense is certainly not the one-on-one style we all may have pictured when James joined Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Those guys do pass the basketball. But the Spurs take efficient, team-oriented offense to a whole other level, and they're fun to watch.
Wait, did I just use "Spurs" and "fun" in the same sentence? It's true. These guys have made themselves worth watching. They're very good at home, and they were tough enough to win Game 6 at Oklahoma City in overtime, with Parker sidelined.
His ankle injury is a variable in the Finals, but it should be a terrific series. These teams went seven games last year, and what's changed? The Spurs may be a year older, but they're better than ever. This time, it'll be San Antonio in seven.