Before Wednesday night’s game against the San Antonio Spurs, Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James (who has had plenty of high-profile matchups with the Spurs over his years in the NBA) referred to his opponent as ‘the Patriots of the NBA.’ The comparison is obviously a compliment to both San Antonio and New England, and really, when you stop to think about it, makes a whole lot of sense. (In other words, we’re disappointed in ourselves that we didn’t come up with it first.)
Here are four important characteristics the Spurs and Patriots have in common. Or, put more simply, here’s why LeBron James is right.
1. They win.
The most obvious similarity between the Alamo City’s NBA dynasty and what New England has done in the NFL has to be the sustained level of success both franchises have found. In Gregg Popovich’s 17 full seasons at the helm in San Antonio, the Spurs have made the playoffs 17 times. Popovich has won 68.5% of his regular-season games with San Antonio since taking over in 1996, and owns a championship ring for every finger on his hand. His New England counterpart, Bill Belichick, has a stunning winning percentage of .731 with the Pats, and, of course, boasts three Super Bowl championships of his own.
2. They have iconic, legendary, quotable coaches.
As referenced above, the modern-day Patriots and Spurs dynasties can be traced directly to the success of a coach that’s been there seemingly forever. Popovich is coming up on two full decades as the head man in San Antonio, while Belichick has spent the entire 21st century on the New England sidelines. And, it’s not just that these future Hall-of-Fame coaches have been around forever: They also share similar personalities, right down to the one-liners and quotable or not-so-quotable press conferences and sideline interviews.
3. They have stability at the most important positions on the roster.
The Cleveland Browns (coincidentally, the former employer of one Bill Belichick) have utilized 20 different starting quarterbacks since 1999. The constant turnover many ballclubs endure at an NFL team’s most important position on the field (as illustrated by Cleveland) stands in stark contrast to the stability New England has enjoyed. Tom Brady, a 2000 draft pick, has started every game or nearly every game under center in every season since 2001 (except the year he tore his ACL, 2008).
Similarly, the Spurs have kept their “Big 3″ trio of stars intact for more than a decade: Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Tim Duncan have been cornerstones of the franchise together since 2002, with Duncan’s time in San Antonio dating all the way back into the ’90s (and the 1999 championship with David Robinson). No matter how long a veteran coach stays with a successful team, he’s ultimately only as good as the players he has, and the consistent superstar production that Tom Brady and Tim Duncan have delivered since the turn of the century has helped the Spurs and Patriots become the model franchises in their respective sports.
4. They always get new players to step up.
Admittedly, a lot of the credit for this goes to the coaches getting the most out of the talent on their roster, but the fact remains: No matter how good the Spurs’ and Patriots’ veteran stars are, they wouldn’t be winning 70% of their games without developing and featuring previously unknown talents. Belichick and New England have done that time and time again, with this past Sunday being a perfect example. Anonymous running back Jonas Gray, whose previous claim to fame was opening as an amateur comedian for Dustin Diamond (aka “Screech” from Saved by the Bell), stunned the Colts and a primetime audience by rushing for 199 yards and four touchdowns. Coming out of nowhere to make an impact isn’t an anomaly or exception in New England, it’s the norm.
The same can be said of the Spurs, where the Big 3 have been complemented over the past dozen years by a myriad of role players who enjoyed the best seasons of their careers playing under “Pop.” Quick, which San Antonio standout won the 2014 NBA Finals MVP in the team’s most recent championship run? Not Duncan. Not Parker. No, not Ginobili. It was Kawhi Leonard, an up-and-coming star who helped lock down LeBron defensively and averaged nearly 18 points a night. As the years go by, the names on the jerseys in New England and San Antonio may change, but the results haven’t. That’s a credit to Belichick/Popovich, and just one more striking resemblance these two highly-successful teams share.