There’s something boring about success. Under the same coach and quarterback (besides one season), the New England Patriots haven’t won fewer than 10 regular season games since 2002. It’s hard to blame the team’s fans for being lulled into a mindset where beating the traffic is more important than catching the last nine minutes of a game against the Bills. Three Super Bowl wins and eight AFC Championship Game appearances will do that to you.
Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have patented plodding, methodical winning in the NFL, but the pair have an NBA equal in San Antonio, where Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and center Tim Duncan go about their business in much the same way. According to an ESPN piece, some in the Spurs organization have even been known to make the comparison themselves.
The ever-efficient San Antonio Spurs quietly prefer the comparison they’ve been known to make internally — Bill Belichick and Tom Brady — but even the NFL’s signature coach/franchise player partnership hasn’t been at it as long as the NBA’s modern-day Red and Russell.
Since Duncan’s arrival in 1998, the Spurs have never failed to win 50 games in a full season. The Spurs have four titles in that time, and, like the Patriots, share the experience of a heartbreaking loss on the game’s biggest stage, falling to the Heat in Game 7 of the NBA Finals last year.
Duncan’s missed bunny, meet Brady’s pass through Welker’s hands.
When the Spurs begin their quest to avenge last year’s Finals loss tonight (9 p.m., ABC), they’ll do it with the 38-year-old Duncan still plenty capable of leading his team but aware the end of his playing days is near.
“[Retirement] will happen when it happens,” Duncan told reporters Wednesday. “I’ll feel it and I’ll know it and I’ll call it a day.”
Brady, too, is nearing the end of a career that has spanned 14 seasons and will surely put him in the Hall of Fame. At 36, Brady claims he plans to play well into his 40s. How long he can stay at this level — and whether he’ll still play if he doesn’t — remains to be seen.
Last week, colleague Chad Finn wrote a piece comparing the chemistry of the Spurs to the 1986 Celtics, but I prefer the comparison to Brady and Belichick’s Patriots, as flawed as it may be.
Like their Patriots counterparts, Duncan and Popovich appear at times to be their team’s only constants. Tony Parker (who may end up in the Hall of Fame, too) and Manu Ginobili are Brady’s Wilfork and Gronkowski, but a look down the rosters of both teams often turns up names you’ve barely heard of, guys like Patty Mills, Danny Green, Josh Boyce and Kenbrell Thompkins. Popovich and Belichick are masters of plugging these players into their systems and getting them to buy in. Duncan and Brady are the steadying presences between the lines.
That consistency in the face of widespread turnover is what makes the success of both teams remarkable, especially in leagues where the salary cap plays such a big role. Unlike baseball, where a team with more resources can ostensibly stay on top, parity is the name of the game in the NBA and NFL. The Spurs haven’t hit the lottery since drafting Duncan in 1998, but they’ve shrewdly used the picks they’ve had to find bargains in the draft (Parker) and reclamation projects in free agency (Boris Diaw). Like Diaw, Randy Moss was the talented-but-flawed player nobody wanted, and look how that worked out for Belichick and company.
The feel of both teams is also similar. While it’s a little clumsy to compare the playing style of a football team to a basketball team, both teams win largely without flash. Duncan isn’t a dunker. Brady would rather dink-and-dunk than throw the deep ball. Both teams rely on defense and on spreading the ball around. Neither player has ever publicly tried to assemble a Super Team.
The comparison isn’t perfect of course. There’s more sentimentality in the coverage of Popovich and Duncan than of Brady and Belichick. Popovich, who is affably cranky, comes off as the fun uncle, while Belichick can’t hide the disdain underneath his gruffness.
Personality-wise, Duncan and Brady couldn’t be more different. We know Brady’s wife by her first name (and her breastfeeding pictures on Instagram), but we have to Google Duncan’s. Brady gravitates toward the limelight. It’s unlikely Duncan will ever run for Senate. Despite the differences, both players maintain the leadership qualities that come along only once or twice a generation in professional sports.
I’m looking forward to the start of the Finals tonight, and like Patriots fans root for Brady to win one more Super Bowl, I’m rooting for Duncan to put a capper on his career with another ring.
But I’m also a little sad. There’s something fragile about watching greatness near its end, as if one swift breeze will send the whole thing toppling over. Duncan’s light is unlikely to flicker; you’ll glance over one day and it will just be out. Like Duncan, Brady is unlikely to let you watch him fade away.
When both players are eventually gone, you wonder if either coach will want to stick around without something solid to lean on.