At some point this weekend for the Spurs you'll see a former second-rounder who couldn't stick with the Cavaliers, an undrafted player forced to start his career in Europe, a flabby Frenchman who dealt with the indignity of being bought out by the Bobcats and a guard who was getting run in the D-League just three months ago.
This is what the Spurs are trying to win the Western Conference with, a small collection of rejects who somehow are in the rotation and collectively giving Tim Duncan a lift. Before you laugh or figure the Spurs are in deep water against the Grizzlies, understand this is how the Spurs win every year, turning another team's trash into their treasure. This is who they are. This is what they do.
If Warren Buffett spent weekends rummaging through garage sales and came away with a few steals, he'd be the equivalent of the championship-rich Spurs, who find the strangest help in the oddest places.
"We try not to leave any stone unturned in our search for talent," said GM R.C. Buford. "We look for players who'll fit well, regardless of where they are in their careers. Not everyone's a good fit for what we do."
Has any professional sports team breathed life into more dead careers than the Spurs? Maybe the Raiders of the 1970s and '80s. They pulled players from the landfill and won Super Bowls with them. But nobody in the NBA compares. In the Duncan Era, Buford and coach Gregg Popovich always managed to find someone with a flaw or two, be it age or attitude or maybe a combination of both, and made room for them. If you gave the organization a flat tube of toothpaste, figure the Spurs would somehow squeeze out a few more brushes.
They won 58 games and jumped to a 2-0 lead over Memphis in the West finals largely because of Duncan and Tony Parker, a solid core that makes everything else possible. No question, Parker and Duncan - and until lately, the aging Manu Ginobili -- have carried the franchise for more than a decade. That nucleus hasn't changed. Everything around them does, however, almost yearly.
The Spurs are giving quality burn to Boris Diaw, Gary Neal, Danny Green and Cory Joseph and getting more than anyone would've expected in return. Unlike Kawhi Leonard, a former first-round pick, they weren't projected to be this important. It's not uncommon to see all four on the floor together, sometimes in the fourth quarter. That sounds almost suicidal, but it works, and it has for years.
Would Duncan, maybe the best power forward of all time, own four championships if not for the hired help over the years? He does make them better by commanding so much attention, but still, those players must hit shots and play defense and refuse to shrink in the heat of the postseason. They must be role players who think like starters, making it more remarkable what the Spurs have managed to do.
Just check their history of garage sale discoveries. Here's a few of many:
Mario Elie. After helping the Rockets win a pair of championships, Elie was 35 and rusting and no longer considered a top reserve when the Spurs signed him in 1998. He started 37 games and all 17 in the playoffs in the lockout-shortened season, averaged nearly 10 points and won another championship.
Bruce Bowen. The gold standard for all Spurs pickups, Bowen instantly became a defensive pest to the biggest enemies of the Spurs, Kobe Bryant among them, when he arrived at age 30 in 2001. He also made himself into a reliable three-point shooter, vital for a team with Duncan and David Robinson, won three titles and had his jersey retired.
Danny Ferry. His career was buried under expectations and injuries when he signed in 2000, but he became a valuable sub who hit three-pointers, then moved into the front office as a junior executive and helped find others like him.
Steve Kerr. After making a championship-winning shot for the Bulls, Kerr landed in San Antonio in 1998-99 and struggled at first, hitting only 31 percent from deep, lowest of his career. He looked lost without Michael Jordan throwing him passes for wide open jumpers. Then in Game 6 of the 2003 West finals he made four clutch shots that beat the Mavericks before winning a title that year.
Robert Horry. After winning championships with the Rockers and Lakers with a habit of making big shots, Horry came to the Spurs, and the winning continued (seven titles total for Horry). At age 34 he scored 21 points in the fourth quarter and OT of Game 5 of the 2005 Finals. He wasn't done. His hip-check of Steve Nash in the 2007 playoffs drew key suspensions on the Suns and pushed the Spurs back into the Finals, where they won again.
Stephen Jackson. Cap'n Jack had two tours of duty in San Antonio, with the first being far longer and more enjoyable than the second. Jackson was a basketball vagabond until he averaged 12 points off the bench for the 2003 champs. He left, but after playing on five teams in nine years he returned last season to the only team that wanted him and was the only bright spot for the Spurs in the playoffs. But Jackson is high maintenance and he wore down Popovich this season, constantly complaining about playing time and money until the Spurs cut him last month.
And there's also Antonio McDyess, Steve Smith, Michael Finley and Brent Barry.
"We've been fortunate," said Buford, "and it all starts with Pop and Tim. Without them, none of this would be possible. Tim does a great job of providing the professional atmosphere in the locker room and making sure everyone's on the same page, and Pop is a terrific motivator."
The common thread is these players came relatively cheap and kept the payroll manageable for the Spurs, who despite years of winning never paid a penny in luxury tax or ranked in the top eight in payroll (they're 12th this season). The franchise is big on sacrifice, and everyone buys in, from Duncan to the last guy on the bench.
The challenge now is finding who among the rejects can navigate through the next few weeks and help win a title. That's what Bowen, Kerr, Horry and Jackson did. They produced in big moments. In this series with Memphis, and in the NBA Finals if they're fortunate, the Spurs will learn if they have that player, and he could be the difference between sipping champagne or wiping tears.
Diaw is Parker's countryman, smart and fundamentally sound who rarely makes a mental mistake, just the kind of player Popovich likes. He had a future several years ago in Phoenix until he signed a big contract, ate too many crepes, lost his quickness and was forced, size-wise, to switch from forward to center.
Green was cut by the Cavs and previously by the Spurs. After re-signing, he took advantage of Ginobili's injuries, became the starting shooting guard and is their most dangerous three-point shooter, hitting 45 percent in the playoffs.
Neal became an insurance three-point shooter who made seven in one game this season. And when Parker was injured earlier this season, Joseph took the starting spot after being stashed in the D-League for much of the last two years and shot 54 percent.
One or more of these players will find himself pressed to produce something, either a basket or a stop, in a big moment in this series, and then in the Finals if the Spurs advance. Is there a Horry in the bunch? A Kerr? Bowen?
Or is this the year their rejects finally reject the chance to keep a Spurs' tradition alive?