Monday, June 2, 2008

Requiem For A Nightmare: The San Antonio Spurs

“The devil is a better theologian than any of us and is a devil still.”

-A. Towzer
Can you call them the villain?

As sports fans, we thrive on interesting questions. Cynical writers will rail on that fact. They'll say they are irritated by meaningless questions, but in the end, that's why we're here, aren't we? Otherwise, we'd just say "the Celtics shot better than the Pistons, scored more points, and won." And that would be the end of it. But instead, we like to talk about it. To discuss. To argue. And to ask questions that inspire passion and insight.

So I ask again.

Can you call the San Antonio Spurs the villain?

This dynasty that they've upheld for the better part of the decade (and yes, it is a dynasty; multiple titles, convincing defeats of all challengers, a dominant winning percentage, it's a friggin' dynasty in our book) started as a feel good story. They were the little guys. The team that centered on "team." They were repeatedly beaten down by the Big Bad Lakers. When Fisher nailed the .04 shot, it was heartbreaking. When they returned to glory, it was the validation of Tim Duncan's career.

And then somewhere along the way, everything changed.

They became "predictable." "Traditional." "Un-exciting."

And that, of course, led to the word most often used, criticized, and argued about to describe them:


I've tried repeatedly to figure out why I share that perception with others. Am I just that easily persuaded by the common conviction? I mean, they've got one of the most exciting point guards in the league. They have a freaking Argentinian who admits he's not that athletic as their slasher. They have classic veterans who hit big shots. They have the greatest power forward of all time and one of the best coaches in league history. So what was so boring about them? They drive to the basket. They don't dunk a lot, but who cares? Why am I rooting so hard against them?

I think part of it came from the Phoenix run and gun. Say what you want, they were exciting to watch. Dunks, alley-oops, big threes in transition, always scoring, it's what you want from a basketball game. The Spurs had offensive efficiency, to be sure, but it was deliberate. They learned to exert full control on the game, and the best way to assure victory was to slow everything down to a crawl. It was like pushing the slow-motion control on Mega-Man. And it's cool in Mega-Man for the first thirty seconds.

This one lasted 10 years.

Then they lost that baby edge. They were called soft for so long. Spurs fans love to scream that, now: "We were called soft for years!" And it's not an entirely bad argument. They are criticized for not being tough, so they get tough, and then they're called "dirty." I tend to believe there's a way to be defensively tough and physical without Bowen's "feet under ankles" trick or Robert Horry's shennanigans, but I can see their point.

I kept coming to that conclusion this year, after watching the games more closely, after starting to see the big picture with their use of the D-League and the system they have in place. I couldn't help but think to myself, no matter how much I still rooted against them, "These guys really can't win with the public."

Part of me wonders if we needed a villain. With the Lakers' Shaq-Kobe mini-dynasty dissolved, and no one else dominant, I wonder if we turned on them merely because they were so predictably better than everyone. It would make sense for me personally. I root manically for the underdog. I simply always want the unexpected. Even this Finals matchup fills me with small dread. It's painfully predictable, and therefore, not as interesting to me. Now, granted, even I can recognize how truly great this is going to be with the history, matchups, and media attention. But would I have preferred New Orleans versus Orlando? Abso-freaking-lutely. Because it's two small market teams, and no one would have seen it coming.

Yet, San Antonio is a small market team. So small that they even had issues selling out their arena last year for the Conference Finals. They don't have flash or glitter. David Stern would have hung himself if the Spurs had managed to ruin his Boston-LA Finals dream. We're still stunned that he didn't suspend every player on the Spurs last year after the Horry hip-check. Not because they deserved it, but because, really, wouldn't Stern rather have the Suns than the Spurs? That it worked out the way it did either proves that the league is committed to even-handedness, that Stern REALLY hates Phoenix, or that Robert Horry has pictures of him doing something he shouldn't.

Regardless, San Antonio should be exactly the kind of team we root for. Hard-working. Selfless. Committed to the team. Classy. Not afraid to scrap. Small market. But we didn't. We prayed for their demise. Even their fans that weren't San Antonio loyalist reveled in the fact that they were the bad guys. I found most of the people who pulled for San Antonio outside of Texas and weren't lifelong Spurs fans had the same mindset as Raiders fans.

The best part is that even Spurs fans aren't that upset. I mean, really, they knew they weren't the best team this year. They knew their guys were aging and battling injuries, and that the rest of the league has gotten very, very good. They fought as they always do, and took down the New Orleans Hornets in one final stab to our hearts, and then faded. Spurs fans know that they have Ian Mahinmi coming up, Tony Parker's only 25, Greg Popovich and RC Buford will come up with a plan, and, oh yeah, they still have those four championships.

So their detractors (read: us) don't even have an opportunity to enjoy the Schadenfreude. They're fine.

Now, that said, I will agree with one thing my bombastic partner said, and that's that this run for the Spurs is likely over. Hear me out.

Mahinmi is likely to spend another year in Austin. He's got a year left on his D-League eligibility, and while he made a tremendous amount of progress this year, there's no reason for the Spurs to rush him. Splitter's a bigger problem. With him resigning overseas, this creates a bit of a spot for the Spurs. Ginobili is a big question mark as well. He's still going to be good, maybe even great. But he won't get better from here on out, especially not with the injuries he's started battling. Duncan probably won't fall off much just because of the nature of his game and his work ethic, and Parker's in his prime for the next five years (think about that).

Yet, there are only so many veteran three point shooters/defenders to go around. And the Spurs are facing probably more than a few exits. Factor in the fact that they need to go out and get some solid contributors and not plug holes with guys like Stoudamire and Thomas, and it's probably a remarkably different team coming back next season.

This isn't to say they'll be anywhere near the lottery. Oh no, they'll still be better than your team, most likely, unless you live in LA, Boston, and possibly Portland or New Orleans. However, championship caliber is something that is not only defined by the work the team puts in, but how the fates render it. It's fleeting, it's delicate, and maintaining it for even more than a year these days is an accomplishment. That the Spurs have cultivated a crop of championship veneer for close to 9 years is incredible. It's also unlikely that they can overcome another mass remodeling work.

But I wouldn't sleep on them, either. That organization is too well structured, too inventive, too committed to efficient, smart management to be underestimated. They'll likely be back, but in a different form.

In the end, what this team gave us over the last 9 years is something pretty amazing, in how unamazed we were by it. They were immensely hateable. They were incredibly efficient. They were able to absolutely shock you with big play after big play and still leave you unimpressed by their style. After every declaration of their imminent demise, after every moment where you said, "Surely this is the freaking end," they would simply smile, point, and say, "Scoreboard. "

The Nightmare is over, for now. But just because we're glad it's over, doesn't mean it's not worth remembering.

The Spurs, at least in this incarnation, are dead.

Long live the Spurs.


Freaking floppers.

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