You guys know where that title comes from, right?
Right! It's one of the best Star Trek: DS9 episodes ev-AH. Ooh, when Kor sedated Worf and took his place, saving everybody, I have to admit I was this close to crying. Kor died, yes, but in his own terms. In the midst of battle, going down with his ship instead of letting old age claim him while looking at old family photos in a rocking chair. Kor was a freaking badass, and he wanted to die a badass. You have to respect that.
Hmm? Oh! Right, the Spurs.... ...What about them?
People I respect tell me that it's time to get back on the horse, that Spurs fans need to rally for this Most Historic of Seasons that is to come, that Timmy want us bloggers to hang on every bankshot, every no-jump block, every widening of his eyes as he stares down unjust referees. I want to heed the call, but I am anchored down by endless months of apathy and laconism. Writing is very much a skill that rewards practice, and I have been riding the pine for too long. Riding a bike, this ain't. To grease the cogs, after some consideration I decided to indulge in a personal tale of basketball fandom, the odd beauty of professional sports and the meaning of life. I promise I will refer to the Spurs soon.
In case you don't know me, I am from Argentina. I love my country, I am happy there, but for a number of reasons I decided to study for my PhD at the University of Texas, in Austin. It is a beautiful place, I am thoroughly enjoying the experience, and hey, the Spurs are relatively close. Of course, days before I boarded my plane, Nuclear Winter Stern announced the lock-out. Here I was, finally within regular reach of my team, and the season looked dead on the water, deader, gone. To make matters worse, my country was holding the tournament that would qualify teams for the Olympics. Manu, Scola, Oberto, Nocioni, the whole gang was back for one last push at those wonderful medals - our own swan song, played with accordion and tango flair. To add insult to injury, the possibility opened for me to have tickets for the games.
A friend of mine used those tickets, and he speaks of courtside wonders and unforgettable nights. I lived the tournament through pixelated peer-to-peer feeds, with announcers speaking in English, Portuguese, Castillian, or gibberish. There was no Pounding the Rock to share my oooohs and my aaaahs and the heartbreak. Just me, a dark room, and the homework for the next day's class. It was a lonely, depressing affair - but it was also a wonderful, exciting time. The 2005 Spurs were before my eyes, but decked in my nation's colors, Argies to their core. The Scola to our Timmy, the Manu to our Manu, the Priggioni to our Parker, Quinteros to Barry, Oberto to Rasho. Chemistry and sky-high BIQ making up for aging legs, and the usual landmarks we fondly remember: the role player that steps into the spotlight with calm assurance, silently shouting "I am good at basketball too"; our big man and de facto leader deciding to cheat and typing IDDQD, his eyes flaming golden, Martian beasts gnawing at his biceps to no effect as he wins the final game; the Manu moment, too, when he decides that Argentina will not lose at home and miss the Olympics, oh no, and scores 6 three-pointers in a row in a back-breaking moment of wonder. I even saw a then-Maverick shooting a long, off-balance three that would have destroyed all of our dreams that bounced off the side of the rim, as I clutched my chest and thanked every deity I could conjure.
I am truly sorry for you guys who live in countries where national pride and sports run parallel but do not crisscross, mesh, amalgamate. Your healthy, rational attitudes will smooth the lows - but there are highs that you will never know, feelings of vicarious triumph that can only be attained by those who invest too much on too little. My team sat on top of a bus and chanted with the crowd that surrounded it, a victory parade of basketball fans and a final cheer at home for an old crew that gave us so much. The send off that they deserved.
It was everything that basketball can ever aspire to be, and more.
I experienced the lockout via proxy. JanieAnnie gave me regular updates on who said what, on what direction the wind was blowing in over at Twitterland. Friends shared their insights on the secret CBA talks, hypothesized, then changed their minds. PTR shook in rigor mortis and coughed up a thread every other week, but after the FIBA Americas high the prolonged impasse only exacerbated my numbness. Lock-outs invite my scorn in general, and the millions of dollars bartered back and forth before the eyes of millions of middle and low class fans were plain insulting. I am aware that this is a business, believe me - but do they have to be so obvious about it?
No business would survive something similar (imagine an HEB lock-out, if you can), but they are aware that basketball is not all business for many of us. There is an emotional connection that cannot be severed easily, and it gives them leeway to split our money before our very noses while we patiently wait in our homes for Stern not to see his shadow and emerge from his money-green burrow.
It was basketball at its lowest.
Plain old basketball
And lo, here are the Spurs. Sharper minds have already analyzed our team, and found it wanting. I could write a list of our many flaws, just as a sort of depressing summary of our shortcoming and inadequacies - and actually I will, because I'm both a sadist and a masochist:
- The George Hill enigma. I am willing to admit that Kawhi may be a key player for a contender Spurs team this season - stranger things have happened. However, losing George Hill is not a minor loss, and cannot be easily shrugged off as a minor tweak to an otherwise stable team. His departure hurts the team deeply, and I cannot fathom why there wasn't a major fan outcry when the trade took place.
What did George do well? Despite his much-discussed step back on defense, he could (and was regularly asked to) defend both guard positions and elite small forwards. He could shoot the corner three intermittently, and could have easily improved in that area with some hard work over the summer. He could also pass the ball better than anyone outside the Big Three, for all our complaints about his lack of vision. He was a steady hand in end-of-game situations, and was the only player without a gigantic nose that could be trusted with a free throw. He could play with Parker as a solid shooting guard, and complemented Manu perfectly in that he was great at carrying the ball up the court and giving it to Manu, and even better at promptly getting the hell out of the way so that Manuisms could ensue.
Neal cannot do that. TJ cannot do that. We will miss Georgie.
- The rookie mystery. I just said that Kawhi might be a key player, but we all know that he will not. No rookie has ever been more than a low-impact role player with limited minutes in the Era of Popovich, not even Manu, not since Tony was almost burnt out as a young, impressionable Frenchie. Enjoy Kawhi's promise during the speedy regular season, but be aware at all times that his minutes in any playoff run will be as rare as Pop's smiles during a mid-game interview. Anderson and Neal and Blair could all improve and offer some valuable help in key moments, but their ceiling is that of situational role players. In the championship scale, their weight is negligible.
- The big man conundrum. Our roster contains two centers, Tim and Tiago, and two ineffectual power forwards, Matt and DeJuan. Just writing that sentence chills my bones. Let's break it down.
An effective Tim in the playoffs will require a careful management of his minutes throughout this rollercoaster-like regular season, while still trying to present a competitive team every night. Cue Lalo Schifrin's score. How much game does he have left? Well, 82 Games's Simple Rating places him in the 11th position for last season, and if that surprises then you don't remember his flashes of brilliance during our valiant effort against the Grizzlies's Twin Towers. We wasted a great season from a veteran all-time basketball genius, our second-best player and leader. He is still holding out the baton, but no one has picked it up - and it's a damn shame.
I sincerely hope that any pro-Bonner talk is relegated to Canada and the Bonner family as of this season. I have looked at the tea leaves at the bottom of my cup and the pattern is clear: he is a regular season maybe, and a playoffs rotund no. No, no, no. For whatever reason, he cannot handle the added pressure and crumbles like an overcooked reuben. Back-to-back-to-backs (THIGABABABA?) make his acceptable team defense and awkward shooting sprees a necessary weapon, but any river parade expectations involve replacing his output in the postseason.
Tiago and Blair have yet to combine into the fearsome Bliago mythical beast that we need, and in its absence we will have to settle for the human Tiago. Blair's rookie wall proved to be constructed of titanium bricks mortared with broken dreams, and at this point his presence is incompatible with an opponent that presents a serviceable power forward. The Scolas and the Randolphs of this league look forward to the opportunity of being guarded by our rebound master, and we cannot ignore that anymore. Tiago is our hope.
Honestly, I think we need McDyess to come back, and I believe we have to find a big man during the season. ...Duh.
[I wonder how many dunks New York will have against us. I will be shocked if they launch one three-pointer in the entire game. Then again, considering who coaches them...]
- The amnesty faux pas. I respect the Spurs's front office, but sometimes I would really like to have more insight into their logic. Richard Jefferson was not the reason we lost last season, and he was an acceptable contributor considering the high expectations we had for him after his incredible start. He was a solid outside shooter, he tried hard on defense, he found a rebound from time to time, and he didn't turn over the ball much. His playoffs performance was disappointing even by his standards, but we are very unlikely to do better in his position regardless of what the Trade Machine says. Furthermore, he is one of our few trading chips.
For better or worse, RJ will be our shooting forward for the foreseeable future, and we can only hope for the famous Third Year Renaissance. Our every effort should be focused on finding tall guys that know how to play basketball, not on replacing our 3 with the likes of Josh Howard.
It is not all bleakness and despair, fortunately. For all our nitpicking, we are still one of the strongest teams in the league, top to bottom. Manu proved just a few months ago that he still has the fire (and his status as the fifth best played by SRS last season and 12th clutchest star ought to be remembered). He was spectacular, hands down the best Spurs player, despite near career-high minutes per game and a disappointing percentage from beyond the arc. He also showed during the FIBA American tournament a willingness to take over point guard duties that should serve us well during the playoffs. He is still Manu Ginobili.
Yet the push that I am expecting comes from someone else, that guy we all hate and love, sometimes at the same time: one Tony Baguette Parker. A few dismal stretches during the season and a sad shooting streak on the series against Memphis hid what was otherwise a good season, in which Parker proved he could regularly hit the 10 assists mark, and somehow developed a serviceable three-point shot when his feet were set in the corner. We fans are creatures with short memories, but not too long ago Tony was a shoe-in for discussions about the best three point guards in the league. I am certain that he is entirely capable of regaining his All-Star form, and on him doing just that rest the hopes for a new ring. We will only win as Tony's team. Cherish him.
Spurs fans really do not need to read this post. We know this team. We know the Spurs. Year after year, the talking points remain unaltered: an aging team with an inflated budget and incapable of attracting franchise players, good enough to reach the playoffs but not to win four series against younger multi-starred teams. The only online appreciation for this incarnation of the San Antonio Spurs will come in the form of eulogies and passive-aggressive compliments reserved for has-beens and the mediocre, and we will be forced to retreat to our Spurs blogs, reassuring ourselves in the knowledge that others share our mad expectations. We have all been there before.
My only advice is that even if you cannot control Bonner's temple on an elimination series, or Tim Duncan's decline, or RJ's consistency, or Pop's insane rotations, you are at least the master of your own attitude as a fan. I want this team to play with dignity, savvy and sheer defiance. I want every win against Miami or New York or New Jersey to be a slap on the face of all the superteam augurs, of the so-called future of this league. We do not need to abandon all critical thinking to believe in our battle-weary veterans. We only need to remember what the Spurs have accomplished in the past, and the kind of team we root for.
Let's enjoy every second of this season, guys. We are still relevant, we are still mighty. We are still the Spurs.
Now, if only Manu could grow Kor's mustache...