Dealing with yet another Spurs induced sports existential crisis was difficult. Good thing Pop, Jacob Riis, Albert Camus and Sisyphus helped me put things back in perspective.
Any baseline bum knows that the Spurs' raison d'etre is the stonecutter's credo. The Spurs, much like the proverbial mason, hammer the rock until it breaks. However, until the rock breaks, and the culmination of a quarter, a game, or a season is revealed, the Spurs must also push the rock as they pound. This addendum to the Spurs' philosophy helps explain their adaptive approach to the game. Coach Pop applies the Spurs' foundational philosophy to his assembled personnel and their collective style. Whether it is the pound and grind of antecedent twin pillars or the style and pace of the extant cast of expats, Pop will "keep looking, . . . keep trying, . . . keep going" to create an alchemic blend that turns rocks into golden trophies.
Blending these cornerstone philosophies, the Spurs find themselves between the pace of the push and the plodding of the pound. The natural inclination to blend these philosophies is derived from a couple of thinkers who, like many members of the current incarnation of the Spurs, established credibility in Europe. The first, Jacob Riis, a Danish-American muckraking journalist, finds virtue in pounding the rock; and the other, Albert Camus, the French chronicling laureate, extols pushing the rock. Camus's interpretation of the Myth of Sisyphus lays out this viewpoint and epitomizes the Spurs' quest for eternal relevancy, all while pursuing perfection in every play.
Sisyphus, the man fated by the gods to push a rock up hill, always seemed to have a bad lot. But it's not like his fate wasn't deserved. Sisyphus handcuffed Hades, and put one over Persephone because he could not comprehend the loss of his own life. After his ruse was realized by those on high, Sisyphus was condemned to spend his waking hours pushing a massive rock up a steep hill and left to realize that the rock push is an unfulfilling grind.
Camus, though, challenges that conventional wisdom. Interpreting Sisyphus' fate as punishment is not preordained. Camus believes that Sisyphus owns his rock and roll. After converting to this paradigm, the rock and the push up the mountain are Sisyphus's sole expression of life and with that the gods' punishment loses its sting. Sisyphus can enjoy the process of a meandering march or a soldierly sojourn. Each push generates its own narrative: its success or failure is interpreted according to the pusher's parameters. As such, it is possible to have a fulfilling trip without making it to the top. This conviction, however, is only possible by revolting against the crushing certainty of perpetual pushes up the mountain.
Applying the overused sports metaphor, each NBA season is a climb to the mountaintop. It is filled with sloppy February wins and November losses that prepare role players for a playoff push in April. It's also filled with games where dubious effort garners additional lottery balls during the slog towards the next NBA season. At its culmination, only one team emerges on the summit. Based on the myriad scenarios a season provides and the reality of only one truly successful team, each team must push with a plan and set appropriate expectations. It could be the Cavs' push towards a respectable future in the hopes of avenging desertion. It could be the Lakers' push for an immediate return by following the tested script and acquiring another Herculean center. It could be the Sixers' or the Celtics' all in gamble in an attempt to obtain a savior. Or it could be, as the Spurs have sought, a perpetual state of relevance while constantly challenging convention.
In order to stay relevant, the Spurs must be in permanent revolution against the prospect of becoming a middling team inhabiting NBA purgatory. NBA purgatory traps teams that are too good to have a legitimate shot to draft a franchise-defining star, but not good enough to win a playoff series and realistically expect to reach the summit. Or, as Camus might see it, a fate that exemplifies the comforts of mediocrity. Revolting against this revolting outcome is a permanent goal, never to be reconciled. To further paraphrase Camus, this revolt proves the only truth, which is the defiance against the comforts of the bourgeois. Some teams, however, are all too comfortable with the comfort of two home playoff games, a positive operating income, and an apathetic fanbase.
For those of us lucky enough to root for teams run by winners, who put winners on the court, first round elimination is not an acceptable outcome. Through the course of the season, teams begin to naturally separate into those attempting to summit and those content with a terminal trek to basecamp. Games take on different meanings. Sometimes a regular season game is a barometer for a playoff match-up and other times it has no predictive value. Based on this reality, and the breaks of the game, attempting to rationalize future championships during the season becomes an ex ante conjecture of randomness. As the season unfolds, the narrative becomes an ex post explanation of the passage of time. Taken together, the narrative is a blend of the irrational and human nostalgia. In any case, it's completely absurd.
But that might be the point. Every fan has an opportunity to attempt to rationally create a narrative that explains a season that does not result in enjoying that brief moment balanced on top of the mountain. Spurs fans have no shortage of explanations for failed pushes: a king and his soldier of fortune; a bearded banshee; an awkwardly armored southpaw; a Gaucho hacking a Kraut; a mole operating the game clock; a big philosophizing mountain of a man; a dream season shaken awake. These incidents radiometrically date the rocks of unfulfilled seasons as much as the numbers '99, '03, '05, and '07 date those that ended with the Spurs, alone on top of the mountain.
During their championship run in the mid-aughts, the Spurs preached an impenetrable defense and an offense predicated upon Duncan's play in the post. When four-down lost its effectiveness, Pop overhauled the process. The current edition of Spurs, who have mastered the regular season, push the tempo and pass the ball with panache. Will Pop's revolution against the methodology of the "old" Spurs provide the organization with additional championships and further relevance? The opportunity to narrativize this process, as a fully vested fan, is both agonizing and soothing.
The necessity to narrativize/rationalize/contextualize last season's near summit cannot be overstated. Had the Spurs secured one additional rebound or sunk one extra free throw this essay would instead be contemplating the Dionysian excess of a dynasty for the ages. But addressing the shortfalls of the Spurs near-championship should not be such a laborious task. The Spurs, after all, have mitigated the Big Three's decline, while carefully nurturing the next wave of humble caretakers of the Spurs' credo. In doing so, they have put themselves in a position to once again redefine the definition of an NBA dynastic era by completing last season's unfinished business next June.
Champions, and those striving to become champions, must find joy in that reality of the seamless roll from one season to the next. And they must find joy in the opportunity to push a new rock to the top of the mountain. Otherwise, as with the traditional view of Sisyphus's fate, the process of starting the push can be too much to bear. But by finding joy in the process, the mundane act of putting a ball in a hoop (or preventing an opponent from doing the same) becomes the path towards enlightenment. That joy is frequently revealed during random moments during the grind to the mountaintop: Manu nut-megging an opposing player because the angle presented itself; Tony tormenting and taunting the opposition; Pop carefully plotting and brusquely explaining on the periphery; Kawhi cracking a proud, subtle smile; and Timmy, always, embracing the rock.
Just as we perpetually strive to find meaning of the rock we push in our pedestrian lives, the Spurs find meaning in the monotonous grind of an exhausting NBA regular season schedule and, more often than not, the disappointment following playoff elimination. Despite this probable outcome, I imagine Spurs content and happy. Their joy comes from both the prospect of hoisting the golden trophy and the reflection of their prior pushes as they walk down the mountain anticipating the pending push towards a perfected season. The Spurs own their rock. And they pound and push their rock with a purpose.