I think serious sports fans will always remember June of 2014. It will forever be known as the month where a proud, decorated group of athletes from lands far away unified once more to recapture past glory. These proud warriors were all nearing the end of their careers for sure, but the experts predicted that they had one last run in them after the three championships they had earned together. Moreover, their attractive style of play which emphasized quick passing, rapid ball movement, and relying on everyone to score rather than one main star -- it was just too foolproof to fail. They had such depth up and down the squad that there was simply no way that a disappointing performance by one or two individuals would be enough to bring down the team. Led by a loyal but tactically brilliant coach and possessing all the "corporate knowledge" in the world, there was just no way this juggernaut team wouldn't represent themselves well when it mattered.
And then the Spanish soccer team was eliminated after two games in the World Cup. (Yes, the previous paragraph was all about soccer. Don't worry, I'll get to basketball in just a bit.)
Not only did La Furia Roja ("The Red Fury") capture their first World Cup in 2010, but they're the two-time defending champions of the European Championship, a.k.a. "The Euros," (the tougher title to win since there are no easy group games against minnows from Asia or Africa). From 2008-2012 Spain put together a run in international soccer that's been nothing short of a dynasty, and quite a few of the players have been on the squad for all three titles.
Soccer is a young man's game though, and most of those guys were on the wrong side of 30. Iker Casillas allowed a number of bad goals, Sergio Ramos and Gerard Piqué let people get behind them constantly and Xavi could only last one game before bowing out to injury. They lost 5-1 to Netherlands in their first game (the Dutch avenged their loss in the World Cup Final four years ago) and then, more surprisingly, 2-0 to Chile in a do-or-die second game. They left with a bit of pride after beating lowly Australia 3-0 in their group final, but the lads have already flown home to begin their holidays and we haven't even entered the knockout round yet.
I bring up the example of Spain because I see Spurs fans everywhere anxious about whether the team can afford to sign back free agents Boris Diaw and Patty Mills (they can) and whether it's realistic to expect them back (it is). As always, J. Gomez has done a fabulous job of crunching the numbers and doing the serious legwork, leaving me ample opportunity to sit on the couch and watch some futbol.
Still, I can't help but wonder why -- in all the hullabaloo over "can they?" and "will they?" re-sign Diaw and Mills -- that no one has thought to ask, "should they?"
Repeating as champions is incredibly difficult in any sport, as Spurs fans well know. Technically, the closest San Antonio has come to doing it wasn't 2008 (nine postseason wins) but rather 2013. I mean, think about it: The Spurs will go down in history as being five seconds away from winning it all in 2013, and then they did win it in 2014, so doesn't that count as almost repeating? They won 31.98 playoff games in two years. What difference does the order make? They were still two consecutive seasons.
In 2000 the Spurs brought back 10 of their 11 main dudes, with the only castaway being Will Purdue, and they replaced him with a combination of Chucky Brown and Samaki Walker. The conventional wisdom goes that a late-season knee injury to Tim Duncan sabotaged the Spurs' chances of repeating, but come on, that team wasn't very good. They finished 53-29, the second-worst record of the Pop/Duncan Era, and didn't even win their division. All the graybeard role players they brought back, from Mario Elie to Jerome Kersey to Jaren Jackson to Steve Kerr, were awful. That team was basically Duncan, David Robinson and leftover scraps. It's hardly like fate robbed them of a chance to repeat.
The Spurs made wholesale changes in 2004 after dethroning the Shaq/Kobe Lakers three-peat the year prior, but many of their roster decisions were forced upon them. David Robinson, Danny Ferry and Steve Kerr all retired. Steve Smith had shown he had nothing left. They wanted to keep Stephen Jackson, but his agent misread the market and lost a game of chicken with Pop and R.C. Buford. That whole off-season was weird. The Spurs went into it really wanting Jason Kidd and came out of it with Rasho Nesterovic, Robert Horry and Hedo Turkoglu, among other flotsam.
In 2006 they brought back everybody from the third championship winner except for Glenn Robinson, though they did add a pair of former Mavericks in Michael Finley and Nick Van Exel, as well as Argentine big-man Fabricio Oberto. Pop gambled that his center tandem of Nesterovic and Nazr Mohammad would hold up and that Beno Udrih would get over his Finals yips and come back more determined in his second year. By the end he was playing tiny-ball, with both Mohammad and Nesterovic chained to the bench and the broken down Van Excrement supplanting Udrih as Tony Parker's backup. If memory serves, Pop played the quintet of Duncan, Parker, Finley, Bruce Bowen and Manu Ginobili like 45 minutes each in that fateful Game 7 loss to Dallas. He basically turned into Scott Brooks that year.
The 2008 Spurs were the ultimate "we're bringing the band back together" title team. The whole dozen they dressed for every playoff game in 2007 were on the training camp roster next fall, before Pop finally had enough of Udrih and traded him during the preseason. The only additions to the roster were Ime Udoka and Kurt Thomas, whom they acquired mid-season by trading away Brent Barry and Francisco Elson. (Barry was bought out and signed back). Of any Spurs team this was the most similar to the 2014 Heat in that they had the big three -- right down to the star shooting guard who was playing hurt -- and everyone else was old, broken down and completely useless. Horry's playoff PER was 4.4. Finley's was 8.8. Jacque Vaughn's was -2.6, in 91 minutes, which sounds un-possible.
In retrospect, it's remarkable that Duncan, Parker and Ginobili dragged that sorry outfit past the Steve Nash/Amare Stoudemire Suns and a Hornets squad that featured Chris Paul, David West, Tyson Chandler and Peja Stojakovic. By Spurs standards, the 2008 team, which slipped to 28th in the league in scoring after finishing 14th in 2007, was pretty weak.
We see this time and time again across all team sports. I despise the 2002 Anaheim Angels with every fiber of my being for beating the Giants in the World Series. The next season they brought back 24 of 25 guys and finished 63-99.
The Giants finally won it all in 2010 and again in 2012, but felt compelled to re-sign old, injury-prone vets to lavish deals after each title and paid dearly for those mistakes in 2011 and 2013 (and their decision to re-sign Tim Lincecum this off-season isn't looking so smart either).
The 2001-02 Detroit Red Wings were the best hockey team I've ever seen. They had like 10 Hall-of-Famers on the squad, all-time great type guys like Steve Yzerman, Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Chelios, Dominik Hasek, Brett Hull and Luc Robitaille. They were invincible and dominant. The season after they won the Stanley Cup, they brought back everyone but the goalie, Hasek, and were swept in the first round of the playoffs by Anaheim, looking old and feckless.
We know all about Pat Riley's "Disease of More," theory, where he opined in the book "Showtime," that championship teams were vulnerable to the ravages of hubris, arrogance and ego, with everyone wanting more money, more shots, more playing time and more recognition. I don't think the 2014-15 Spurs would really fall victim to that so much, but like ESPN's Bill Simmons referenced in previewing the 2008 season (spoiler alert: he picked the Spurs to repeat), they might fall victim to another one of Riley's theories, from the coach's autobiography "Second Wind."
"It's much harder to keep a championship than to win one ... You can't rely on the same drive that makes people climb mountains for the first time; winning isn't new anymore."
Can you see that happening to the Spurs, just this team-wide exhale and a laissez-faire attitude? Half the team will play international ball, so it's possible that they'll hit the wall physically by the new year and mentally well before then. What will Pop use for to motivate them, or even himself?
The popular theory, given Diaw's history, is that other teams better be wary of signing him to big money because he won't try hard if he's not playing with people he respects. However, can we be certain that staying the Spurs next season will change anything? He'll still be a guy who's gotten the money he was looking for, the ring that's eluded him his whole career, and the respect of his colleagues. Couldn't it be in Diaw's nature to backslide to a passive --emphasis on the pass-- mentality, where people will have to beg him once more to shoot, and his rebounding plummets to Bonneresque levels? My hunch is that the Diaw we saw in 2012 and 2013 is the norm and last season was the anomaly, not the other way around.
And it's not like Diaw was stellar defensively this season. All his numbers in that end were worse than the year before, including in the playoffs. Remember, he wasn't the guy who was shutting down Dirk Nowitzki or LaMarcus Aldridge. Tiago Splitter was. He also wasn't effective at all against LeBron James in the Finals.
Don't get me wrong, Diaw was a huge asset for the Spurs championship run, but it was mostly on offense. Also, he's gonna be 33 by the next postseason. For a guy who struggles to keep his weight down, I'm not sure it's the best idea to re-sign him.
Then there's Mills, where age certainly isn't a problem, but he too has had fitness issues in the past. Even if he's been scared straight in that regard, his shot selection concerns me. Let's face it, Mills was taking pretty much the same shots Gary Neal had for years in San Antonio, these no-conscience, early-in-the-shot-clock threes off the dribble and long pull-up twos. He just made more of them last year. He has a fantastic stroke, but I'm not at all sure those percentages will hold up given the spots on the floor he shoots from. You also have to wonder if Mills can function at all without a Ginobili creating shots for him. As a point guard he's so-so at best and can't really run a pick-and-roll. His slight frame also makes defense a huge challenge.
Would you be at all confident of Mills living up to a four-year, $20 million contract? I need to see him do it one more year before I'm convinced he's not an Australian J.J. Barea.
As beloved as Diaw and Mills are as teammates and as much as I'll always value their contributions to my favorite Spurs team ever, I think getting some new blood might be the best thing for San Antonio next season, if the goal is indeed to win another title. Why not get some people hungry to win their first rings rather than relying on those to repeat what they've already accomplished, and were operating at what was arguably their best-ever level?
I would look to Channing Frye as a possible replacement, or if the Spurs are feeling particularly plucky, why not go after Marcin Gortat, who's only 30, can run a mean pick-and-roll and is a pretty good passer as well? He's already a fan of the offense.
Or they can get really creative and sign Gordon Heyward, 24, to a huge offer sheet and dare the Jazz to match it. Heyward would be a pretty good successor to Ginobili and someone I'd like to see play alongside Leonard for years. Chandler Parsons is another restricted free agent they can do that with, since the Rockets have visions of LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony swimming in their heads anyway.
There's no rule that says the Spurs have to divide their cap money responsibly between two or three guys. They can splurge it just on one guy (Pau Gasol?) and then turn over the backup point guard duties to Cory Joseph, who has paid his dues and deserves a shot. Or they can go after other backup combo guards to replace Mills like Avery Bradley, Kent Bazemore or even Jimmer Fredette. There are possibilities out there, if they want to get creative. At the worst they can ruin the caps of some rivals by signing RFAs to offer sheets.
I won't mind it one bit if the Spurs re-sign Diaw and/or Mills, but it won't be the end of the world if they leave either. Sentiment, chemistry and good memories don't get you very far when you're trying to repeat.