It started with a confession.
Matthew told me in early April that he really didn't think a whole lot about the Spurs' postseason prospects and that if they were to make the Finals, he would probably miss the games anyway because he'd be taking a vacation in Italy in June.
His revelation, that he didn't think much of the Spurs' chances, wasn't much of a surprise. He didn't think they'd win a year ago either, thanks mostly to what seemed in early April of 2007 as inevitable playoff encounters coming up with the Dallas Mavericks and perhaps, if they somehow survived that, the pissed off, revenge hungry, Detroit Pistons; two teams that Powell was certain were better than our 2006-07 edition Spurs.
Last year I laughed him off and told him to have faith.
This April, when he finally got his arms and mind around this gigantic mistake he could be making, a prominent Spurs blogger - maybe the prominent one - missing the Finals live; when with this alarming realization turned itself into guilt ridden words, he said, "Oh my God, I'm not going to be in the United States when the NBA Finals are on."
This time I told him, "It's okay, neither will most of the Spurs."
We laughed and laughed at the futility of it all.
Never, at any point I don't think, did either of us truly believe. The team just didn't feel right. It didn't look right. It didn't, except for the odd moment here and there, play right. There was no evidence of any kind, to support the claim that the Spurs would repeat. In the unforgettably sage words of Matthew Powell, "Old and slow. Old and slow."
Sure, there were times where I thought they fooled us all, that the regular season was one long, 82 game tribute to Mohammad Ali's Rope-a-Dope. The Game 3 detonation at Phoenix. Grinding out that Game 7 at New Orleans.
Being up 65-45 in Game 1 at Los Angeles.
It just wasn't to be.
So the Spurs didn't repeat. With this chance gone by the wayside, it is quite likely that in the Big Three Era the Spurs will never repeat. To this I ask, "So fucking what?"
It never meant anything to me. I question why it would mean anything to anyone. All the repeat stuff was, is, another way for critics to hammer the Spurs about something else besides the usual tired laments about them being boring, dirty, Eurofloppers.
I didn't want the Spurs to win a title any more this season because they won one last season. I will not want any less for them to win one next year. I want them to win every season they play because I am a Spurs fan. The history of the titles, the sequence of them, I couldn't care less about. The only thing thing about repeating that's neat is that this whole year I enjoyed hearing and reading "Defending Champion" and I would've liked to hear and read it again next year. Alas. But I will not think any less of the Spurs now for not repeating and if history does, again, I couldn't care less about that.
Not to sound self-centered or anything, but it's always been about what I think and what they mean to me. The rest doesn't matter.
Now that we've had a little time to grieve and reflect, there are a few of conclusions we must make. It's only fair.
1. John Hollinger isn't a crackpot.
I know it became fashionable among Spurs fans to deride Hollinger for all of his awry predictions, but the guy might be the only objective analyst at ESPN. And he's certainly more objective than us. He doesn't see teams and players. He sees numbers and data points and history. He said the Spurs would have no chance this year because their point differential in the regular season was not that of a championship team. The other analysts agreed with his prediction, even though most of them, if they were to hear the term point differential, would reply, "point diffewhazza?" and have a pungent black smoke coming out of their ears. Last year Hollinger picked the Spurs, who were a 3rd seed then as well, to win the championship and everyone but us scoffed. Why did he pick us? Point differential.
It matters, it just does.
2. This series was lost mere hours, and in the same city, as the last one was won.
Being stuck on that plane killed the Spurs. It sapped their energy, it took away their ability to rest, to recharge their batteries, however briefly, after beating the Hornets. There was a reason the team packed for the L.A. trip before leaving San Antonio for Game 7 at New Orleans. They knew they needed to be as efficient as possible with how they use the time between the two series. They had no margin for error, thanks to the scheduling.
The plane's engine malfunction robbed them of this perfect plan. I suppose it wasn't the worst thing in the world. As I always say during a plane's mechanical delay, it's better to discover it now than when in the air. I think we can all agree that it's easier to get over the Spurs losing a playoff series than suffering the biggest airline tragedy in American professional sports history.
I bet, since it's the Spurs, people would still make jokes about it though.
Anyway, the Spurs had a golden chance to jump on the Lakers, clearly rusty after having been off for so long after beating Utah. San Antonio had a 65-45 lead midway through the 3rd quarter thanks mostly to Tim Duncan's awesomeness and Kobe Bryant's curious decision to come out so passively in the first half. Manu was gimpy as hell, it was obvious, but if we could've just survived the whole game, it could've changed everything. We could've gleefully tanked Game 2 (Manu probably wouldn't have even played) and rested up for the two home games and would've been in the driver's seat to close the thing out in six, just by winning the home games.
Not only would I have been fully on board with sitting Manu for Game 2, but I was all set to unveil a bold plan I thought of if the Spurs won Game 4 and deadlocked the series at 2-2.
I was fully prepared, if the series was 2-2, to go on PtR Tuesday night and suggest that Pop leave Manu, Tim, Tony, and Bruce back in San Antonio and go play Game 5 in L.A. with a skeleton crew. Give the big guys a three day rest I was going to write, and go for broke in Games 6 and 7, just like we did against the Hornets.
I would've been branded an idiot, I'm sure. I would've made Deadspin, for all the wrong reasons, and Truehoop, as well. The site would've gotten a lot of hits, just like it did last year when I suggested we sit Duncan for Game 5 at Phoenix as a show of sportsmanship for the Amare suspension.
Can you imagine the balls that move would've taken? People would've been aghast at the Spurs. Angry. The TV people, the paying fans, Stern, even Phil Jackson and the Lakers. But you know what? The strategy would've been sound. It's not about them. It's about us.
Pop never would've done it anyway. He already told Craig Sager or whoever that he was excited at the thought of going back to LA 2-2 and that a road Game 5 in that situation was his "favorite to coach."
Thoughts about resting your best players in a road game of a best of seven series happen when your role players, your reserves, are older than shit and twice as useless.
3. There was no referee conspiracy this year.
I salute David Stern. Despite the obvious hard-on he and all the other bigwigs had for an LA-Boston Finals, the league and those teams got there legitimately. Never, for one second, did I think the Lakers got the benefit of the calls against us. Maybe they never had to because they never trailed in the series, but still, you have to give the refs the benefit of the doubt from what I saw. We lost fair and square.
Some people will whine about the end of Game 4, but I just don't want to hear it. Brent should've shot it and fallen down the instant Fisher bumped him if he wanted the foul. And it shouldn't have even been our ball in the first place, Fish's shot hit the rim. We all know that. Like I said, we didn't deserve to win. Unless Stern tampered with the plane after Game 7 in the second round, we weren't robbed of anything.
And Joey Crawford called a good game.
4. The Lakers are a worthy champion.
Oh, they're gonna win. You best believe that. There hasn't been a coaching mismatch this big in the Finals since... well last year, I guess. The Lakers are deep, they can play big or small, they can play fast or slow, they can score inside and out, and they have the requisite finisher every team needs. If we had to lose, I'm glad we lost to them. It would've made my stomach turn to lose to Shaq and the whiny bitch Suns. It would've been somewhat undignified and sad to lose to the young pup Hornets and their punk stars. Losing to the Lakers though, it just feels justified. Kobe is a worthy executioner. Sure, I dislike some of their players like Lamar Odom and Jordan Farmar. And Sasha Vujacic is positively a bitch.
Guess what though? I dislike some of our players too.
I've felt, for a while now, that Kobe and LeBron were like Michael Jordan's twin sons, created in his image. They're both very similar. But LeBron, while driven to be the best ever, is positively obsessed about being the wealthiest and most famous NBA player of all time. Kobe, on the other hand, is clearly interested in wealth and fame, but is positively obsessed about being the best player of all time. That's the difference.
5. As good as L.A. was, we would've beaten them with a healthy Manu.
Frankly, this surprised me. I was expecting L.A. to be better. I was expecting their offense to execute better. I was expecting a lot more free throw attempts and a lot more consistency from their role players and Gasol. The Lakers, even in beating us in five games, really didn't play that well.
They played down to our level.
Maybe they're not as good as I thought they were, I don't know. Maybe some of their young guys were nervous.
But yeah, with a healthy Manu, we kill these guys, no question. We win Game 1, we win Game 4, we win Game 5. And even if we win just two of those, well then we'd win Game 6.
Obviously I'm not angry at Manu. Injuries happen. There is no way he'd have been out there if these were regular season games. The regular season games aren't played in a vacuum. The toll they take are cumulative. Manu had to go into Hero Mode about four months early to carry the team in Parker's absence since there was nobody else to do it. The effort, in retrospect, probably took too much out of him.
Again, the real blame has to go to Pop and the front office for surrounding the Big Three with a bunch of horseshit. Horry, Finley and Vaughn were anchors the whole season and their dead weight dragged the Spurs under. The signing of Francisco Elson was a clear mistake and he never developed any consistency or instincts or desire. Damon Stoudamire gave us nothing.
In retrospect, the biggest mistake Pop made - and he'd admit this if he were honest to himself - was not throwing Ian Mahinmi into the fire. He is a talent. He is rapidly improving. There is no way he would've played worse, given consistent minutes, than Elson played. None. Hell, Parker would've probably gotten him three easy dunks a game, just because he's a countryman. What, you think Oberto would be on the roster without Manu?
It's all one big domino effect. If Mahinmi plays more we don't need to trade for Thomas. If we don't need to trade for Thomas, Barry never has to exist in basketball limbo for two months. If Barry is on our roster the whole time, he'd have rehabbed his calf injury with professional trainers and gotten on the court a lot sooner. If he got on the court sooner we'd have won more regular season games, earned a higher seed, rested Manu appropriately, and established some kind of set playoff rotation that featured more Barry, less Finley.
All of these things would've been nice.
Now let me explain how I could've made Jessica Alba my girlfriend...
6. Anyone who blames Manu or thinks less of him is a stupid fucktard.
Seriously, go root for another team. He's done enough already. I don't care whether he makes another shot. He's got lifetime immunity. You hear me? LIFETIME IMMUNITY. I won't ever be upset with him unless he molests my sister, and even then I'd ask her if she was wearing a teasing outfit at the time.
My sister is surprisingly attractive considering she's related to me.
Where was I?
Oh right. Manu.
Look, Manu isn't Jordan. He's not Kobe. He's not LeBron. Rooting for guys like that is unimaginative and frankly, boring. They won the genetic lottery. They're bigger, stronger, faster. Wheee. Root for them and you might as well root for McDonalds and Nike (shockingly companies those guys endorse or have endorsed). You might as well cheer for Team USA in the Olympics against Team Argentina. I have no use at all for people like that.
Manu isn't your favorite player because he's perfect.
He's your favorite because he's not.
He's Rocky. He gets knocked down. He loses. He fails. He occasionally does really stupid shit in really important games.
But he cares. You can see every second he really fucking cares. Even in the regular season when 99% of people affiliated with the NBA, including the fans, don't care, he does.
And every time he gets knocked down, he gets back up. He tries again. He redeems himself. Manu has done more with less than just about any NBA star I can think of. Every season his athleticism diminishes from the year prior and every season he thinks up new ways to kick ass regardless. So what if he shoots so many threes now? If he can do it at a 40% clip, more power to him.
As limited as Manu was, the main reason our season is done is because he didn't have enough role players around him who could knock down wide open jump shots. Even barely able to move, he got far enough into the lane to get guys good looks. He, Tony, and Tim should be able to play with two tree stumps and still crack 90 points a game, but that's how poorly we shot the ball this year. If Ginobili finishes with 9 points and 13 assists as opposed to 9 points and 4 assists, this post would be very different right now.
Ginobili has always been a winner and has always proven the doubters wrong. The day will come when he can no longer do this and he will retire. And we'll still have our game tapes, Youtube, and our memories.
The Spurs gave a noble effort in defending their title and went further towards that cause than ever before. The reason they did so is because of one reason and one reason only, forget all the mumbojumbo about coaching and experience. The reason is this picture:
Whenever I think of the Big Three Era, I'll think of this picture. Of happy times. Of victories. These guys have been successful far more often than not and I very much doubt the Spurs franchise will ever have three players of their quality simultaneously again. They are three of the 25 best in the world. No other team can say that. I repeat, NOBODY. Lamar Odom, Peja Stojakovic, Ray Allen, a Jurassic Shaq; none of them are as good as Tony.
The Big Three are still close enough to their primes that the Spurs will remain viable contenders for the next couple of seasons, at least. I firmly believe that. But they need help. Ian Mahinmi should give us a boost in the middle. He's big, athletic, his offensive game has blossomed in the D-League, and he has some shot blocking instincts. If Pop could just save himself from himself and show some patience with him, he could be a real asset for us.
As could Matt Bonner, if given a real shot. Yeah, he's not a stud defender. Well guess what Pop? Neither were Horry and Finley, but you trusted them with your life. Bonner can knock down open shots, space the floor, grab an occasional rebound, and more importantly, he plays with a spirit the fans respond to. Let him play. The whole year he was just Horry's understudy, always looking over his shoulder, and he always knew that when it mattered Pop would still go with the fossil, just like the Beno-Van Exel situation in 2006. A guy can't play that way. Maybe with no Horry to fall back on, Pop will give Bonner a real chance.
The backup point guard job I'm not worried about. We have that guy on our roster already and his name is Brent Barry. It took Pop about four years to figure this out. Barry is one of the two or three best passers on the team, he doesn't make many mistakes, and the offense responds to him out there. There is no one available in the free agent market who can run an NBA offense for 15 minutes any more capably. If healthy, a backcourt of him and Ginobili are a devastating 2nd unit combination and can shellshock opposing reserves with a flurry of highlight passes and open jumpers.
And Vaughn will still be on hand, assuming he activates his players' option, to play spot minutes against crappy teams or when Brent is hurt or whatever.
I would say perhaps Pop could use the draft to find a rookie point guard that he could play right away, but the very idea of it makes me soil myself with laughter.
There is one piece the team definitely needs to fill externally however. We need to find a young, athletic, starting caliber shooting guard who can drive, shoot, play defense and rebound. A guy who can play 25 quality minutes a night and who can let Manu return to his sixth man role, where he thrives.
The answer, in a word, is Azuibuike.
The answer, in five words, is Kelenna Azuibuike of the Warriors. I saw him play a lot this year and I think he'd be perfect for us. He's 25, he can jump like he's got a rocket up his ass, he can shoot 3s at a respectable clip (36%), and he rebounds very well for a 6'5" guy (over 4 a game in 21 minutes). He was even born in London, so he'd fit in well with the foreign-based Spurs. It is very doubtful the Warriors will be able to retain him because they have to spend all their loot to re-sign Monta Ellis and Andris Biedrins. If the Spurs use their mid-level exception and really blow him away with an offer, Golden State won't match.
I have no idea if this guy is even on the Spurs' radar. But, and I'm not exaggerating here, I will base my opinions of the Spurs off-season solely on whether they signed Azuibuike or not. I think it's that important. We sign this guy, we stay healthy next year, we win another title. You read it here first.
As for me, I'm going to take a few days off and not write for a while. The sports fan in me will never rest though and for now, I must move on to The Next Big Thing, footy. Namely, The Euro 2008. My Turks are in there, you know. I might have mentioned that once or 312 times. I will be up at the crack of dawn (okay 8 a.m., which for me might as well be dawn) to watch the games every day for a solid month. On the days when Turkey plays I will be a raving maniac, whether their journey lasts three games or six.
I encourage all of you to watch because it should be an excellently competitive and passionate tournament. There's only 16 European teams in it, so every game will be a battle and even though Argentina and Brazil (or even, sadly, England) aren't around, in some ways it's better than the World Cup because you don't have all those crap teams from Asia, Africa, and North America that you know have no chance going in.
Not to put too fine of a point on it, but Tony Parker will win an All-Star Weekend's Three Point Shoot Out before Team USA wins a World Cup.
Anyway, I'm realistic. I know my Turks are serious underdogs and it would be an upset for them to even finish second in their group (which has Portugal, host Switzerland, and the Czech Republic in it). But Greece were huge underdogs in 2004 and they won the whole thing, so it's not impossible. Euro tournaments are weird that way.
Me? I'm excited about my homeboys. We've got this 22 year-old midfielder named Mehmet Topal. I know hardly anything about him, except that he enjoys taking long ambitious shots and that he has some flair to him. I know his first name is my middle name. I know his club team, Galatasaray, was the one that my mother's side of the family always rooted for. Like I said, very little.
Still, there's something about this guy, something familiar, that gives me a good feeling about him. I can't explain it.
Anyway, I hope everyone here enjoyed our site and had fun reading all my insanely long ramblings for yet another year. I thank you all for your contributions and comments and compliments. I thank Wayne for his tireless work on the site and I thank Matthew for all that he's done and continues to do for me. All in all, it was a pretty good year.
I haven't decided yet what my role will be on PtR next year and probably won't know until next November. I'll talk it over with Powell, at any rate. More pressing on my mind is whether to use this space for a soccer blog or not. I don't know if there is any demand or interest. I would appreciate if whoever reads this tells me whether they'd like to write about the Euro 2008 or not. If there isn't sufficient interest then I will simply sit and watch the games. I'm good either way.
It ended with a confession.
I have many jobs these days. I have various duties, various tasks to perform, various things to write about, for various rates of pay, ranging from "middling" to "none." The Spurs, and by extension, PtR and SpursDynasty are the only jobs I have that I care about doing as well as I can and is the only one where I berate myself when I feel I've come up short. I don't know why I care so much. I just do.
I used to think that writing about the games would take away some of the thrill, some of the enjoyment out of it. That it would take a hobby and turn it into work.
But I've discovered that the opposite is true. I care more about the Spurs now than I ever have. Writing about them makes me think about them and thinking about them makes me care. I want to make sure everyone here knows how much I appreciate that I have the forum to express my passion for the Spurs.