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The Problem with the Spurs

The Spurs were immediately placed on my mental back burner the minute I finished writing the recap of game 5 against the Lakers. After coming back from Italy I found myself with what I believe is called “free time,” and my mind drifted back to the fact that the Spurs haven’t been quite right since the 05-06 season, the year of the infamous Manu Ginobili foul. We all remember that moment and, thanks to Gregg Popovich, we know that if it weren’t for that foul the Spurs would have repeated as champions and gas would still be less than $2 per gallon. The nagging question looping the recesses of my brain was how to illustrate exactly what is wrong the Spurs… and it came to me. Not all of the sudden. Not in a flash of light. I was thinking about something I wrote in my journal (shut up) while in Italy


There’s a wasted life in the difference between striving for perfection and accepting nothing less."

The lesser point of that statement is that a small change in wording, thinking or acting can have big repercussions.


Do you agree with the following statement?

The Spurs lost the WCF because Manu Ginobili was hurt.

I have a feeling most Spurs fans and Spurs management would agree with that statement. That agreement is a symptom of the disease plaguing the Spurs. The problem is not that the statement is false; the problem is what it implies. It implies, similarly to Popovich’s numerous statements about the ’06 Dallas series, that the Spurs would have won if it not for one bad break. That leads to the conclusion that there was only one variable controlling the Spurs fate; one flip of the coin. It’s saying the odds of coming up heads four times in a row is one out of two, because you’re assuming the first three events turned in your favor. The reality is that the Spurs lost to the Lakers because any one of the following four things happened:

  1. Tim Duncan was less than 90%.
  2. Manu Ginobili was less than 90%.
  3. Tony Parker was less than 80%.
  4. Bruce Bowen was less than 90%.

Any one of these events would have led to a Spurs loss against the Lakers (to argue otherwise is sheer ignorant idyllic idiocy). The Ginobili injury just happened to be the obvious flip of the coin that turned up tails.

You could take any NBA championship contender and pick one player they could not win without. The Lakers have Kobe, New Orleans has Paul, the Celts have Pierce, etc. But could you pick four different lynch-pins for any of those teams? You can’t. The Lakers were without Bynum and made it to the finals. Ray Allen played horrifically against the Cavaliers and the Pistons and Boston still came out victorious.

The Spurs did not lose because Manu Ginobili got hurt. The Spurs lost because any of four different, independent events happened. They had zero margin for random events, and this is entirely the fault of management.


The Spurs mistake has been their focus on finding “veteran role-players.” Every player addition has been evaluated in the context of the Big Three and “fitting into the scheme.” You may be thinking “Wait a second, that’s how it’s supposed to be done.” Really? Look at what that got us:

Michael Finley
Brent Barry
Bruce Bowen
Ime Udoka
Fabricio Oberto
Matt Bonner
Kurt Thomas
Jacque Vaughn
Robert Horry

Look at those guys a group. Remove the context of Duncan, Ginobili and Parker. Pretend you’re starting a team with those nine guys. Who has a one on one game? Who can penetrate? Who has a post game? Who do you run the offense through? Who rebounds? Who’s the interior presence? Now pick any other team in the NBA, and look at their worst nine players. Try to find a group worse than the Spurs. It’s impossible to do amongst the playoff teams, and amongst non-playoff teams there are few, if any, obvious choices.

The supporting cast surrounding the Big Three is atrocious. To say otherwise requires one to focus solely on how good they look playing next to Tim, Manu and Tony. That futility and stupidity of that narrow-minded focus is laid bare by the realization of what, apparently, is a secret:

Every one looks good playing next to the Big Three. (Except the Collective Detritus that is Robert Horry.)

They are by far the least selfish core in the NBA. They play both ends of the court. They say the right things. They don’t show up their teammates or coach on the court or to the media. They can create their own shot and create shots for others.

Their diverse abilities, along with Pop’s stubbornness and his refusal to put with mistakes made by someone under the age of 30, have led to a focus on finding the smallest of pieces. They have acquired players who “play the right way” or “play hard-nosed defense” or “do all the little things.” When, instead, they should have simply gone after “good” players who, when called upon, can attempt to do the “bigger things” that have to be done when Manu / Tim / Tony gets dinged or the likes of Ray Allen has a bad stretch of games.


What frustrates me most about Spurs fans is that they evaluate the management in the same way they evaluate the players.

In some respects I can understand refusing to admit just how horrible Michael Finley has become; pretty much all of us wanted to be an NBA player at one time or another. Idolization of athletes, and ignoring their failures and faults, is no new thing. (Not to mention criticism of any kind is getting discouraged more and more in every aspect of media.) We look at the success of the Spurs, and we attribute some of the credit for that success to each member of the team. We believe a team is a sum of its parts, but we ignore that some of those parts can be negative. In the context of the Big Three, Michael Finley is a winner. In the context of an average NBA team, he’s a waste of minutes.

What surprises me is that Spurs fans so willingly apply the same context to Spurs management. The Spurs have won three titles in six years, so Pop must be a great coach and Buford must be a genius. Give me a break. I’m not saying Pop is a bad coach, but he’s been blessed with Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. Have the Spurs ever won a title they shouldn’t have? Have they ever beaten a clearly superior team? Have they ever pulled an upset? Have they ever won when any of the Big Three suffered even the most minor of injuries? Have the Spurs developed a single young player other than Tony Parker? How hard is it to have a great defensive team when you have Tim Duncan guarding the basket?

Buford and Pop should be run up the freaking flag pole for their performance this past year. Pop dicked around with lineups / game plans / time out calling / substitution patterns all year, openly admitting he didn’t care about home court advantage. Well, hmm, that might have come in handy against New Orleans. Maybe that series wouldn’t have gone 7 games. Or maybe when the plane couldn’t take off after game 7 the Spurs could have driven home and slept in their beds. Am I blaming Pop for a plane malfunction? No. I’m blaming him for ignoring the precariousness of the Spurs chances and undervaluing home court advantage for a group of old, slow players.

Pop spent the first 50+ games of the season with the JV as his backup. Stoudemire is acquired, given 15 games and then essentially kicked to the curb. The playoffs arrive and, wow, what a shocker, the JV is a total zero on offense, to the point Barry is thrust into PG duty despite having played about 5 minutes there all year. Do I blame Pop for the JV sucking? No. I blame him for ignoring the suckage and therefore not playing Barry / Ginobili as the backup PG all year.

(And that, my friends, is the short list of Pop's blunders.)

Buford hasn’t been any better. We haven’t drafted a useful player since Beno. Scola was given away when he’d clearly be the second best big man on the Spurs. Butler, Elson and Bonner contributed nothing to very little.


I see little reason to hope the Spurs will be any better next year. That is not to say the Spurs won’t be good enough. They’ll just be in the same position as 07-08: helpless if anything goes wrong. The writing, after all, is on the wall:

"The ‘getting younger’ thing is overblown," Popovich added. "If we knew Manu would stay healthy, Timmy (Duncan) would stay healthy and Tony (Parker) would stay healthy, we’d bring back the same doggone team. And if any of those guys are not healthy, we’re not going to win a championship anyway."

Translation? Three studs and a bunch of suck.