As the Spurs get ready to defend their 2014 title and try to repeat for the first time in franchise history I find myself feeling --and I promise you that this notion will seem completely ridiculous to me when the daily grind sets in-- that the idea of a fresh, new 82-game season seems absurdly truncated, like something that should only happen because of a labor dispute of some kind.
In truth the past three seasons all kind of blend together for me, like the first Star Wars trilogy. Sure, there were separate films, and technically the second, most depressing one, will always be the most interesting no matter how much we wish it wasn't, but the resolution in the end would seem cheesy and hokey if not for struggles that came before. I'm finding it very difficult to differentiate individual games and moments now, I tend to look at look at it as all one continuous story, a destiny that was written all along with one event just begetting another begetting another and so on.
I suppose, as hacky as it sounds, that makes Kawhi Leonard the team's Luke Skywalker and that LeBron James was his... okay so clearly this analogy needs some work. It's not important.
The point is that as wondrous as the Spurs looked from late February on last season, hitting a sustained run of basketball utopia (something I like to call "Neo-ball") that you usually see on YouTube clips, only they pulled it for the entire month of March and then again for sizable stretches of the playoffs, culminating in Games 3-5 against the overwhelmed Heat, it was a process three years in the making.
The sudden, shocking end of their 2012 campaign ignited a defensive focus in the club, which necessitated increasing the roles of three young defensive prodigies in Leonard, Danny Green and Tiago Splitter. The heartbreak against Miami reinforced the idea that the team needed to be deeper one through ten, which not only required a more serious physical commitment from Patty Mills and Boris Diaw, but also the signing of Marco Belinelli.
But really the Spurs needed the two things they've always needed: Well-timed health and the carrot to chase. For whatever reason, throughout the Tim Duncan/Gregg Popovich era they've always enjoyed far more injury luck when they were the hunters rather than the hunted. That's not to say the Spurs didn't have to deal with injuries last year. That wasn't the case by a long shot, especially during the middle of the season when practically every wing on the roster went down simultaneously, but once the playoffs rolled around everybody was able to suit up and play. Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Patty Mills all dealt with nagging issues (the latter two are suffering the consequences to this day), but they didn't face anything as disastrous as what befell Duncan in 2000 or Ginobili in... oh, take your pick from 2008-2011.
For two straight seasons the Spurs have reaped the benefits of pretty unexpected injury luck and it stands to reason, especially with everyone involved another year older, that eventually the luck will run out on them, that one day their bodies will be if not too old, then at least too brittle.
What's clear is that on paper the Spurs have no equals. There's too much "corporate knowledge" and talent. And now they actually have not just a theoretical ideal but actual real life proof of what they're capable of as a fully operational battle station. (I swear I had no idea this was going to be a theme -- it's like this thing just has a mind of its own.)
The Spurs' "A game" is higher than anyone else's, even though the margin of error isn't necessarily as wide as fans like to think. There are literally thousands of ways to throw a monkey wrench into this great machine and the butterfly effect is definitely more in play than we wish it was. One little tweak can set off a chain of dominoes and before you know it you're starting Jeff Ayres in a playoff game, or worse, spending far more attention on the draft lottery than you'd ever imagined. (They're still in the Western Conference, after all.)
The questions are obvious. How long will it take Mills to return and can he return to last year's form when he does? Did Ginobili extinguish every last drop of his magic for one final playoff run last year or does he still have something left? Will Boris Diaw be as motivated now that he's got his contract? Will Matt Bonner ever find that elusive perfect sandwich spot?
For the record I'm predicting drop-offs in form from Ginobili, Mills and Diaw and career-best seasons from Green, Joseph and Belinelli. Duncan will still be Duncan when we're all dead and buried. I'm actually expecting a spot of contribution from Ayres in year two, and I wouldn't be at all shocked if Kyle Anderson finds himself in the rotation. Offensively, he's far more developed than Leonard was as a rookie. The problem is the other end of the floor, where he looks like a less athletic Austin Daye.
Of course the most fascinating day-to-day story will be Leonard, the fellow who'll have the least to say. His camp is angling for a max contract, as well they should. I don't necessarily think he's shown yet that he's a max player, but plenty of lesser guys have signed those type of deals so it's all about what the market dictates. The early signs Leonard showed in camp, before he contracted a nasty eye infection in Germany, was that he is very much intent on expanding his offensive role this season and proving his worth, though maybe not exactly in the manner PATFO may prefer. He's spent the summer perfecting a Kobe Bryant-esque turnaround baseline jumper and just that comparison should be enough to send chills down your spine. Young Leonard didn't appear at all gun shy early on in camp and you have to wonder if he'll be seduced by the power of the dark side (okay, last one I promise).
It promises to be a compelling game-by-game balancing act for Pop, his new assistant coaches and the players. They'll have to find the happy medium of relying on Leonard's progression and expanded role without being utterly dependent on it to the point of getting diminishing returns both from him and everyone else. This is still the Spurs we're talking about here and the idea is for the ball to not stick, regardless of who's holding it.
I just think that their three-act epic was so perfectly constructed, so beautifully executed in every way with a resolution that couldn't have been more cathartic or satisfying, that now, looking back on it, I wouldn't change a thing. To ask for more, after all this, feels akin to complaining that Scarlett Johansson doesn't have a twin sister.
My gut is telling me there won't be a repeat. Maybe there will be some injury or maybe they just won't be able to recapture their formula. Or maybe another team will be better, but it's just too hard to hold on to perfection. It's like trying to keep sand in your grasp. Grain by grain, it slips through your fingers.
Whatever happens, don't ever take the wins or those who achieved them for granted, don't ever let the present taint the past and don't ever resent them if they wind up abjectly humiliating themselves by only finishing as the third-best basketball team on the planet this season instead of the best. Enjoy the season, the highs and lows, with a sense of perspective and appreciation. Don't be that fan.
Besides, if there's one lesson to take away from that first Star Wars trilogy, it's that more isn't necessarily better.