The Spurs lost another game the other night. This is happening with an alarming degree of frequency this season and I find myself oddly at peace with it. Maybe it's because I've chosen to distance myself from it somewhat since I cover the team now, but I think more so it has to do with the fact that I was sincere when I told JRW last year that I just wanted them to win one more championship and I'd be sated. Just one more and they could go 0-820 the next decade for all I cared. I would be the proverbial gambler who left the table while I was ahead.
I gauge the reactions of Spurs followers online though, both the fans and the bloggers/media types, and y'all seem to be in various stages of grief as prescribed by the Kübler-Ross model.
1. Denial -- "They've had some injuries and bad luck and are just going through a slump right now. A lot of their advance metrics are still pretty strong and their corporate knowledge will help them when it matters. They're going to be a tough out for anyone even if they don't have home court. Remember the 1995 Rockets!"
2. Anger -- "We've seen this a thousand times before, everybody wants to bury the Spurs. They've been called too old and slow for a decade! All the national media are morons! All we need is for Tony Parker to pull his head out of his nether regions and we'll be fine. Also, if Boris Diaw could stop eating for three minutes and actually try out there, it'd be swell."
3. Bargaining -- "C'mon just let them repeat one time and I promise I'll be totally cool with Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili retiring then and there. I won't ask for anything else. Heck, Parker can join them.
4. Depression -- "This is the saddest thing I've ever watched. No other basketball fan can possibly understand our pain. The league will probably strip our last championship away, saying we're so bad now that the last one had to have been PED-related. We'd probably lose to Kentucky or even the Knicks."
5. Acceptance -- "Well, they had a good run. Every dynasty must end sometime. We were ridiculously lucky to have people like Tim, Manu, Tony and Pop in our lives."
Obviously I'm in level five. In fact I might have transcended level five altogether and gone on to level six, "condescending detachment," but that's more because I'm a jerk than anything else. If most of you are still on level one or two, that's fine. It's a free planet, mostly.
The thing I would like Spurs fans to understand is that however disappointed or angry you might feel about their play this season, they've earned the right to be bad in my book. They always talk about reaching the mountaintop and being the last team standing, and while they accomplished that goal in June of 2014, it was more like a four year process to get there.
I can't be the only one who remembers the dire straights this team was in back in 2010. They won 50 games on the nose and entered the playoffs as a seventh seed. Duncan looked mummified. Parker missed a big chunk of the year with injuries and looked decidedly out of shape to the point where many Spurs fans were clamoring for him to be traded in the off-season and for George Hill to take over as starting point guard. (I believe PATFO looked into it and determined they couldn't get a high enough draft pick to make such a deal worthwhile for them.) The Spurs upset a flawed Mavs team in the first round but were swept aside by the Suns in the conference semis, looking absolutely helpless against the Steve Nash-Amare Stoudemire pick-and-roll and Phoenix's superior bench, including one Goran Dragic.
Everyone wrote the Spurs off then. Duncan looked ready to be put out to pasture. Richard Jefferson looked like a total bust of a trade. Parker never became the full-fledged superstar he was supposed to be. All was lost, all was lost.
But an odd thing happened in 2010-11. The Spurs, who spent the better part of the previous decade tormenting the Suns, decided to emulate them after the previous postseason's embarrassment. They didn't dramatically overhaul the roster, just replaced Keith Bogans with rookie Gary Neal while giving minor roles to a couple other youngsters named Danny Green and Tiago Splitter. The only noticeable change they made was in handing the reins over to Parker and Ginobili, ramping up the pace and using a motion offense similar to the one implemented by Mike D'Antoni. The Spurs blitzed the league from the get go, enjoying healthy, productive seasons from Parker and Ginobili and threatening the 72-win mark of the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls for much of the year. But they petered out down the stretch, and were doomed when Ginobili broke his right arm on the last game of season. They wound up losing in the opening round of the playoffs, victims of a bad match-up with the Memphis Grizzlies, with Zach Randolph having the series of his life. All was lost, all was lost.
The next year the Spurs had the lockout to overcome in addition to their opponents, squeezing 66 games into four months, with back-to-back-to-backs and five games in six nights stretches on the schedule. A draft day trade of Hill produced a long-limbed three-man at last in Kawhi Leonard, but Jefferson's perpetual softness was still a drain on the roster. It was only when Jefferson was jettisoned for Stephen Jackson that the team really found their swag, and they were further buoyed by a couple of scrap heap signings in Boris Diaw and Patty Mills. At last, the Spurs had the kind of bench to wreck teams with. They ended the season on a tear, winning ten straight, finishing a league-best 50-16 and then rolling off ten more consecutively in the playoffs before the young talent of Oklahoma City overwhelmed them in the conference finals. The Spurs announced to the world they were legitimate contenders once more ... but still all was lost, all was lost.
In 2012-13 Parker was a beast and Leonard, Green and Splitter all made huge strides. The Spurs finally put together a bona fide defense to go with their pass-happy, three-point bombing offense. Jackson was either hurt or a malcontent for most of the year and had to be cast aside, and Ginobili dealt with hamstring injuries much of the year, but otherwise the Spurs were one big happy family, and a team on a mission, looking to avenge getting bushwhacked by the upstart Thunder. But Russell Westbrook wound up hurting his knee in the first round, so the Spurs had to settle for evening the score against the Grizzlies instead, sweeping them in the conference finals and losing only two games on their way to capturing the west. For the first time since 2007, the Spurs had returned to the Finals. They looked much the better team against Miami for most of the series, and had a 3-2 series lead and were up five with 28 seconds to go in Game 6. But it wasn't to be. All was lost, all was lost.
And that nightmare fueled their magical 2014 campaign. There were injuries galore for the first four months, but Duncan, Mills and newcomer Marco Belinelli helped them win all the games against non-elite competition and once everyone returned to the fold the Spurs were unstoppable, playing not only with energy and focus, but with a decided edge at times. They announced to the world they meant business when they routed Miami in a nationally-televised Sunday afternoon rematch in March and finished with the best record in the league again, at 62-20. A first-round series against Dallas went the limit, perhaps because the Mavericks were the only other squad in the league where every man in their rotation was a threat to score. They easily mowed down the Blazers in round two and then survived their toughest test against the Thunder, winning all their home games with ease but needing some heroics from Duncan, Ginobili and Leonard to overcome them on the road at last in overtime of Game 6. That was the real finals. The Spurs were so locked in against a broken down Miami team that had LeBron James but not much else that it was fait accompli. It took five games, but each of the Spurs' four wins was by at least 15 points. At long last, they were able to raise the Larry O'Brien trophy and add a fifth banner to the rafters.
So think about all that the next time you feel angry or depressed about the Spurs. They didn't sprint up that mountain. It took four long (at times agonizing) years to build this, seasons that had moments of elation but also tremendous heartbreak. Each year they fell short the Spurs learned some lessons and carried even more motivation with them for the following season. Now that they finally scaled the mountain, can you blame them for not having that drive anymore, for not having that edge? I sure can't.
The players tell themselves they're just as determined, just as motivated, that they want it just as bad, but they're probably lying to themselves. It's plain to see they don't have that same edge. They're not sticking their noses into traffic going after loose balls, they're skipping steps on both ends and just not competing hard enough anymore. They look like a bunch of guys who have settled.
Or maybe, as in the cases of Ginobili and Parker, they just have nothing more left to give.