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Maybe the Spurs HAVE lost what made them special

A Spurs fan stares into the abyss.

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Whenever a national publication decides to take an analytical look into the Spurs, there’s a tendency to immediately recoil from whatever conclusions they draw. The nerve of some people to parachute into our house and tell us what’s wrong. How could they possibly understand the depth of our process? They don’t know our life.

Jonathan Tjarks at The Ringer published a piece last week with the headline The Spurs Have Lost What Made Them Special. That’s a pretty jarring thing to read for a Spurs fan who’s just logging on to see if the Ringer Staff liked Creed II. Lost what makes them special? That’s so intense. I refused to even click on it at first, figuring that if I ignored it long enough then maybe I could will it out of existence.

Morbid curiosity eventually lured me back though and it was pretty much just as painful as I’d feared. I felt like I was getting a bad report card back or something. There they were, all of my insecurities about this team laid out for all the world to see. It’s one thing for us to complain on here about how the Spurs are playing, but finding out that everyone else is thinking it too is unsettling and it strongly hints towards an idea that I think a lot of us privately worry about deep down in places we don’t talk about at parties.

Who are the Spurs in a post big three era? Maybe we have talent, but are we still relevant? Does anybody care? Do we want the truth?

Things somehow look even more bleak for the Spurs in the almost two weeks since that article was published. They’ve slipped to an 11-12 record and, more troubling, were excessively blown out in consecutive games. It’s not just that they were losing, but how they were losing. They’ve looked overmatched, listless, and out of ideas. Sure, they beat the Trailblazers on Sunday, but it took an epic shooting night (60% from the field and 70% from the three) for San Antonio to overcome a Portland team that’s won one of it’s last six. The optimistic view is that this is a team full of new faces who are learning how to play together and need more time to gel. The pessimistic view is that these Spurs, as currently constructed, are simply not very good.

The truth probably lies somewhere in the murky in between. Even in the best case scenario, they aren’t winning a championship this season and it’s likely that they won’t any time soon. The Spurs are a mid-market team with a collection of capable, quiet players. Game changing free agents aren’t knocking down the door and a big shakeup trade isn’t looming. They aren’t winning and they aren’t tanking. They’re just . . . there . . . existing in the NBA middle class and hoping for a brighter tomorrow.

I wanted to write a rebuttal of that Ringer piece as soon as I read it. I wanted to sit down and fire back with fury. “We can’t hear your snark with all these banners in our ears,” I’d say. I’d break down how, actually, what makes the Spurs special is our institutional fortitude in the face of a league full of conformists. A Popovichian sense of righteousness courses through our veins. I’d calmly explain the 4-D chess we were playing against the rest of the league, how the fact that we aren’t shooting as many threes as everyone wasn’t a knock against us but, actually, an example of how smart we are. We’re not mad at your article Mr. Tjarks, we’re actually laughing.

The words felt hollow though. Each loss seemed to be a showcase for the very weaknesses I wanted to refute. How am I supposed to argue that LaMarcus Aldridge is playing well? He isn’t. How can I argue that the Spurs defense is good enough to compete with the league’s elite teams? It can barely hold up against the Bulls. Regardless of whatever the Spurs might be building towards in the future, the reality is that right now they just don’t matter within the broader context of the NBA.

I think we’re all having to come to grips with that notion. The Spurs weren’t exactly swimming in national notoriety during the championship runs and now that they aren’t willing themselves into the conversation with their on-court product, maybe everyone’s going to just forget we’re even here.

If a mid-range jumper falls in a forest and no one is around to see it, do the points still count?

I keep coming back to that headline though, The Spurs Have Lost What Makes Them Special. Why did that piss me off so much and why am I still thinking about it two weeks later?

I think it made me feel dumb for caring, for investing my time in a collapsing enterprise. It’s embarrassing getting all worked up about a random regular season loss that ultimately won’t have any affect on anything important. You spend enough time ranting about a sub-par basketball team and you start to feel like that wrestling fan, crying in the stands and shouting, “It’s still real to me dammit!”

The Spurs are still special to me. I think that’s where all this angst comes from. I’m going to keep watching and keep caring and keep getting mad when Patty Mills can’t figure out how to rotate on defense. It’s certainly more fun than being apathetic and, as frustrating as these past two seasons have been, I think it might ultimately be a positive thing for Spurs fans to have to reckon with the abyss. Maybe it will give us a new perspective. Maybe it will make us better fans. Enjoying this team shouldn’t have to be some binary win-loss equation. It can be complicated and messy and silly and fun. The Spurs are our team and we can care about them however we want.

The truth is that LaMarcus’s shooting percentage is never what made the Spurs special. It wasn’t Kawhi’s defensive excellence either. Nor was it Manu throwing passes between a dude’s legs or Tony pirouetting in the lane. It wasn’t even Tim Duncan exuding greatness every time he touched the floor. The Spurs are special because we care about them.

I know they haven’t lost that.