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A farewell to the 2017-18 Spurs

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...and a meditation on best-laid plans.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Detroit Pistons Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

But, Mousie, thou art no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain;
-Robert Burns

On a different timeline, there are the 2017-18 Spurs, still jostling with Golden State and Houston for supremacy in the West. The team, which was eliminated from the playoffs on Tuesday by the defending champs, was meant to bottle up the formula that had them up 25 points on those very Warriors (in Game 1 of 2017), while adding a dose of small ball, with a rehabilitated Rudy Gay and rising Dejounte Murray complementing a switchable core that featured one All-NBA-caliber player, one MVP-caliber player, and another All-Defense-level 3-and-D shooter — a five-man group that never played one minute together.

Suffice to say that things didn’t go as planned. Manu Ginobili wasn’t supposed to be this team’s savior so many times this season. Kyle Anderson wasn’t supposed to be its starter in 67 games. Pau Gasol wasn’t supposed to lead in total assists and LaMarcus Aldridge wasn’t supposed to lead the entire NBA in total post touches. Patty Mills wasn’t supposed to be relied on to consistently create out of the pick-and-roll, Danny Green was probably not supposed to be relied on to create at all, and I definitely wasn’t supposed to write about a 77-year-old pick and roll being one of the team’s more effective plays.

The Spurs still coped with Kawhi Leonard’s injury — and the inertia its ongoing uncertainty caused — but only enough to creep into the playoffs as a seven seed. Pop still painted a masterpiece, but it featured far less of the baroque (courtesy of the ageless Ginobili and occasionally ethereal Anderson) and much more of the grotesque: Green’s plodding dribble drives, Gasol’s shrieking gesticulations, Bryn Forbes’ wrong-footed runners, and a thousand battles ground out in the antediluvian trenches of the low block by Aldridge. Stylistically, aesthetically, and qualitatively, the 2017-18 Spurs will be remembered less for what they were, as for what they could have or should have been.

They were forced to retool on the fly, first as a holding pattern and, as the playoffs neared, as a more firmly defined trajectory. Along the way, they reconciled Kawhi Leonard’s immense void and re-swiveled what was left to complement a completely different type of offensive talent. For months, every piece shifted up or down a position as needed in anticipation of a recalibration — the long-awaited Return from Injury Management — that never came.

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
Gang aft agley,

It was from that aforementioned base that Aldridge reshaped his image from expendable to essential, further tempering a relationship restored between player and coach before the season. He became the fulcrum for the Spurs’ makeshift offense while anchoring a defense that still flirted with being elite despite Leonard’s absence, and his superlative effort through Game 5 of the Warriors series denied naysayers the narrative that he would wilt on that stage.

As if missing his two-way cornerstone wasn’t enough, Pop also limped into the year without his starting playmaker of 16 seasons, eventually handing the keys over to a 21-year-old who excelled in nearly everything that isn’t in the NBA point guard job description. Amid a season of what ifs, Murray’s ascension was a why not move that proved timely and necessary (and fun!), despite the requisite bumps in the process.

You don’t have to look hard for other positives: Tony Parker returned from a career-threatening injury to provide some familiar sparks; Forbes, whose contract has only been guaranteed since January, was fourth (fourth!) on the team in total points through most of the season; Gay’s likely single year fly-over featured some ferocious dunks (some that even went in) as he regained his form; Davis Bertans revelaed a more complete game; even rookie Derrick White was able to show out at times.

And while structure and order have generally been the norm in San Antonio, it is in the absence of those the incomparable Ginobili has continuously shined. Even at 40, the second-oldest player in the league still provided his usual brand of beautiful, opportunistic chaos, lifting the Spurs to a series of emotional wins — including Game 4’s 16-point effort versus Golden State to avert what seemed to be an inevitable sweep. As Game 5 drew to a close, there couldn’t have been a more fitting person to dribble out the Spurs’ season.

When it was all was over, the number 15 (as in, the number of playoff games left to win) remained written on the corner of the whiteboard in the San Antonio locker room, a reminder of the long path the 2017-18 Spurs left unchartered.

An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

Of course, done though this weird Spurs season may be, we are not done with it. There’s plenty to break down and over-analyze and agonize over through the summer, and the unresolved situation with the Spurs’ sidelined superstar will carry over into one of the murkiest offseasons in recent history. There are also decisions from Ginobili, Green, Gay, Anderson and the front office that will shape whatever the 2018-19 version of this team will look like. The content never stops.

The Spurs will look to rebound from this, both with Leonard (and whatever needs mending physically or otherwise), and in the macro sense. Or maybe it’ll happen without him — who knows. Either way, with some better luck with health, and a little PATFO magic, it’s not hard to see the organization redirecting its trajectory back upward. Things just have to go a bit closer to plan.