For some fans in San Antonio, rebuilding is what happens to other teams. ‘We are the Spurs. We don’t rebuild. We pass the torch to another great player and reload.’
Continually being in contention is our manifest destiny. Sure we are a small market team, but we’re different than other small market teams. Greatness is our birthright.
This is not healthy thinking. In fact, it’s magical thinking.
Sooner or later in the Quixotic quest for uninterrupted greatness, a variable enters the equation that derails even the most well thought out plans. The reality is, it is impossible to account for every conceivable contingency, even if you are R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich.
It could be a Za Za Pachulia closeout or, a wildcard, such as an Uncle/Agent Dennis pulling strings from behind the scenes. It could be a yearning to go home or the not so subtle possibility of tampering by a certain team from the West Coast.
Add family and teammates who fuel misunderstandings in as factors. Then, for good measure, add one group of doctors who say the superstar player is ‘medically cleared to play,’ and another group of doctors who gainsay the first group, implying there is a subtle form of medical malpractice at play, coercion in the name of winning. Between ‘medically cleared to play’ and ‘needs months of rehab’ exists a massive gulf.
Add curious timing to the formula. A few days before the draft, when there is much talk of a potential trade, a report states the same athlete is 100% healthy and ready to play ball.
Throw in strong personalities and clumsily handled public statements and then, for good measure, national media information and disinformation on a scale this team has never experienced with any player, over any issue.
Include deafening silence. Double speak. Players only meetings and a visibly frustrated coach plus an absent superstar. To make it even more interesting, add that same athlete saying he wants to stay in San Antonio long-term and then, rumors of the athlete not being wanted around the practice facility as the team tries to surge to get into the playoffs.
‘He is open to staying. Wait a minute. No, he flat out said he doesn’t want to return.
You get the sense that the longer this situation plays out, the more likely it is to become even stranger, if that’s evem possible.
Greatness as birthright is dangerous thinking, particularly in a smaller market. It is dangerous because sooner or later a fan base must come to terms with reality. Just as Father Time is undefeated in taking down great athletes, he’s also undefeated in ending dynasties. The Spurs will not be an exception, because no team can be.
The reality is, most teams do not win championships. Many teams never reach their Conference Finals. Some teams stay in a perpetual loop of rebuilding and building and falling short in their attempt to get into that elite club of serious contenders. And, even when a team does somehow manage to climb high enough to breathe that rare air, the final push to the summit usually coincides with heartache.
Spurs fans understood and experienced this reality in the pre-Duncan/Robinson Era. As talented as those teams were, the Warriors, Suns, Trailblazers, Jazz and Rockets were all puzzles the Spurs couldn’t solve. Yes, even really good teams with a ridiculously good player isn’t always enough.
Only a few teams are truly in the running for a championship in any given year, and of course only one team wins it. A combination of coaching, talent, staying healthy, chemistry, styles and match ups must converge to create that incredible moment when a team hoists the Larry O’Brien Trophy. For that to happen more than once, a greater degree of brilliance and adaptation is required.
For it to repeatedly happen in a smaller market is practically miraculous.
The Spurs twenty-one year playoff streak isn’t just an anomaly, it’s a stupefying anomaly. In fact, the entire history of the Spurs is not ‘normal,’ in the world of sports.
Forty-one years in the N.B.A. and thirty-five winning seasons. If counting the A.B.A. years, the Spurs have had thirty-eight winning seasons in their forty-four years in San Antonio. Throw in five N.B.A. championships for good measure along with six Finals appearances and the knowledge that were it not for Stephen Jackson going off the reservation a few days before the playoffs and an ill-timed, premature roll out of the O’Brien trophy in Miami in 2013, the Spurs would likely have six championships.
Of course there are fans who remember challenging times. There just aren’t many of them.
There are some who remember the 20-62 season in 1996-97. There are fewer still who remember that there was a stretch from 1984-1989 where the Spurs finished 37-45; 41-41; 35-47; 28-54; 31-51 and 21-61.
Six straight seasons of basketball in the mediocre-futility range in which the highlight was going .500 in the ‘88-89 season. San Antonio, that happened here.
For perspective, that stretch of bad basketball, a stretch that is a common and recurring arc for virtually every other team in the league, ended 29 years ago. Twenty-nine years is a very long time and we are, unfortunately, long overdue for another such stretch.
Unless Popovich and Leonard are able to solve this complex problem with so many volatile variables, that run is in danger of coming to an abrupt and unexpected end. A Day of Reckoning is approaching and the shadow of Leonard and Uncle/Agent Dennis looms over it all.
It would be nice to think that all of this could be solved by Pop and Kawhi, but there is likely another variable in this equation that makes the entire thing even more complicated and a good outcome (at least for San Antonio), more improbable. That variable is another city, another team, another person: The Los Angeles Lakers and Magic Johnson.
The news broke that Johnson and the Lakers’ brain trust held an urgent meeting to discuss how vital it was, with the draft and free agency approaching, that they not be seen (again) as tampering. The Lakers have their sights on LeBron, Kawhi and Paul George. It’s not unreasonable to ask, ‘why did it take this long for that meeting to take place?’ because it seems from all of the rumors and statements over the course of the past several months that it is highly probable the Lakers have already had backroom discussions with said players.
The Lakers are on a mission and Johnson and company met to make sure no one messes things up.
You see, the Lakers deserve Leonard, James and George. From a certain perspective, the Lakers should, as a major market team with a storied history, always be contenders. Other teams in smaller markets go through rebuilding and embarrassing basketball for long stretches, not the Lakers. They are long overdue to get back to the head of the league.
With franchises in the balance, and a superstar making a decision, a city and a nation wait to see how the story will come out.