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The Spurs need a new story to tell

A sense of inertia has settled over San Antonio in its first losing season of the century. As the losses pile up, it’s probably time for the league’s most reticent franchise to open up a little.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Sacramento Kings Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs are emerging from the All-Star Break 8 games below .500 and 5 games out of the 8 seed, and most fans aren’t happy. That is, yes, they’re unhappy about the record itself, one that has the team on a rare crash course with the lottery, but they’re also unhappy in a way that’s more vague, neurotic and which takes more time to unpack.

It’s hard to distill the feelings themselves into a handful of words. Everyone comes at these things from different angles, and this is new territory for an entire generation of the team’s most online fans, some who have never experienced missing the postseason. That said, there is a commonality to these gripes as San Antonio plods into the home stretch of the 2019-20 season, with fans struggling as much with how the team is doing as what it’s doing.

At least part of this relates to the perception of coaching and front office missteps, both fair this season. When a team follows up a shaky summer by losing a bunch while staying the course tactically and making no moves at the trade deadline, criticism is warranted. Fans want victory or, in the absence of that, at least an appropriate response to defeat.

Every team goes through those beats, though. Where the Spurs feel especially rudderless to the basketball consumer is in the areas they’ve never needed to pay attention to in the past. Whereas other organizations have had to invest more in spin and subterfuge, in selling fans on a new idea or image, in more transparently demonstrating accountability from player to coach, coach to management, management to ownership, the Spurs have operated differently. The accountability is completely insulated with PATFO, and so is the license to mute injury news, shut down interviews and scrums, and in the least obsequious way possible, give in a little to the public demand for information. It’s an approach that obviously served them splendidly during the Big Three Era, keeping the focus on the on-court product and vacuum-sealing the Spurs’ story into one about winning. Nothing else mattered because, why should it?

When the on-court success dries up, the void swings things the other way. The on-court product remains the story, but now it’s the lack of success, and fans are left searching for that secondary leg to stand on. That becomes especially difficult in what is ultimately a stopgap year, underpinned by few long-term contracts and the possibility that the team’s iconic coach may step away at any point.

The Spurs may not be wired to care about all of that, at least not until the Pop Era is over. If there were a white board at Team HQ with the franchise’s many priorities and to-dos (the big-picture goals, micro tasks and impromptu buyouts that make up their existing organizational profile) there wouldn’t likely be much real estate given to things like transparency, direction or storytelling. This is objectively a good thing, as I can only utter so many marketing buzzwords so many times before turning into a human TED Talk, but there’s also a psychological currency to establishing an, ahem, Identity and Narrative and getting your fanbase behind it.

With the Big Three Era over and its afterglow fading, it’s worth wondering if these deep-rooted norms should be cast aside; how much color those once-superfluous details can now provide. Fans can deal with a few down seasons if they’re accompanied with a new long-term direction and story to get behind, whether that means the team more boldly leaning into youth or finding that next face of the franchise, internally or elsewhere, that fans can invest in.

Or the team can operate as is and simply be elite again. Spurs fans would handle that just fine, too.