As the most unique season in recent Spurs history gets close to the end, it’s impossible not to compare it to others. For decades San Antonio was a postseason staple and a regular championship contender. Even in the last few years they were at least play-in hopefuls. Now, the lottery is more important than any game.
It’s clear that the front office made the right decision by choosing to bottom out and build through the draft, but it has resulted in a complete shift in how Spurs fans experience the NBA, which has offered a completely new perspective.
It starts with the most obvious things. The playoffs will start soon, but the Spurs were never in the running to make them despite a surprisingly strong start. Award season is upon us, but no one on San Antonio’s roster will get consideration for any of the main distinctions. The discussions about the best player in the league and who will win it all seem foreign to the franchise for now. Even the games have to be looked through the lens of development and not wins and losses. With the Hornets unlikely to out-tank the Spurs at this point and the lottery odds for the three worst teams flattened, there’s not really a lot left to be decided. What used to be the most interesting stretch of the season is now more of a formality than anything else.
There has also been a shift in focus on what’s considered direct competition. For example, the Suns are likely to make a deep playoff rung, but does it really matter that Kevin Durant has joined Devin Booker and Chris Paul in Phoenix? Durant is 34 years old. Chris Paul 37. Even under the most optimistic projections, San Antonio will not be a contender for a couple of years even if everything goes well. Paul will almost surely be retired and Durant’s career will be winding down. There was a time when any big move made by a western team either threatened San Antonio’s supremacy in the conference, so it made sense to be worried at the moment. Now? Not so much.
Instead, the eyes have shifted to the other young teams. For Spurs fans and the franchise in general, it’s more important to monitor what happens with Utah or Memphis than what happens with the Bucks. Because of the Dejounte Murray trade, the fate of the Hawks has the potential to affect San Antonio’s, so every piece of news about dysfunction in Atlanta is more interesting than whatever happens to old foes like the Lakers. In terms of in-state rivalries, the Rockets are now closer to the same stage as the Spurs in their own rebuild, so they are a better measuring stick than the competent but stagnated Mavericks. Things are different now.
Even this Spurs’ roster can feel too fleeting to fully get invested in it. Half of the players currently wearing Silver and Black will probably be gone soon. Even the ones who are safe for now could be on the move in the near future if that’s what it takes for the team to be in a better position, just like it happened with Derrick White and Dejounte Murray. It’s understandable to want to believe that, say, Devin Vassell will spend his entire career in San Antonio, but at this point it’s hard to be sure of anything.
The upside of all of these changes in how Spurs fans see the team and the NBA is that now that the expectations are low, it’s simply easier to enjoy the little things. A role player doesn’t need to be the missing piece anymore. He can just be someone fun to root for. Keldon Johnson, Vassell and Jeremy Sochan don’t need to be the new Big Three. They can just grow and develop and eventually take on a different role than the ones they currently have. Now that the team is going in this direction, the question of who will succeed Pop becomes less pressing and we can all just focus on enjoying a living legend while he still roams the sidelines.
The adjustment hasn’t been easy, but with time and some luck, the Spurs should be back to where they were for a long time in terms of competitiveness. A good pick in the upcoming draft, some internal development and a couple of good signings and San Antonio could be in the playoff mix sooner than expected with a fun young core and a lot of room to grow.
It’s understandable to look forward to those days that should be ahead but, as tough as it was at times, this season should be appreciated as well. The hardships it presented have given the fans of one of the most successful franchises of the past 25 years a new appreciation for what happened in the past and a new way to look at their team and the league and should make the eventual return to relevance much sweeter.