The Spurs Problem

Tom Scharpling hates the San Antonio Spurs and he doesn't care who knows.
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Photo via Wikimedia Commons

With the Spurs barreling into the second round after a painless sweep of the Jazz, I am once again forced to confront what the horror of another San Antonio championship would mean. Why am I so anti-Spurs? The 2012 iteration contains everything I should by all rights love about a basketball team: a solid mix of vets and role players all living on the same page, a coach who has become the Ron Swanson of the NBA (try not to smile as he deliberately submarines a mid-game interview), and a front office dedicated to winning titles. So why is it that the San Antonio Spurs bug the shit out of me?

The odd thing is that the Spurs were never one of the teams I disliked throughout my life. There are teams I am hardwired to love (the Knicks), teams that occupy a soft spot in my heart (the Nuggets, Cavs, and Kings), teams I’ve always felt sorry for (the Nets, Hawks, Wizards, and Blazers), and teams that I just can’t root for (the Jazz, Celtics, and any of the squads that routinely beat up the Knicks throughout the whole of my life).

I’ve always been cool with San Antonio because they were one of the four ABA refugees, all of which were marked for different strains of post-merger failure and frustration for all eternity. I felt sorry for them. This is the team of Lloyd Daniels and Dennis Rodman and Alvin Robertson, and until the arrival of Tim Duncan their greatest franchise player was George Gervin, the patron saint of glorious frustration. They were the team that would never put it together, but that was their allure. That had ABA blood coursing through their veins! They were beautiful losers, damnit! Even good things went bad for them—they’re the team that turned an MVP year for Robinson into fuel for a rampaging Olajuwon.

Remember the 1996-97 Spurs? Robinson was sidelined with a fractured foot and Coach Pop took the coaching reins from the eternally beleaguered Bob Hill so he could navigate the team through one of the biggest tank jobs in NBA history. For his sins—a ninety-year-old Dominique Wilkins was the team’s top scorer that year! Greg “Cadillac” Anderson was a starter!—he won the Tim Duncan Sweepstakes. (To be fair the Spurs tank job was actually the second biggest in league history, paling in comparison to the Boston Celtics that same season. Bring back M.L. Carr!) And within two years the snake-bitten franchise began acquiring titles every few years. Not coincidentally, that’s when the team became a fucking snooze, like a dry-drunk friend who swapped out getting loaded for collecting stamps. I get why you cleaned up your act, but did you have to go that far?

I know that the boring tag is supposedly a by-product of the team being ‘a bunch of good guys.’ But are they really good guys? The team that once brought Rodman aboard to be the resident Bad Guy in a chorus of angels eventually devolved into welcoming creeps like Bruce Bowen and Robert Horry into the fold. Remember Bowen’s chest-stomp on Chris Paul or Horry effectively taking a championship ring off Steve Nash’s finger with his still-shocking board check? But somehow they skated away from being labeled the Southwestern Jailblazers, which is a credit to the long arms of Duncan, who plays the Jeter-ized media zombie routine to the hilt but is by many accounts a seriously funny guy, changing the narrative. They’re boring, and those plays weren’t DIRTY—it was just Guys Wanting To Win! It’s a construct so sneaky and two-faced you’d almost think the team was being coached by a guy who seriously considered a career in the CIA.

But winning is winning and the Spurs have won it all four times. They’ve got their sights set on another championship this year, and it will be interesting to see if they can pull it off before the Thunder (and maybe the Clippers) take over the Western Conference. If they do, it will be ‘Tony’s team,’ the drum that Spurs fans have been beating all year. Yes, Parker is in charge and it’s undeniable that they’re playing a faster-paced game this year. (Could they have possibly played a slower one than the one they’ve been punishing us with for years?) Whether or not they outrun time this year, time will eventually run out. No matter how ingeniously Popovich controls Duncan’s minutes, no matter how many times Manu Ginobili picks himself up after another injury, it will run out.

And that’s when it’s going to get interesting. Suddenly the notion of ‘Tony’s team’ won’t hold as much water without the best power forward in league history filling up the lane and Tony’s team will look a whole lot more like the 2009 Hornets than anything. When the Big Man goes, the System goes with it. Popovich won’t be able to run his team like the NBA’s version of the NFL—no more neutralizing top shelf weirdos like Boris Diaw and Stephen Jackson!—and he’ll be one willfull player away from taking the Big Fall (see: Sloan, Jerry).

After it all falls apart, the Spurs will be forced to become something else. Who knows what the future holds; maybe they’ll pull another tank job in 2014 and land another number one pick, keeping their reign of terror alive indefinitely. But it’s much more likely that they’ll become human for the first time in almost two decades. And while they might not win as much, I’ll certainly cheer for them a lot more.

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