How the Alamo Was Lost
It looks like the Spurs are on the brink of a bad breakup.
by Dan Ilika
Less than three years ago it wasn’t tough to argue that the San Antonio Spurs were the best team in basketball.
Coming off of a convincing sweep of an undermanned Cleveland team in the Finals to give the team its fourth Larry O’Brien trophy in nine years, the word dynasty was being floated around like Tony Parker’s signature post shot. And why wouldn’t it be?
With the exception of the Lakers’ three championships during the Kobe-Shaq era, no NBA team since Michael Jordan’s Bulls won like the Spurs.
The eclectic mix of savvy veterans and unheralded youth the Spurs’ brass assembled and reassembled each year to fill the gaps around Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Parker seemed to compliment one another to perfection, with guys understanding their roles and playing off each other on both ends of the floor.
In a sports world that’s full of far too many metaphors and clichés, there is no other way to put it: The Spurs were like the perfect relationship. Of course there were the occasional hiccups, but there was happiness, unity and compromise, with guys willing to give up their own for the common good. Sure, they may have been boring to watch, but ask any member of a winning team to describe what it’s like from the inside and the last word you’ll hear is boring.
The Spurs truly possessed the winning formula. One player may be able to will his team to victory during the regular season, but when it comes to the postseason it takes a concerted effort, and the Spurs had just that. The team was a sleeping giant; the ultimate wolf in sheep’s clothing, perennially quiet during the regular season but when the second season rolled around they were ready to dominate.
With Duncan anchoring the middle, Ginobili bringing instant offense and energy off the bench and Parker fresh off a Finals MVP performance that finally established him as an elite point guard in the L, it wasn’t inconceivable to imagine the Spurs winning at least one more title before the decade was over, truly cementing the team’s legacy as a dynasty.
Heading into the ’07 offseason, expectations around the League were relatively unchanged.
With an improving-but-not-quite-there-yet Eastern Conference, all bets were on the ‘Chip landing with a team from the West, and if you wanted to win in the West you would have to make it through the Spurs. Period. That is, until Boston acquired two of the greatest players of this generation in just over a month, shifting the power back to the East. Now it was the Celtics’ Big-Three 2.0 that the money was on, and people everywhere were reflecting on Boston’s glory days as a precursor to the Championship everyone expected them to win. It was a shot to the Spurs more than anyone else, proving that their lateral movement in recent years was easily overshadowed by bigger moves elsewhere.
Look at it as the big fight that started the downhill spiral, only for the Spurs it was like you and your girlfriend hanging out with an old buddy and he spends the whole night talking about all the good times you had with your ex. Your girlfriend isn’t going to say anything while the three of you are out, but you know the drive home is going to be far too quiet, the calm before the storm until you get home and she explodes. It’s not an impossible situation to overcome and make amends, but it hurts. And more importantly, it acts as the beginning of the end. That was the summer of 2007 for the Spurs.
But it was the collateral damage that may have cast the Spurs aside for good.
While the world watched the Celtics storm through the first half of the ’07-08 season with relative ease the Lakers were working desperately to keep Kobe onboard and, on February 1, acquired Pau Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies and in turn transformed all of Spurs coach Gregg Popovich’s dreams into nightmares for the rest of eternity.
Even as we hit the two-year this week anniversary of the trade for Gasol, Popovich still isn’t over it. Sure, his recent revelation that the deal wasn’t as lopsided as it once looked is a step in the grieving process for Pop, but he hasn’t been the same since. And why? Because he understands what it takes to build a champion. He knows it takes more than one guy, and when your other guy is as good as Gasol (not to mention the play of Andrew Bynum) there isn’t much an opposing coach can do aside from trying his best to add more pieces and compete.
To stick with the relationship analogy, it’s like you and your girlfriend going on a break to try and save your relationship but your best friend simultaneously starts dating this great new girl. You’re jealous. You see how happy they are and it kills you. You see what you could have and you want it. You don’t care about what you had with your girlfriend; you know the grass truly is greener. Only there’s a catch: you can’t leave.
Hopes were high in the Alamo heading into the ’09-10 season. Richard Jefferson was meant to be the answer to the big, athletic swingmen that the Spurs would have to face throughout the season in order to vault themselves back to the top of the pack in the West and contend with the likes of the Lakers, Nuggets and Mavs, and Antonio McDyess was expected to provide a veteran presence down low to take some of the pressure off the Big Fundamental. And while the Spurs are on pace to win 50 games this season, things just don’t seem to be working out. While 50 wins would be impressive for most teams, it’s just not the same Spurs team that won four Championships in a span of nine years.
Watching the Spurs this season is like getting back with your girlfriend after the break even when you know it’s hopeless. Sure, there are nights when you feel the sparks of what the two of you once had, but the flame just isn’t there anymore.
Duncan is as consistent as ever and young guys like George Hill and DeJuan Blair have shown plenty of promise, but things just aren’t the same. Some nights Ginobili tears it up and shows the world why he is one of the best sixth men in the game today and other nights he looks disinterested in Popovich’s system, like you growing a beard after being with your girlfriend for so long because you feel like you don’t have to impress her anymore.
Jefferson has been a huge disappointment through the first half of the season, putting up his lowest point, rebound and assist numbers since his rookie year. He needs to have the ball in his hands in order to be effective, and with three other quality scorers on the team he’s just not getting the touches he needs. The proof is in his shooting numbers, where his field goal and three-point percentages are up around his career numbers, but his minutes are at their lowest in eight years. He has yet to break 30 points in a game this season and hasn’t been the player the team expected him to be.
To make matters worse, Parker’s perennial ankle troubles have robbed him of a step or two and have him sidelined while the team struggles to crack the top four in the Conference.
The thing is, it hurts. It’s hard to let go of the past sometimes, but you have to know when to cut your losses. You have been together for 11 years and let’s face it: The glory days are behind you. You can try to salvage what is left, but at the end of the day the relationship is on its last legs. You had a good run, filled with plenty of good times that you can reminisce upon forever, but it looks like it might be time to throw in the towel. Maybe you can hold on for another few years, maybe you can keep trying, but in the end you know it’s over.
No matter how you break it down the team is a shell of its former self. Sure, they’ll make the Playoffs, maybe even carry through to the second round, but it just won’t be the same. After years of sitting atop the NBA’s caste it looks like it may be time say goodbye. It truly is like that long-term relationship we’ve all been in at least once. When times were good they were good, but it’s falling apart and it’s about time to move on.
The love is gone and the NBA is moving on; it’s safe to say the Spurs time on top is finished, too. It was fun while it lasted. Thanks for the memories.