Stephen Jackson expressed the sentiment of every Spurs fan in two simple words: “It sucks,” the well-traveled veteran and Spurs shooting guard said after the Oklahoma City Thunder improbably won four straight games in the NBA Western Conference Finals, as Marc Stein of ESPN reported.
How improbably? According to the statistics site Who Wins, NBA teams taking a 2-0 lead in a best-of-seven playoff series had an all-time series record of 226-14. The Spurs had won twenty straight games, including ten in the playoffs. And as John Hollinger, also of ESPN, noted (paywall), the Spurs had only lost three times all season with a full and healthy line-up, which they had during these playoffs.
So now it’s been five years without a championship for Tim Duncan and company, the longest that the franchise has been ringless since the period between joining the NBA in 1976 and winning its first title in 1999, Duncan’s second season. Riverwalk parades in 2003, 2005, and 2007 followed.
So what now? With the young Thunder ahead of them, the L.A. Clippers on the rise and the Mavericks ready to retool, can the Spurs keep doing it with the same core of TD, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker that they’ve had for more than a decade? Some pundits have come out with the eulogies, while others are more optimistic.
First, the glass half-empty crowd.
“It’s become cliche to declare every Spurs’ run that doesn’t end with a championship The End,” wrote Paul Weber of the Associated Press, and Buck Harvey of the San Antonio Express-News was happy to oblige him.
“This was the Spurs’ best and maybe last chance,” Harvey wrote without elaboration in his post-game column (though to be fair, anyone who shares in that opinion doesn’t need it).
“It’s hard because this year felt like the Spurs last run at it,” wrote Kurt Hellin NBC Sports’ Pro Basketball Talk, who at least went on to make the case:
They may bring everyone back, but that will not be enough anymore. Health alone will not be enough. The Spurs needed everything to go just right to have a shot this season — and they got it. The breaks went their way. Last year it was clear how much they missed Ginobili, this year he was there. Parker was healthy and playing maybe the best ball of his career. Duncan was moving like it was 10 years ago. Young role players like Kawhi Leonard stepped up. Stephen Jackson was nailing threes.
And it wasn’t enough.
And leave it to professional loudmouth Charles Barkley (already not much of a hero in San Antonio) to have a unique, if utterly ridiculous take. The TNT commentator said he hoped that Duncan—whom he called “the greatest power forward ever”—whould retire.
That’s highly unlikely. While Mike Monroe of the Express-News joined his colleague in writing about “the widely held belief that this playoff run was the last, best title chance for the Spurs’ Big Three,” Duncan begged to differ. In doing so, he sounded like a man who would be back (he is a free agent, but has already said he isn’t leaving or retiring).
“I’ve never doubted the fact we’d have an opportunity and the talent enough (for a few more runs),” Duncan said. “The front office has the ability to put a team together to continue to make runs.”
Which brings us to the glass half-full perspective.
Sam Bunnell of the SB Nation Spurs blog Pounding the Rock was all sunshine and smiles, couching his optimism in financial terms.
“When a bull market has reached its highest point, or market top, a declining bear market usually follows. Only three other teams in NBA history have ever won 20 or more games in a row. Every one of them slumped immediately after.” Prior to the slump, we all knew we had the best team in the league, and the best team any of us had seen in a really long time. Well, we’ve still got that team. And the impossible but true news is, that team is only getting better.
At Yahoo! Sports’ Ball Don’t Lie, Kelly Dwyer doesn’t see a team that’s getting better, but he does see one that can succeed. Yes, everything went right for San Antonio this season, but that doesn’t mean it can’t go wrong for someone else next year.
These are teachable moments, these NBA playoffs, and the eldest amongst us can’t stop learnin’ us real, real good lessons. Yes, the San Antonio Spurs fell two games short of the NBA Finals, and they’re about to enter their second half-decade since the team’s last trip to the Finals in 2007. Doesn’t matter. If the Spurs, and last year’s Dallas Mavericks, and this year’s Boston Celtics have taught us anything, it’s that hanging around and working around a veteran core can often result in an unexpected run. If the matchups are good, and the legs are lively in May and into June, patience wears off.
That was also how Bradford Doolittle of Basketball Prospectus viewed it (paywalled), saying that “the Spurs’ championship window is still open,” and to suggest it wasn’t, or that it was time to break up the Big Three, was “nonsense on stilts.” (Stilts! Because they’re tall?)
Like Dwyer, Doolittle acknowledged it might take a little bad luck on the other side (not that anyone is, ahem, wishing the Thunder end up injured like the Chicago Bulls were this year), as well as someone on the Spurs who can “be to Durant what Bruce Bowen once was to Kobe Bryant.”
At Sports Illustrated, writer Zach Lowe was willing to bet not so much on Duncan and his teammates per se, but on head coach Gregg Popovich and the front office (or PATFO, as Pounding the Rock calls them), who always seem to be prepared for anything, “likely in ways more creative than you or I could imagine.”
Lowe, too, shared Doolittle and Dwyer’s feeling that in the postseason, you just never know:
Writing off the Spurs is an annual tradition, and they prove us wrong every year. The only real reason to assume a healthy Spurs team could not win the title in 2012-13 is the Thunder, and barring a poorly-timed injury, that reason is not going anywhere. But sometimes the best answer is to hold your cards, hope for a bit of luck in free agency and some internal improvement, and see where the luck — playoff seedings, injuries, shots — falls in May and June.
San Antonio isn’t used to facing the questions everyone else has to face every season, but they have the right front office to find the answers.
And, of course, as we heard so many times during the Western Conference Finals, that front office is also the one that trained Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti.