Being a Spurs fan is a bit like being a bungee jumper- the whole experience is a series of ups and downs, and though the highs are nice, one has to be prepared for some jarring lows. The analogy might seem unfitting, given that the team has only missed the playoffs four times in 33 NBA seasons, and that they have an all-time winning percentage of .595, second only to the Lakers. However, any true sports fan will agree that watching a team produce one solid season after another, only to disappoint come playoff time, elicits a much more painful ‘low’ in a team’s support base than being a perennial loser. For all the anguish Clippers fans (all five of them) have endured year after year, at least they’ve rarely had to wrestle with the comedown that follows a disappointing postseason. Prior to the Tim Duncan epoch, that sense of dull, familiar disappointment was more or less the default emotion for Spurs fans- we could count on experiencing it sometime between Easter and Memorial Day. It was an annual reminder that our team was fun to watch between November and April, but not quite good enough to give us much to hope for beyond.
That’s one of the reasons why Spurs fans cherish the last twelve years. This team, from top to bottom, has made its mark in pro sports by winning consistently and when it’s mattered, and by running like a top behind the scenes. Keen drafting, sound finances, and absence of controversy have made our city’s franchise the class of the league, and a model for other teams to emulate. The Duncan era has made up for years of colorful-but-shallow teams (pretty much the entire George Gervin era), questionable coaching (you can only feed David Robinson in the post so many times), and rosters lacking in depth (Vinnie Del Negro as a starting point guard? Not so much). It’s been a hearty feast of hoops that has gone a long way in making up for the years of famine that preceded it.
Things change, though, and nobody stays on top forever. Duncan is my absolute all-time favorite athlete in any discipline, but I readily admit that his best years are behind him; Manu Ginobili seems to age two years every season, and as much as I admire him and appreciate what he’s done for the team, I can no longer count on him being consistently productive, especially in the playoffs; Tony Parker is great, but he isn’t the sort of player a team builds around; everyone else on the team is more-or-less expendable or ready for the retirement home; and Gregg Poppovich has alluded to the idea of packing it in when Duncan does.
All of this yields a tough question for Spurs fans: what will come of the inevitable rebuilding period that looms in the next few years? Perhaps it’s more helpful to consider the nature of the Spurs’ greatness over the last decade. From my perspective, Poppovich is the real catalyst behind the team’s remarkable success. He found a way to get two franchise-caliber players (Duncan and Robinson) to coexist and complement each other; he turned low draft picks (Ginobili and Parker) into prime-time players; and during his tenure as the team’s general manager, he helped establish a scouting system that has thrived in acquiring the right talent to buttress key components. If he decides to head down the road in a few years, it will be on general manager R.C. Buford’s shoulders to propagate the practices Pop has established.
Of course, a team’s prosperity is ultimately determined on the field (or court) of battle, and this is where I see the Spurs’ relative and disproportionate lack of appeal hurting them. For all the winning and all the deserved accolades this organization has under its collective belt, it is still a small-market team with potentially limited appeal for the kinds of players that the league’s style of play favors. The NBA is very much a superstar’s league, and even the Spurs, with all their depth and egalitarianism, are a team centered on an elite player. We have already observed that they have difficulty attracting top-tier talent outright (Jason Kidd, Jermaine O’Neal) despite the promise of winning. For the most part, the only notable additions to the roster, apart from good drafting, have come by way of trades (most recently Richard Jefferson); the only obvious exception was the Michael Finley signing, but he stood to make so much money after being bought out by Dallas that he could afford to sign a budget contract with a contender and still claim a nice payday. In consideration of these facts, the administrative and coaching genius of Poppovich becomes even more obvious.
It will be interesting to see how this situation bears out in the next several years. I will always support the Spurs, but I can’t help but wonder if the team is headed for another famine. If so, we must relish the feast we have enjoyed over the last twelve years with gratitude and pride.