Fridays With Fenrich: The Greatest Spurs Ever Played
Fridays With Fenrich is a new weekly feature here, the aggregation of an extended, week-long email conversation on a single basketball theme, between myself and Kris Fenrich of Dancing With Noah.
Ian - I was on Daily Dime duty for the Mavericks and Kings Monday night and sadly had to follow the overtime barnburner between the Spurs and Rockets through my Twitter feed. As the Spurs were putting the finishing touches on their win, I saw this from Arturo Galletti:
That’s an incredible accomplishment in terms of wins and losses. I think the Spurs are recognized as a terrific franchise but I don’t think they’ve gotten nearly enough credit for their regular season dominance over the past few seasons. Is it because they’ve been thumped in the playoffs the past two years? Is it because so many fans find them aesthetically distasteful? Or have they been getting their just recognition and I’ve been reading and watching the wrong things?
Kris - Over the past year, I’ve picked up that we’re (we as in you, Ian and me, Kris) often in the same arena with our NBA analysis, but I disagree with you on this one. NBA aficionados view the Spurs … from Pop to Duncan to Manu to Parker to Diaw, Danny Green, Stephen Jackson and Matt Bonner … through saintly lenses. Through these lenses, Pop’s sarcastic answers reveal the inanity of in-game interviews, Duncan’s remarkable consistency is a trumpet blowing loud in honor of fundamental basketball and Manu’s willingness to accept a 6th man role despite being one of the game’s best players is emblematic of the selflessness of this Spurs group. Even Matt Bonner’s beard is done the right way, the Spurs way.
To your point about the playoffs; if you look at their playoff performances over the past five seasons, they’re 26-26 with a pair of Western Conference finals appearances which is success by most measures, but not San Antonio’s. And it also begs the question: What’s happening in May and June that’s preventing the Spurs from executing at the same ridiculously successful level they do during the regular season?
Ian - I’m with you that the Spurs get recognition, but it’s the nature of that recognition that confuses me. They get credit for their organizational structure. They get credit for the way they doggedly pursue the best course of action for their team, regardless of mainstream thought. They get credit for player development and precise execution. They get credit for creative management techniques and for abandoning flair and individual accolades in the pursuit of team success. But they don’t seem to get nearly enough credit for being a dominant basketball team.
Recognizing the greatness of the Spurs seems like an elitist badge of honor, along the lines of appreciating an unheralded independent director or band, unknown to most people (It’s a mark of my own lack of cultural cache` that I can’t name an actual band or director to complete that analogy). There seems to be something immensely self-satisfying in recognizing the beauty of something that others find utterly drab. I feel like lots and lots of the credit the Spurs’ get comes from this angle, reflecting the self-celebration of the writer for recognizing the Spurs, as opposed to just celebrating the Spurs.
Every discussion of the Spurs seems to be framed in the context of their aesthetics instead of their simple merits; but the merits are remarkable. I think almost anyone would tell you that the glory days of the Duncan/Parker/Ginobili Spurs were several years ago. But through 22 games this season the Spurs have won a higher percentage of their games than in any other season since Duncan entered the league. The last two seasons saw them post two of their three highest win percentages since Duncan entered the league. Basketball-Reference’s Simple Rating System grades this as the best Spurs team since Duncan entered the league. Obviously those numbers will come down over the course of the season, but the dominant narrative of the Spurs is still of a team desperately trying to hang on and make one last run, instead of a team morphing into something historically effective.
Kris - Alright alright, I feel where you’re coming from. I see this as something that goes deeper than the Spurs, but I’ll take a little stab at understanding why we applaud this team as much for what they do in the front office and along that river walk thing as what they accomplish on the court. First off, the Spurs have been competitively relevant since 1997-98 when Tim Duncan was a rookie and Pop took over for his first full season. Counting this year, that’s 16 consecutive seasons we’ve had the Spurs as contenders—if you’ve got Pop and Duncan, you’re contending. If you’re a young fan, the Spurs have been performing at this high level as long as you’ve been watching the game. If you’re an older fan, it’s hard to reach back to the pre-Duncan days. Stylistic considerations aside, there’s a boredom that comes with this kind of success. We’ve become comfortably numb.
Taking style and aesthetic into account, I have a couple theories:
- A lot of NBA fans were either drawn to the game or enjoy the game in large part because of the mythological athleticism of its players. Lebron, Blake, JaVale McGee … on a nightly basis, these guys are soaring and gliding toward the rim, demanding fans get up out their seats and scream (both in awe and spite). Even the hardened traditionalists among us can appreciate the unfathomable athletic audacity of the league’s players. And while I’m sure Danny Green’s got some imaginative dunks up his sleeve, a lot of fans would rather hold their breath waiting for the next Blake or DeAndre Jordan smash than watch Duncan cleanly execute another 16-foot bank shot.
- There was a time when the Spurs were defensive juggernauts who would suffocate the opposition with great team defense and a pair of rim-protecting bigs. On the offensive side of the ball, they utilized a slower, more methodical pace (they finished in the bottom half of the league in pace every year until 2010-11 when they finished 14th out of 30 teams) that played to their strengths. I think a lot of fans still associate the Spurs with a combination of Tim Duncan fundamentals and grind-it-out games that end with scores in the high 80s–even though this view is outdated.
My final point for why the Spurs might not get the credit they deserve for their on-court play is that they’re simply doing what we expect. As I mentioned above, they’ve been dominant for 16 straight seasons and I think we take their success for granted. Unfortunately, there’s a somewhat boring element to this kind of long-term success and as a result and we’ve shifted the focus of our praise from What we expect (the Spurs winning) to Why do we expect it (front office).
Ian - Your points about aesthetics are right on and the length of this era of dominance certainly influences how they are viewed in a couple of different ways. But I don’t think the Spurs are doing what people expect. I think people expect to see an incremental decline each season because of age, cumulative injury, and (despite all the evidence to the contrary) our secretly held skepticism about the sustainability of their winning ways. The Spurs have not just avoided that slide, they’ve reversed it. They have just been marginally better in each of the last few seasons, they have been getting markedly better. It will certainly take some measure of post-season success to highlight it, but I think there is a strong argument to be made that the past few seasons represents the best Spurs of the Duncan era.
As far as their post-season struggles the last two years, I really don’t have an answer. Obviously they ran into some physical and stylistic matchups that were difficult for them, but I don’t think the Thunder last season, or the Grizzlies the year before, presented impassable obstacles. Chances are the Spurs will have to go through one or both of those teams if they hope to make the Finals this season. Do you think there is something new out there, tangible or intangible, physical or psychological, that the Spurs need to have in place going into the playoffs this season? Or can they win by just doing what they do?
Kris - I completely agree with you that the Spurs are most definitely not following the prototypical script, but because the Fall of the Spurs (or even the recline of the Spurs) was never written, we’ve all relaxed, assumed that they’ve hit their high-water mark, toasted a drink in honor of their longevity and shifted our view of them from great to good (largely based on playoff results and infinite stability which makes me think of another concept: If there’s a finite amount of praise and attention in basketball fans/bloggers, then there’s a good chance it’s being unevenly distributed based on superstars changing teams and the development of the super friends strategy; apologies for that digression).
The reversing concept you mention above is something that’s been amazing to watch. Pop has steadily redefined this team which goes back to a previous point I made about our perceptions … many of us have seen this redefinition and attributed it to a system. Whether it’s Pop or RC Buford, it’s often viewed from the top-down; in part because the Spurs have rotated so many role players around the Duncan-Manu-Parker core.
Their lack of playoff success (again, relatively speaking since most franchises would be stoked to be in their position) is something I’ve written about in the past and I think I see flaws in this Spurs team playing this particular style in a seven-game series. Whether it’s young legs (OKC), physical opponents (Memphis) or something else, the Spurs have looked extremely mortal in those matchups. Given the age and mileage of their primary contributors, I think there are only so many matchup wrinkles that Pop can improvise with. We saw it in the OKC series last year when Scott Brooks was able to make effective adjustments after the first two games and win four straight. I doubt Pop ran out of wrinkles or ideas, but more likely ran out of bullets.