Don’t Shed a Tear for Crumbling Constancy

Here is a list of teams that have made the NBA playoffs every year of my life.

  1. San Antonio Spurs

That’s it. The Spurs are one of those rare teams that come along every so often and become a mainstay in the playoffs. The NHL’s Detroit Red Wings and the MLB’s Atlanta Braves are the other examples that come to mind: teams not perpetually of championship caliber, but teams unfailingly of playoff presence. San Antonio has made its way to the postseason 21 consecutive times; last year’s 2017-18 season, in which the Spurs won 47 games, snapped their streak of 50-win season at 18 in an ultra-competitive Western Conference.

The Western Conference will be ultra-ultra competitive this year. More troublingly for the black-and-silver, a still-murky rift developed between two-way superstar Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs organization. Without recounting the much-told saga of the Kawhi story, the end result is that Leonard is in Toronto for at least a year (probably) and that Toronto icon DeMar DeRozan will be palling around with the Coyote, San Antonio’s mascot. Leonard played a mere nine games last season, and San Antonio still finished with excellent defensive rankings, but heads much more accomplished in the NBA realm than I have agreed that the Spurs are no lock for the playoffs this year.

The Spurs won the first NBA Finals that I remember really well, the 2005 Finals against the Detroit Pistons in seven games. They won their last Finals in 2014, defeating the Miami Heat in a remarkable five-game series, and they won their first title—the first NBA Finals of my lifetime—in 1999, over the New York Knicks.

The 1999 Finals were the last in which neither team scored 100+ points in any game of the series and the last in which the Knicks made an appearance. How times have changed: in last year’s Finals, only one game saw a single team score fewer than 100 points, while the champion Golden State Warriors averaged 116 points per game. Oh, and the Knicks are as far away from the Finals, in the popular eye, as MySpace is from even a shred of relevancy. The last time the Spurs didn’t make the playoffs, the first Harry Potter book hadn’t even come out.

The Spurs’ run has been magical, and may well continue to be magical, but we are faced with the stark reality that the magic is dwindling, and that Gregg Popovich might not be able to mix a playoff potion. Manu Ginobili is still around, but Tony Parker has followed ex-Spurs assistant James Borrego to the Charlotte Hornets (Tony Parker, Charlotte Hornet???) and Tim Duncan—acknowledged by Pop as the cornerstone of the Spurs’ way—has now been retired for two years.

Essentially, this is uncharted territory, both for San Antonio and for the millions of NBA fans who have grown up with these Spurs and with their habitual playoff appearances.

We are not, however, to shed a tear for this era of Spurs basketball. What is truly remarkable is how inconsistent their constancy is with the natural progression, or the rise and fall, of NBA teams. In fact, their constancy was enabled by that very natural progression. A dreadful 1996-97 season saw the Spurs not unhappily plummet to the point of receiving the No. 1 overall pick: a senior big man out of Wake Forest by the name of Tim Duncan. The Spurs, unlike every other NBA team in the intervening years, haven’t missed the playoffs since.

Contrast that with the Detroit Pistons, another mid-country team not known to younger NBA fans as a hotbed of stardom (the trade for Blake Griffin won’t change that, barring a dramatic improvement in Detroit’s fortunes due to Griffin). In that same 1997 draft, the Boston Celtics chose Chauncey Billups, who went on to sign with the Pistons and play a key role in their team-focused successes of the early aughts. Billups won the 2004 Finals MVP award and credited it to the team as a whole.

Four years later, the Pistons had dealt Billups to the Denver Nuggets for Allen Iverson and finished below .500 for the first time since 2000-01. Detroit has made the playoffs once since then: 2016’s eighth seed went quickly and quietly, swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers. To the young NBA fan, the Pistons are a bad team that was good way back when but now is barely Instagram-worthy and just kinda meh, you know? Stan van Gundy’s desperation heave for Blake Griffin looks underwhelming now and financially perilous later.

The average NBA team’s life cycle looks a lot more like the Pistons’ than the Spurs, especially those teams dictated by the whims of stars in an increasingly star-driven league. The Spurs were able to counter the onset of superstar-dictated movement due to Duncan’s equi-eminence, rather than pre-eminence. Duncan, the unquestioned top dog (top coyote?) in San Antonio, hardly put on airs, and the rest of the team followed that team-first attitude. Most teams don’t have that.

Billups’ run with his hometown Nuggets was cut short due to another superstar: he was a salary cap casualty when Carmelo Anthony forced his way out of Denver’s high altitude in favor of the Knicks and New York’s high rises. The Knicks rose again, due to their superstar, and have since fallen once more.[1]

A few reports link the Knicks with Kawhi Leonard. The NBA is a small world.

It would be strange to see Kawhi as a Knick. It is strange to see him as a Toronto Raptor. But although the Raptors are a much newer team, to younger NBA fans seeing Kawhi play for them is easier to entertain than seeing Kawhi ballyhooed by the Madison Square Garden faithful. In the novice’s conscience, the Raptors are a good team, despite having their souls crushed by LeBron time and time again (LeBronto is a serious charge, now). The Knicks are definitively not, even though they had high moments during Melo’s tenure; as such, to see Kawhi play for the Knicks would shock the senses more than seeing him as a Raptor will.

The Raptors gambled on Kawhi. Besides for the monumental task of trying to convince him to stay beyond the one year, the Raptors are betting that with Kawhi they can improve on their previous ceiling. That ceiling, held up in large part by DeMar DeRozan, made it as far as the franchise’s first Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed and the franchise’s most painful playoff eviction yet (though the Raptors are still far behind the Maple Leafs).

In a vacuum, the Kawhi pillar is taller and sterner than the DeMar pillar. What is unchanged, though, is that the franchise is relying on a particular player to bring them to heights, while his departure would all-but-ensure their fall to a far-flung low.[2] The best player is the one responsible for his team’s highs and lows.

The increase of star player movement in recent years—when younger fans came into their own as fans—has thus had an immense effect on the period (think horizontal, temporal axis) in which teams compete. We’re accustomed to thinking of superstars as determining a team’s amplitude, their highs and lows. But the fundamental importance of Tim Duncan to the Spurs lay not only in the amplitude he provided but in the period over which he provided it. The period was simply much shorter, the amplitude lower, with Kawhi as their superstar.

That’s why the Pistons don’t have the same grasp on the younger fan’s conscience, despite being a similarly good, consistent, high highs team. The Pistons made the Eastern Conference Finals for six straight seasons. But their title appearances were condensed into two consecutive years. Once they stopped making the conference finals, they stopped making the playoffs. They (like so many other teams) were unable to exert the same grasp of longevity as the Spurs. Consequently, they don’t have the same aura for a generation of fans. They don’t have the same jewelry, either.

A select few players are outside the rule. LeBron is the easy example. The unparalleled amplitude he provides is generally worth compromising the period in which he provides it. The Raptors are gambling that Kawhi is the same sort of player. The Spurs weren’t willing to offer him a chance at that—only San Antonio could offer a five-year, $221 million “supermax” contract—because thanks to the attitude of one of those select few players are willing to prioritize their period over their immediate amplitude.

So don’t shed a tear for the Spurs, who have made their choice. They have chosen to try and extend their period at the cost of their amplitude even as the average amplitude in the Western Conference rises incredibly high. The Spurs were incredibly lucky to have a player of Duncan’s skill and longevity, and they know it. Thanks to him, a generation of fans will hold the Spurs up as a model organization. The Kawhi saga doesn’t help. But shorter periods tend to stick less in memory than long ones. Teams at the whim of the standard length of the ebb-and-flow cycle would happily trade one year of discomfort for twenty-one years of success.

Well, twenty-one and counting.

 

 

 

[1] The Isiah era became the Melo era, which turned into the purgatory, dark timeline version of the Melo era.

[2] General Manager Masai Ujiri did well, by all accounts, not to jeopardize the rebuilding process by sacrificing too many young assets in the trade.

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