San Antonio Spurs: An appreciation of the Gregg Popovich era

NBA San Antonio Spurs Gregg Popovich (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images)
NBA San Antonio Spurs Gregg Popovich (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images) /

This might finally be the year the San Antonio Spurs fails to qualify for the playoffs. If it is, it’s the end of an unparalleled stretch of excellence.

The San Antonio Spurs played a basketball game Monday night. They lost. The next night, they traveled to Charlotte to play the Hornets. They won.

This recent two-night stretch is a good microcosm of their semi-tortured (by their standards) existence since they unceremoniously sent their former superstar, Kawhi Leonard, up north to Toronto before the 2018-19 season. Without him, they’ve compiled a 74-69 record, which is…fine. For this franchise, that’s exactly the issue.

Beginning with their decision (if you can even call it that) to draft Tim Duncan in the 1997 NBA draft, the Spurs steadily built a program, a team and a franchise that never settled for just “fine.” Of course, it helps when you fall back into one of the top 10 players of all time, but lots of teams strike gold at the top of the draft before wasting that player’s prime years due to organizational incompetence, mismanagement of resources or a mix of the two.

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Before we start fawning over their many accomplishments, let’s put things in perspective. There are many teams around the league that would be more than satisfied with a slightly above average record over a year-and-a-little-more-than-a-half stretch. The Kings and the Knicks come to mind as organizations that are so inept they would move heaven and earth to merely get to .500.

But that’s the beautiful part about the Spurs’ pristine, prolonged greatness over the past two decades. They’ve come to expect so much from themselves, and in turn, the general basketball populace has come to expect the same, that anything less than spectacular is viewed as disastrous.

I’m choosing to reflect on this now because their unlikely-to-be-matched playoff streak is in grave danger as we enter the home stretch of this season. This franchise hasn’t missed the playoffs since Duncan’s rookie year, all the way back in 1997-98. I know everyone likes to mark a fascinatingly long passage of time by talking about what didn’t exist then or what cultural events were happening then, compared to now, but 22 consecutive playoff appearances speak for itself.

It’s befuddling, astonishing, and downright unbelievable, all at the same time. If there’s any lesson the NBA has taught us in the past few years, it’s to expect nothing. Nothing is guaranteed or promised. Things change, players get tired and weary of their supposedly cozy surroundings, and, ultimately, the league undergoes a face-lift, often resulting in a dramatic reshuffling of the most essential pieces on the chessboard.

For so long, the Spurs seemed immune to this sort of organizational unpredictability. They were the league’s model franchise, one that would never be beholden to one player’s wishes and desires. And who would ever want to leave such a cushy situation? Leonard proved to be unique in this respect, a singular, hard-to-read superstar who, to the surprise of pretty much everyone in the basketball world, wanted to chart his own course. (Chart his own course, he did.)

Without Leonard, the Spurs have been somewhat rudderless. Currently, they find themselves in the NBA’s dreaded middle ground. Not good enough to truly contend but not top-of-the-lottery horrible either.

Ever since Sam Hinkie’s grand experiment in Philadelphia, the hazards of landing amongst the league’s middle have knifed their way into the general basketball consciousness. Avoiding the Treadmill of Mediocrity is practically a league-wide organizational edict at this point.

The Spurs, however, are butting up against conventional wisdom by fielding a team that was seemingly created to be a perennial contender for the last two playoff spots in the Western Conference. Their two “stars” – DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge – are very good, if unspectacular cornerstones whose games are more suited for the rough-and-tumble, mid-range heavy 90s and early 2000s.

Since the middle of the last decade, every team in the league has begun modernizing their approach – more 3s, fewer post-ups and absolutely, positively no mid-range shots – except Popovich’s bunch down in San Antonio.

Popovich is on the record as a vocal critic of the NBA’s new normal. He’s spoken out about how the league’s new mathematical approach has sapped the game of its beauty. This could easily be chalked up as a perfect example of “Old Man Yells at Cloud.” But I view it as a strange bit of irony.

The last two Spurs teams that reached the Finals were reliant on the “beautiful game” – pass-pass-pass, space the floor, move off the ball and make the defense’s rotations excruciatingly long. They rode a scheme predicated on spread pick-and-rolls to one title in two tries. (The 2013 Finals is perhaps the closest a team has come to winning a championship without actually doing so).

Popovich’s main issue seems to be with the fire-it-up mentality that leads guys to take bad 3s with lots of time left on the shot clock. (The league’s chief analytical minds would tell you it’s still better than a contested mid-range jumper). As a result of their coach’s stubbornness in this area, the Spurs finished last in the league in 3-point attempts last season. This year? They’re 29th.

The contrarian would point out that DeRozan and Aldridge thrive in the mid-range and struggle once they venture into 3-point land, and that’s certainly true! Playing to your roster’s strengths and masking their weaknesses is an essential part of the coaching profession, no matter the sport. But, through his outdated approach, Popovich has drawn the ire of those in the basketball world who would tell you that the inherent mathematical advantage is simply too obvious; that continuing along this path is akin to taking a road to nowhere.

But you know what? I’m going the other way. While I don’t necessarily find the Spurs’ style aesthetically pleasing, I’m a fan of historical excellence. This rag-tag bunch, with young, emerging players and older, past-their-prime guys both playing important roles, still has a chance to nab the West’s 8-seed and the privilege of going toe-to-toe with LeBron James’s Lakers. Of course, they’re not going to win that potential first-round series. (They may not even win a game). But I don’t know a world where the Spurs don’t make the playoffs, even if it is just a formality.

As it stands today, they’re four games back of the 31-32 Memphis Grizzlies for that coveted final spot with 21 (the serendipity!) games left to play. I definitely wouldn’t favor them in this race right now, what with their bouts of inconsistency and lack of a true get-on-my-back superstar.

Many in the wide world of basketball media have been dreaming of a Pelicans-Lakers first-round series since Zion Williamson made his long-awaited debut a little over a month ago. I’d be a fool to sit here and try to convince anyone that that wouldn’t be a highly entertaining, testy playoff series, made all the more intriguing considering some of the first-round duds we’ve been forced to sit through in recent years.

The storylines also write themselves: Zion, the new face of the league vs. LeBron, the current face; Anthony Davis vs. the team he almost singlehandedly torpedoed last year. (If he had his way, Adam Silver would gift the Pelicans the 8-seed now and call it a day).

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But I’m here to make a case for greatness, for 23 (!) consecutive trips to the playoffs, for organizational stability (well, you know, except for that one thing). Do I think they’re going to be able to do it? Not necessarily. But I’d love nothing more than for this illustrious streak to soldier on for another year.