Monday, June 16, 2014

The Spurs Are A Fine Wine

“Legendary.” It’s the only adjective this Spurs team, which has been great every season since I first started watching basketball nearly two decades ago, couldn’t necessarily lay claim to. The 2013-14 Spurs rebounded from a heartbreaking defeat in last year’s Finals to cut through one of the most difficult conferences in NBA history, winning 62 games while no single player averaged over 30 minutes per game. Then in the playoffs, they beat their two nemeses, first the hyper-athletic, kinetically explosive Thunder in the Conference Finals and then world's greatest player LeBron James and the two-time reigning champion Heat in the Finals. They did so in astonishing fashion. Twelve of the Spurs’ sixteen playoff victories were by 15 or more points, and the Finals ended with three consecutive blowouts. Honestly, Game 5 felt more like a coronation than a competition. The Spurs have been among the NBA’s very best the entire Tim Duncan/Gregg Popovich era, an astonishing sixteen consecutive years, and they were far and away the best team in the NBA this year. 

Beyond an overly simplified narrative that casts their team-oriented bona fides as the antithesis to the Heat’s individual greatness, they’re the dads of the NBA, its spiritual Steely Dan if you will. Of course they won on Father’s Day. Of course the Spurs, an international team whose style is most akin to “the beautiful game,” won during the World Cup. The Spurs even make metaphors look easy. Absent a transcendent superstar about whom to endlessly obsess (Duncan is transcendent but transcendently opaque off court), the Spurs are a team practically devoid of combustive narrative. That’s partially by design; coach Popovich is a legendarily gruff man, outwardly veering toward assholish, about whom no one has ever said a bad word. The Spurs are content for you to talk about anything but the Spurs and they’ll just keep winning and celebrating by being adorable with their children, thank you very much. Matt Bonner will certainly celebrate with a sandwich

Off court we know little about these players. Tony Parker likes to party and once got a scratched cornea as collateral damage during a nightclub fight between Drake and Chris Brown (haven't we all), but he's been out of the news for a while and is no longer married to a tabloid star. Tim Duncan's divorce last year was handled nearly silently and its revelation came as a total shock. I know nothing about Manu Ginobli except he doesn't believe in Rogaine. The off-court detail most associated with Popovich, though, is his love of fine wine, and that is a perfect metaphor for this team. All wines share broad stroke similarities, but what elevates a good wine to a great one, and a great wine to sublime are the subtleties. 

The base is there, and you need good grapes to start. The Spurs have Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford. And they have Tim Duncan, secret troll and ultimate exemplar of dad post moves. He is nearly as good as ever and present, as always. Nicknames on Basketball Reference include Timmy (which isn't really a nickname), The Big Fundamental, Groundhog Day, Death & Taxes. He anchors the defense, calls out sets, and makes a million little adjustments on every defensive possession. He has never committed a foul in his mind and at 38, can still face you up and blow by once in a while (he so abused Udonis Haslem in game 5 that I half expected Jim Ross to pop up and start shouting that Duncan’s trying to end his career, which may be accurate). Popovich is not shy about the secret to his team's lasting success: “Get the No. 1 pick in the draft every 10 years and make sure it's a franchise player.” The Spurs aren’t great without Duncan, but his consistent greatness doesn’t push this team into the pantheon of all time greats.

The boring tag used to apply. The Spurs used to run a relatively stagnant offense built around Duncan’s exceptional post game, but as he has aged the team has become, in the words of Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, exquisite. Tony Parker zips around screens, prodding in and out, a threat all over the floor even absent a three point shot. The ball truly doesn’t stick, a testament to the Spurs’ nature but also to their commitment to always have a guy available for a pass. That’s a subtlety unthinkable to every other team in the NBA: it should be obvious, but to pass the ball you need willing passes and guys in position to catch them. Think of how many Heat or Thunder possessions bogged down with a player forced to do something, unable to drop the ball off. That almost never happened in the Finals, against a defense designed to semi-gamble its way into just those spots. When the Spurs are on their execution is as gasp-inducingly great as anything LeBron James or Kevin Durant can do. Bill Simmons once called the Suns’ seven-seconds-or-less teams critically acclaimed, mass appeal built around pushing tempo and insane dunks. The Spurs are similarly acclaimed but with the attendant attitude of most fans won’t truly appreciate this. Fine wine, indeed. 

The players all know their roles but on most teams that idea’s limiting; for the Spurs it’s energizing. Only a coach with an enjoyment of the finer things could put up with, even encourage, Manu Ginobli’s whirling dervish act, a frenetic playing style akin to Douglas Adams’ description of flight: throw yourself at the ground and miss. Imagine, for a moment, Tom Thibodeau watching Manu spin a skip pass to the corner, blindly trusting a player will be there to catch a ball whose trajectory took it temporarily out of bounds. Those passes would hit guys like Danny Green, Patty Mills, or Boris Diaw, flawed players who have thrived within the Spurs system. Popovich’s advice to silent, corn-rowed uber-mensch Kawhi Leonard after game 2 was to stop deferring to the legends and seek out his own offense. Leonard didn’t mutate into some Spursian version of hero-ball but he started forcing the action (and even threw down the first alley oop of the Spurs season, I believe) within the greater context of the offense. The system elevates the players as the players elevate the system, and the Spurs execution feels like an inevitability more than an offense. Little details, all. 

I can’t hunt out all the subtleties that elevated this team much as I can’t really taste the difference between good and great wine. I don't have that discerning a palette. Popovich does, and his steady hand and guidance, combined with talented, hungry, driven players pushed this team to the peak of its powers. 

A great vineyard can churn out great wine year after year (note: I do not know how wine is made and it’s not like I’m about to do research for a half-assed metaphor in a blog post). Some years everything clicks and becomes sublime and some years it is merely great, but the consistently great is as remarkable as the occasionally transcendent. The Spurs are both. The Spurs are legendary. Drink it in.

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