The Spurs are proof that if you are just really, really good at what you do for long enough, everyone will come around. For them, “a long time” is something like 15 years, which is something like a lifetime in the NBA. So all the love they’re getting now is like an artist finally receiving critical and public acclaim after years of producing outstanding work to little applause.
But everyone’s cheering now in full-throated appreciation of the Spurs’ “Beautiful Game.” How did we get here?
2007: The All-Time Low
The Spurs lost just four games in the 2007 playoffs, and easily swept LeBron James and the Cavs in the Finals. It was a boring Finals with a disappointing result. In three of the four games, no team scored more than 85 points, and LeBron couldn’t get it going against Bruce Bowen after leveling the Pistons with one of the great singlehanded demolitions in NBA history.
That was the year of Robert Horry’s infamous hip check on Steve Nash, the one that brought Amar’e Stoudemire off the bench in Nash’s defense and essentially the league’s most entertaining team’s season. It was an ugly way to decide a fantastic series. After they dispatched with Utah (side note: 22 year old Deron Williams averaged 26 and 8 on 53% shooting in that series #neverforget.)
The Spurs played at the fourth slowest pace in the NBA.
The 2007 Finals finished with a record low 6.2 Neilson rating.
The Spurs were great. No one cared.
2010: The Turn Up Point
The 2009-10 season was the first time in 13 seasons and the first time in Tim Duncan’s career that the Spurs averaged more than 100 points per game. This wasn’t a good thing.
2009-10 was also the first season that the Spurs weren’t in the top 5 in opponent points allowed. It was also the worst season of the Tim Duncan era, just 50 wins and a second round exit via sweep at the hands of the Phoenix Suns.
But instead of bunker down, Pop and the Spurs went on a strategic offensive, and put the team in Tony Parker’s capable hands.
2010 also marked the last time the Spurs did not finish in the top 10 in pace (possessions per 48 minutes). The began playing faster, a real stylistic change that, when combined with the media revolution underfoot, changed the way the basketball world appreciated them.
2012: Spurs Play Fast, Media Catches Up
Somehow the Spurs have become a team with real personality. But besides Pop being a surly and sometimes charming interview, there’s really no reason that this should be the case today more than in 2007.
Read the Spurs feature and look for the money quote. You won’t find it. The players are still numbingly professional, and like each other, which is charming in it’s own way. The executives aren’t letting anyone behind the curtain. Pop does his Pop shtick.
But the way we talk about the Spurs has changed, because of how we talk about basketball.
Even the casual fan can’t escape the creep of hardcore hoopspeak in the NBA lexicon. Pace, points per possession, defensive efficiency, points in the paint, the corner three—all terms that have been blasted through the SportsCenter megaphone and all seem invented to explain why the Spurs are so damn good.
We ascribe personal attributes to the Spurs through their statistical profile. They must be smart, clever interesting people—just look at how many variations of “Weak” they run!
Manu Ginobili must be a wacky dude—he’s the one who throws one-handed hook passes!
The Spurs aren’t any more accessible or personable than they were when they won in 2007, but the way they play is, and the way we talk about how they play has evolved so that what makes them great is more accessible than ever. That’s allowed us all to view who their collective identity—basketball and personality-wise—in a different light.
The proliferation of hard data and rigorous analysis in the NBA conversation has deepened everyone’s appreciation of the Spurs. And, since we know why they are good, we can care about them.
Even though the Spurs hadn’t won a title since 2007, no one had ever really seen them suffer. Perhaps no team besides the 1998 Jazz has suffered as heartbreaking a Finals defeat as the 2013 Spurs. A Spurs friend of mine had enough time to start crying with joy when, and he’s a superstitious, awful person to watch a Spurs game with, it seemed absolutely clear the Spurs would win.
Happy tears to stunned silence. He was visualizing calling his dad, hitting up his friends, drinking a tremendous amount. He ended up doing one of those three things.
Games 6 and 7 brought out a side of Tim Duncan long obscured from fans. Game 6 was a nightmare finish, but Duncan said Game 7 “would always haunt” him. The missed layup over Battier, the jumpers Wade and LeBron drilled in his face to put the game away.
In their failure, the Spurs achieved a special kind of grace: they were the team that brought out previously undiscovered levels of LeBron’s greatness.
2014: Still Swinging
At some point, the Spurs became a true internet curiosity. Just how in the hell could they still be so good? This basic question was answered in some part by the advanced stats referenced above, but the idea that the Spurs had some kind of secret, that they were weird, strange and special, really hinges on the fact that they have been doing it for soooo long.
That boringness boomeranged back on itself. That it has persisted, that it still thrives in the face of talents like LeBron and Durant is an enduring wonder.
Then there’s this:
The Spurs are finally universally appreciated by those who care. They’re even favored against the Heat. Somehow. Do great work long enough, eventually they’ll come around.
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