The League’s Third Wheel
What’s wrong with the Spurs?
I hate statements that are disguised as questions, to me they typify every weakness of the English language, passing off the strongest
element, a direct statement, for one of the weakest, a hapless query.
Like when someone nags you, “Aren’t you going to…?” they aren’t in any
way shape or form asking a question, they are, in the most irritating
manner imaginable, telling you to do something. Anyone asking the
question above isn’t really genuinely petitioning for an answer, they
are subtly making a statement, a vague one, but a statement
What I tend to admire, however, are questions that tell more than any answer ever could. That the question above is even being asked is more revealing than any answer. When people in the city of San Antonio, or anywhere else for that matter, begin to question the Spurs, it speaks
volumes about the state of the franchise that many consider the most
consistent in all of pro sports.
When people start asking the question posed at the top of this
article, a question so unfamiliar and so seldom asked in jest or in
overreaction, it has to be taken seriously. An answer has to be
searched for and must be found. But before this writer or anyone else
should start on the excavation, we should take a moment to acknowledge that this question has even arisen.
For nearly two decades the San Antonio Spurs have been perennially good. It’s not accurate to say they’ve been perennially great,
although they have had their moments. But simply being able to scathe
off season long slumps and mediocrity for as long as they have, while
managing a few championships seasons more recently, is impressive. You can track this down for days, since David Robinson put on a Spurs
uniform back in 1989, playoffs and playoffs runs have not only been
expected, they’ve become routine, as automatic a function as
everything else the Spurs do.
The only time the Spurs faulted is when Robinson went down in the 96-97 season, which kept him out for the year and effectively altered
the course of his career and the franchise. If only then all knew that
change of course would be for the better.
Enter number one pick in the 1997 draft, Tim Duncan. The rest, while not quite history, should be fresh enough in your collective memory
that I don’t have to recap it to you. Duncan changed the face of the
franchise and in only his second year, the lock out shorten 98-99
campaign, he led the Spurs to their first title in franchise history.
You have to understand why it’s important that I’m feeding you
history. You have to understand why after three championships in seven
seasons the Spurs aren’t a real dynasty per se, but are held to the
expectations of one anyway. It’s important because through the
Robinson-era and so far through the Duncan-era, no one has asked that
question. For the first time since David Robinson saved the franchise
all those years ago, people are questioning this team’s ability to
really contend for a title. Further still, there are those who have
all but concluded that this team in its current form can’t beat the
likes of Dallas and Phoenix. And you know what, those people are
The reaction to the reaction to the Spurs’ struggles of late,
particularly from those outside of the San Antonio area, has been
anything but sympathetic, bordering on irritated skepticism. More than
an eyebrow is raised when a team that’s 32-14 starts bitching about
under performing, no matter how high the expectations. I wouldn’t
blame Memphis or Atlanta if their respective populations held up a
collective middle finger in the direction of south Texas. Needless to
say, there are teams and cities that have it a lot worse than the San
The question to the question has to be asked: are people in San
Antonio just overreacting? The short answer is yes; the more thought
out response, however, is a bit more complicated. In general, yes, the
Spurs, local media, and general Spurs fan have all taken to the
tequila bottle a little too soon. No grave is being dug and no
buzzards are circling just yet; the Spurs aren’t dead, they aren’t
even sick. It’s more like they’re been evicted out of the NBA’s
version of the penthouse suite. And when you’ve been spoiled rotten,
which is what Spurs fans are, that’s going to piss you off some.
The not so daunting fact is that the Spurs are the third best team in the league. Unfortunately, as one local media member put it, they may be the worst third best team in league history. Granted, that’s an over statement, but the idea is actually right on. The Spurs have the
third best record in the league, yes, but as far as bottom lines go,
they might as well be in the last place. Division standings, and
playoff births don’t mean shit, the only thing the local fans and
media measure in is championships.
The indeed daunting fact is that the Dallas Mavericks and Phoenix Suns are, right now, both better basketball teams than the Spurs, without question. Arguments last season could have been, and were being made for Dallas as a better team, but that’s not the same. The Mavericks are a better team right now, period. And that unrelenting
truth is a tough pill to swallow for the Spurs and their fans.
Even during the days of the Lakers dynasty, there was always a
feeling that the Spurs at least had a chance at knocking them off,
there is no such feeling in regards to Dallas or even Phoenix. That’s
not to say anyone is drowning themselves along the River Walk,
hopeless with despair, but there is certain sense of definiteness
about where the Spurs stand among the league’s best teams, and it’s
not where they would like it to be.
Make no mistake about it, everything about that question is an
overreaction on the part of the Spurs faithful, but it comes in an
atmosphere where only excellence is acceptable. Translation: it’s an
overreaction to everyone else, but in Spurs land, when the silver and
black are not in a position to win a championship, it’s the only
reaction there can be.
What’s wrong with the Spurs?
The question still remains and an answer has to come. Whether or not a 32-14 team looking around like something is terribly wrong is your definition of an overreaction or not, there’s no question the Spurs
and their fans take these recent struggles seriously.
The quick response by many is to say that Spurs aren’t playing
defense at the level they have been in seasons past. While that is
technically true, the Spurs are still second in the league in points
allowed and fifth in opponent’s field goal percentage. The Spurs
defense is fine, it’s better than fine, it is still very much one of
the elite team defenses in the league.
The problem may be closer to the offensive side. The Spurs have only allowed over 100 points six times this season, but they’re 1-5 in
those games, making it apparent that if the defense falters, or a high
powered offensive like Phoenix rolls into town, the Spurs offense may
not be able to keep up. But yet, the Spurs are still 14th in the
league in points per game, not astonishing, but still in the upper
half of the league. And they have the second highest averaged point
differential, just above Dallas and just below Phoenix. The Spurs
offense isn’t exactly as potent as some run and gun shows, but it
never has been and never needed to be when winning championships in
Some people have attempted to attribute the Spurs’ woes to the supporting cast around Duncan, namely Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. Duncan obviously looks rejuvenated after being injured most of last season, but questions have come up about how Parker and Ginobili are dealing his resurgence.
But is that really true? No, it’s not. Manu Ginobili is averaging
more points, rebounds, and steals than he was last season, and looking
a lot closer to his All-Star form of a couple seasons ago when the
Spurs won the championship. Tony Parker? He’s averaging a whole .1
points less per game than he did last season coming into tonight’s
game against Utah. Furthermore his turnovers are down and his jump
shot is finally looking respectable as his free-throw and three-point
percentages look like they should for a point guard. Duncan is great
as always, and the supporting cast, contrary to popular belief, is
just fine also.
That then leaves us with the question standing ever still. What is wrong with the Spurs? I can only think of two things.
The only thing wrong with the Spurs is that they are not as good as the Dallas Mavericks. The only wrong with the Spurs is that they are not as good as the Phoenix Suns. The Spurs are better then 27 teams in the league, and that leaves them with two, and only two, very big problems.
The question I’ve been asking, the one many people have been asking, isn’t echoing around everywhere because of some huge flaw in what the Spurs do, it’s because in spite of the Spurs few flaws, they still may not be good enough. This is a problem of inadequacy in its worst form, when one isn’t to blame for not being good enough, when one has done almost all that can be done and is still projected to come up short.
The silver lining in January and February is the word ‘projected’. No matter how well Dallas and Phoenix are playing, no matter how far
enough off the Spurs may seem, we’ve yet to even hit the All-Star
break, and that leaves a lot of time for things to change. But that
still leaves the original question. Time for change, with nothing to
change doesn’t fix anything. And the Spurs don’t have much to fix.
Outside of a super natural burst come playoff time or some injury to
the Mavs or Suns, the Spurs are stuck in their third slot.
Not only are the Spurs not the homecoming king anymore, they don’t even have a date – they are essentially a third wheel.
Is all this meant to spell doom and gloom? No, not at all. I learned real fast I’m not smart enough to accurately predict the future,
especially when it comes to how NBA teams shift and grow during the
course of a season. That the Spurs aren’t doing anything wrong doesn’t
stop of them from doing things better, and really, that’s always been
their key to success.
The Spurs aren’t sneaky, they aren’t tricky, they win through
stifling defense and precise execution, both of which can only get
better as the season goes on. The Spurs aren’t going to stumble upon
some magic potion or secret plan that catapults them to the top of the
league standings. What they will do, however, is sharpen their
execution on offense, tighten up more on defense, and continue to get
better in the same old boring, and effective, way they always have.
Whether or not come playoff time the Spurs are ready to beat Dallas or Phoenix, I don’t know. But the expectations are there, and I’m
reminded of a sentiment David Robinson used to echo often, “To whom
much is given, much is expected.”
More is expected from the Spurs, and something tells me it won’t be long before they start meeting those expectations again.