Maybe the Spurs are forever

Matas Petrikas / Flickr

Matas Petrikas / Flickr

Watching the confetti rain down on the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday night was an experience that transcended the generational gaps between hoops fans. You appreciated it if you’re an admirer of Tim Duncan that’s watched him over the last 17 seasons and witnessed his evolution, and you enjoyed it just the same if you’re a new-school fan who just loves Kawhi Leonard’s exuberance and doesn’t even realize the series MVP was in second grade when the Spurs first hoisted a banner in 1999. Regardless of your age or historical perspective, this San Antonio title had a little something in it for everybody.

Even as its supposed three-man core has grown and matured together, this Spurs team has never been characterized by age alone. Yes, it’s of course true that Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker are much longer in the tooth now than they were on those championship-winning teams of 2003 or ’07, but that’s always been one minor detail on the surface of something far more significant. Age is only a number, and there’s a lot more to know and understand about this Spurs team than “38, 36 and 32.”

The Spurs are much more than the sum of their parts – they’re built upon an innate Gestaltiness that was conceived, honed and always maintained by the men at the center of the franchise. While Duncan, Ginobili and Parker received a lion’s share of the credit, the real big three were always Holt, Buford and Popovich.

As long as those three masterminds remain, this franchise is in good hands. And maybe even past that point, if those three are able to train the next generation of visionary San Antonio leaders.

Which leads us to a tantalizing yet terrifying possibility…

Maybe the Spurs are forever.

It’s a crazy thought, because questions about the closing of the Spurs’ “window” have persisted for the last half-decade, so why would they stop now? San Antonio was knocked out of the 2009 West playoffs in a mere five games, mashed like Russet potatoes by a superior Dallas team. The Spurs bounced back to beat the Mavs in the first round in 2010, only to be swept by Phoenix in round two. Duncan was 34 at the tail end of those two disappointing postseasons, with about 35,000 minutes on him. Even then, people thought it might be over for the Spurs.

It wasn’t just idle media speculation, either. Even the players themselves believed it. Here’s a wonderfully candid snippet from an interview Parker did with SLAM’s Lang Whitaker at the conclusion of the 2010 postseason:

“I think next year, realistically, is our last chance to try and make a run at a championship. Timmy’s getting older and he’s the anchor of our team, so I think realistically it’s our last chance with our core, with our team … Everybody says they want to win a championship, but it’s only four or five teams that can really win a championship, and I think next year is going to be our last chance.”

That was four years ago! And it was far from a one-time thing. The “window” talk carried on and on, no end in sight, with people speculating every year that this might be it. Spring after spring, there were whispers that this might be, once and for all, the last hurrah. That Duncan would retire, that Popovich would walk away with him, that the Spurs’ empire would be vanquished and we’d all have to move on.

I’m not falling for that nonsense anymore. I’m done. If you demand a hot sports take from me, all I can give you is a potentially ridiculous overreaction in the other direction – that the Spurs are never going anywhere. Ever.

I’ve been thinking about this concept of eternal Spurs reign for long while now, and a talking point fell beautifully into my lap on Sunday night when Adam Silver handed the Finals MVP trophy to Leonard of all people, informing the world in no uncertain terms that the team was in good, 22-year-old hands. Of course the Spurs are still on track if they’re retooling around a budding superstar who’s still only in year three!

Well, yes and no. Of course, it’s fantastic to have a talent in Leonard who’s about to begin his prime and will likely make for a fine franchise centerpiece. But it’s a mistake to focus too much on any one player – or even a handful of them – when discussing the Spurs’ long-term outlook. The Spurs aren’t built around stars in the same way that LeBron James’ Heat are. They’re built around concepts. They have Leonard, plus very nice players in Danny Green at age 26 and Patty Mills at 25, but they have so much more than that.

They have quite possibly the best organization in all of pro sports. The effect of the aforementioned leadership troika cannot be overstated. They may well have the best scouts, too – if you’re wondering how the Spurs have been able to build around Duncan with nothing more than a handful of No. 28 picks, it’s because they’ve been able to dig deep and find talent where no one else has thought to look. Then there’s the system Popovich has implemented – the way the ball moves so fluidly and every player knows exactly when to shoot, it’s basketball at its absolute best.

All of these advantages are very real. They may not headline Nike commercials, but they’re true elements of success and they’re not going anywhere. In a league that’s obsessed with its star players, the Spurs have transcended that obsession (and fittingly, they’ve proven it by beating Kevin Durant and King James back to back). Duncan is obviously great, and we justifiably play up the “legacy” angle and talk about the historical impact of his fifth ring, but the Spurs’ real greatness goes deeper.

While every NBA champion is celebrated in its own way, the Spurs are revered unlike any other, especially now after winning for the fifth time. It’s because they’re not just a true team, but a true organization – one that’s poised to outlast any and all individual contributors.

The Bulls lost 37 (of 50 in a lockout year), 65, 67 and 61 games in their dark four-year period immediately after Michael Jordan. The Lakers may well be headed down a similar path in the twilight of Kobe Bryant’s career. Those are great organizations, but they weren’t able to withstand the loss of an all-time great. The Spurs, though, are different. They’ll inevitably lose Duncan someday, but you’d be a fool to expect the roof to cave in on that proud franchise.

There’s been a lot of speculation over the years that when Duncan retires, Popovich will too, and the organization will begin a new era overnight. For the sake of the game and its history, I hope that’s not the case. I hope Popovich and the rest of the Spurs’ great leaders continue undaunted, keeping the dynasty intact despite changes in personnel. People will always raise questions about the Spurs’ “window,” but I hope it remains ajar forever, with the cool breeze of championship optimism continually blowing in. Basketball is better off.

Evans Clinchy