Before we put our postmortems on the 2016 San Antonio Spurs — death by age, wage, health or style of play — let’s borrow a boxing maxim.
Styles make fights.
This is the second time the basketball law firm of Parker, Duncan and Ginobili has fallen at the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder. And every time the Spurs sputter after a sublime regular season, we are assured that this is their last real run at a Larry O’Brien Trophy.
We said the same thing when Ray Allen drained that miracle three-pointer four years ago, breaking Texas hearts all over. Then the Spurs came back and smoked LeBron the Miami Heat the very next season.
Rather than write the formula for the Spurs’ demise, perhaps the equation is far more simple: it’s just not easy to win championships. People have the audacity to brand LeBron James a loser simply because he doesn’t bag a ring every year. His Cavaliers are all but assured of reaching the NBA Finals this season, no matter whom they face in the next round. And this will mark six — six! — straight years he will play in June.
Only in today’s ADD climate do we dissect a team that goes 67-15 and 40-1 at home with the objective hardness of a mortician.
The New York Yankees were considered a dynasty for nearly 20 years — almost the exact same epoch as San Antonio’s reign — though they, like the Spurs, won just five titles over two decades. That included four in five years. The Bronx Bombers have won just one World Series since 2000 and haven’t played in a Fall Classic since 2009. The modern Spurs have never been where the Yankees are now — the cellar, with .424 winning percentage after 33 games.
Now the Yankees are a last-place squad with aging, brittle stars sucking the money and the life out of the team. Yet the Spurs still churn out 50 and 60 wins with chilling frequency.
Unlike the Yankees, who have a gaggle of players whose best years were a decade ago, and whose salaries form a financial anvil around the team’s neck, the Spurs have expertly switched the power to younger players. They’ve passed the hardwood baton to Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and LaMarcus Aldridge. The Spurs finished the season with the second-best record in the NBA.
Sure, it’s harder to cobble together a 25-man MLB roster than a 15-man NBA roster, but no NBA team comes close to the Spurs’ glittering run of excellence since drafting Duncan in 1997.
The Spurs were thwarted last year by a quirky final day, during which they switched playoff seeds with the Los Angeles Clippers. That put Game 7 of the series between them in Los Angeles, instead of San Antonio. Had that game been played at the Alamo, who knows how last year shakes out?
We love to talk about how thorny the road is to the top in other team sports, how the hottest team trumps the best team. Yet we assume the best basketball club has a red carpet to the NBA Finals. We assume the best player literally sails to the title, his team riding his wide wings into history.
Tell LeBron that. Despite his likely sixth-straight NBA Finals appearance, he is 2-3 over the last five years, and 2-4 over his career. And his Cavs will be underdogs this year should they face Golden State. For all his epic ability, King James just has two jewels in his championship crown.
Maybe Oklahoma City is Evander Holyfield and San Antonio is Mike Tyson — without all the malapropisms, insanity and cannibalism. Or just pick your sports rivalry in which the more accomplished team loses head-scratching games to inferior teams.
We always need a label, diagnosis or autopsy when the team we expect to win doesn’t win. To borrow another sports cliche — they pay the other team, too. Duncan and Ginobili were old all year, and the team still tied for the seventh-best record in NBA history. Tony Parker clocked a million miles on his point-guard wheels years ago. Who was calling them too old 10 days ago? They just ran into a team that carries a special brand of athletic kryptonite. Nothing more. Count the Spurs for at least 55 wins next year.
Maybe Tim Duncan retires. He’s certainly earned the eternal timeout. He’s also earned a two-month, Peyton Manning-type period of reflection. Like the legendary quarterback, no one has represented his sport, team and town with the humility and nobility that the laconic, iconic Duncan has.
But just as the Broncos win with Kyle Orton, Tim Tebow, Jake Plumber and a vastly diminished Peyton Manning, the Spurs will figure out a fundamental way to contend for a title next year — with or without the Big Fundamental.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.