Before I even start, I’m not joining the chorus of those who insist the Spurs are done. Just like the bad guy in a horror movie, I won’t believe they’re truly gone until I dismember the corpse myself and personally incinerate the remains…and even then I’ll still be looking over my shoulder for the rest of my life. But the Spurs, as currently constituted, are clearly in the decline phase. They sit tied for seventh place in the West, and are pretty much a lock for the playoffs at this point since Memphis, Houston, and New Orleans have all faded in the last couple months. And like that horror movie villain, the Spurs could certainly be resurrected during the playoffs. Never ever underestimate the possibility that they could make a run, as long as they have Tim Duncan, Ginobili, and David Stern on their team.
For years, the Spurs have been very good, and often even great. But they’ve always had that little something extra to get them over the hump against teams who were better–Papa Stern. Because make no mistake; this is Papa Stern’s league, and this Papa Stern’s NBA is going to work exactly the way Papa Stern wants Papa Stern’s NBA to work. Many people who write about the NBA will talk about this, but always stop just short of saying that there’s any kind of actual underhandedness at work. There’s always some other excuse…it’s not that the refs have orders, it’s just that the refs are bad. Or the team that got hosed really just pissed it away in the end (which is always the way it works; all it takes is a few key bullshit calls by the officials, and the desired result is achieved: the team that is supposed to lose loses because they get frustrated and upset and stop worrying about basketball and start worrying about why they aren’t being allowed to play basketball). An example of the way this works can be seen here.
Everybody knows that Papa Stern loves his big markets, especially LA, Boston, and New York. But here’s why the conspiracy works so well in the case of the Spurs: they’re not a big market. People have been trained to think that the big market teams will be the ones to get all the advantages, and that’s often true. They certainly get more coverage than teams in smaller markets (though this really should be modified to say big market teams on the East and West coasts, as cities like Houston and Chicago and Phoenix are awfully large markets that don’t get near the national coverage of the coastals). But like I said, this is Papa Stern’s league, and Papa Stern’s league is about money.
This is why people think that the only thing that matters is market size. But Papa is smart enough to know that while it matters, it’s far from the only thing that matters. So he lets ESPN take care of his big markets (and ESPN is more than happy to oblige), and Papa worries about making sure his NBA looks like he wants it to look. And Papa wants his league to look appealing to the people who are going to spend the money. Papa wants his players to dress a certain way…you know, so they don’t look like thugs. Papa wants his league to be an international league…you know, so he can make money all over the world. Papa wants his players to act a certain way on the court…you know, so they don’t seem like a bunch of thugs. Papa would prefer it if his players weren’t covered in ink, but he hasn’t figured out a way to handle that one yet (unless you count the time HOOP, Papa’s official NBA magazine, airbrushed out AI’s tats when he appeared on the cover).
Well, the Spurs have done everything that Papa has asked. They built an international team with a Frenchman and an Argentinian and a guy who is always counted as an international player even though he was born a US citizen in the US Virgin Islands. They also had a clean-cut Navy dude in David Robinson. They played fundamental basketball and didn’t look street at all. This was the team that Papa Stern wanted. Now, make no mistake; the Spurs were also extremely talented (it’s sad, though, to think about how awesome Duncan could have been if he wasn’t too busy being The Big Fundamental; watch some USA basketball games he played in and think about how fun he is to watch in that setting. And don’t even get me started on Ginobili; let’s just say he’s incredibly talented, but it is tiresome to watch him fall down every few seconds and get fouls called. Just disgusting). But they got some big helping hands from the league. For example, everybody knows what happened in Game 4 of the Suns-Spurs series in 2007–that STAT and Boris Diaw were suspended for leaving the bench after Horry checked Nash into the scorers’ table, but even though IN THE SAME GAME Tim Duncan and Bruce Bowen left the bench when two players were tangled up under the basket, they were not suspended. Weird how stuff like that works.
But like I said, the Spurs’ star is fading. Duncan’s aging, the Frenchman’s injured, and the Argentinian seems to have flung himself to the floor for a foul call one too many times. Papa’s influence can make a good team great and a great team a dynasty, but even Papa cannot elevate a mediocre team to its former glory. And unless the Spurs get themselves back into the lottery a couple of times so Papa can help them out there, there’s not much chance of them being great again anytime soon. So who will take their place?
Well, I’ve looked at the possible candidates, and I think it really boils down to two. The Next Spurs need to be like the Spurs. They need to be talented. They need to be uncontroversial. They need to have some international players, and it wouldn’t hurt to add some white guys to the mix. They need to play in a small market (so that Papa’s Pals can scoff at those of us who know the truth). It wouldn’t hurt if they were connected to the Spurs or maybe were Papa’s cronies. It would help if they had a devoted fan base even when they were bad, because Papa likes to reward his league’s loyal followers (they don’t have to be undyingly loyal; Papa doesn’t like thugs and guys who do drugs either. He’ll understand if you abandoned the team for a little bit for reasons such as thuggery). So who could be the Next Spurs? That team that will get lots of help from officials and will eventually hoist a trophy that wasn’t necessarily deserved? My money’s on either the Portland TrailBlazers or the Oklahoma City Thunder. Let’s examine each of their cases:
Portland has most of the necessary characteristics. They’re talented and uncontroversial (some might say boring). They have a Frenchman (Batum) and a Spaniard (Rudy) and an Aussie (Patty Mills). They’ve got a white dude (Przybilla) and a black guy named Brandon. They play in small-market Portland and are the only pro game in town. They’ve got a pretty devoted following…and they get bonus points from Papa for enduring the “Jail Blazers” era. What don’t they have in their favor? Well, they don’t have a great player. They have a very good player in Roy, but as much as Papa would like him to be, he’s not the hoist-y’all-onto-my-back and carry you guy the team needs. They’re gonna have to get one of those, which wouldn’t really be all that difficult if they didn’t grossly overvalue their talented-but-not-spectacular young players. Oh, and Greg Oden is not that.
Ironically, Oklahoma City has a truly great player. Kevin Durant is unbelievable, and is really just getting started. And he could have been a Blazer. But Portland decided to take Oden. That decision looks worse and worse every game, no matter how much guys like Chad Ford try to insist that every GM would have taken Oden with the first pick and that wasn’t a terrible choice by Pritchard. He should lose his job just based on that. Anyway, OKC’s case starts with that great player and rolls on from there. They’re talented and uncontroversial. They have a Swiss (Sefolosha) and a Yugoslavian (Krstic) and a dude from Zaire (Serge Ibaka). They’ve got two white dudes (Collison and BJ Mullens) and black guys named Jeff and Kevin and Eric. They play in a small market with a rabid following, and have two major bonus points in their favor: first, their GM is a Spurs legacy. Sam Presti worked in the Spurs front office until he was hired by the Sonics. Second, Papa is big-time buddies with OKC’s ownership group, and basically engineered the deal to get them to OKC himself.
I guess when you look at the two cases, it’s not really even that close. OKC has the superstar and the great relationship with Papa. I think that that pushes them over the top and makes them the top candidate for Papa’s Next Spurs. The really unfortunate part of that is that the Thunder are really pretty fun to watch. They are extremely talented and play fun, exciting basketball and have not predicated their entire game on defense (which in the Spurs’ case generally just meant rampant, uncalled fouling). Presti is smart and has made really good moves so far, and has acquired a lot of players I like. I’m gonna be really pissed, actually, if Papa decides they’re going to be his team and I have to start hating them.