I didn't watch the Portland meltdown live. No, I chose to watch it. I chose to pull up League Pass and watch the Spurs get their hearts torn out by a lottery team in front of their home crowd. It was sort of funny -- the Spurs themselves resembled a physical manifestation of what happens when I play small-stakes poker against my work friends, all of whom are actually very good at it. That's actually exactly what I did Friday night instead of watching the game. I got score updates periodically, and somewhat fittingly, I bought into the pot the last time when I noticed the Spurs were only down 12 with 6:00 left in the contest. Given how much of a better team the Spurs are than the Blazers, I figured San Antonio's luck could help me play out the string and get my original buy-in back. (The Spurs were outscored by 18 points in the last 6 minutes. In a related story, I lost my buy-in in less than 20 hands. Luckily, it's a small stakes game and the financial damage is completely dwarfed by the fun had playing the game. Unluckily, I detest losing games and still get rather irritated about it.)
Anyway. Point is, I didn't watch the game live. I got home, saw that they'd lost by 30, and found myself staring at the box score completely at a loss. How in God's name could the Spurs -- a team that's played the entire season as one of the three best teams in the league -- get obliterated like that? At home -- where they were once 22-2 -- to a lottery team. How could their vaunted system allow it? Especially given the fact that Duncan played, Manu was active, and Leonard was on the floor for over 30 minutes of burn. I was curious. I was so curious, in fact, that I cued the game up and watched the second half, on replay. Every aching moment of the flesh-flaying. And after the thrashing was done and the blood began to dry, I wrapped myself in the sheets and nodded off to a simple truth that often gets lost in the adulation and the fandom of a team as systemically great as the Spurs.
• • •
For my Player Capsule series last year, in the form of a parable, I wrote about Manu Ginobili's craftiness in escaping the death of his talents. Were I to write a similar story after this season, it would be markedly different. Manu's escape from death is no longer quite the guarantee it used to be. He's playing well, statistically -- his per-36 minute numbers are well-in-line with career averages, and in theory, he's functioning admirably as the Spurs' point guard in Tony's wake. His assist rate has been high, his shooting percentage has been in-line with his averages despite a more central offensive role, and he's playing more minutes than he did at the season's start. His personal statistics are fine. The more you study statistics, though, the more you realize one attribute that rings true above all else -- statistics often lie. Bereft of context and common sense, a set of poorly-tuned statistics can fool you into thinking up is down and down is up.
And make no mistake. This year's incarnation of Manu Ginobili is the worst incarnation we've seen since his rookie year, his sterling value-added statistics be damned. Players age in an asymmetric but roughly parabolic arc -- they start at a certain talent level and improve throughout the years as they whittle their game to match the NBA's speed and style, before their talent attrites and their abilities fade. Ginobili has staved off this talent-death for years. He's still doing it admirably, statistically, but the numbers ring hollow. Manu's defense, once a formidable perimeter stopper in a brilliant system, has devolved into a semi-comical parade of stupefyingly poor decisions and tepid efforts. (The Manu/Neal lineup in particular has been so defensively suspect it's difficult to watch.) His patented standstill stepback three is as off target as I've ever seen it, although that hasn't stopped him from chucking it up at completely mystifying intervals. His turnover rate is up, despite the fact that he gets the benefit of the doubt with the home and away statisticians and often has turnovers caused by his completely unnecessary passes attributed to the player he's passing to. Worst of all? Manu simply looks spent a lot of the time. Like a wind-up car that's lost its pep.
He isn't the only player amiss with the Spurs, and it's been something of a low-key worry as the season trudges onward. Gary Neal's been atrocious. Matt Bonner has been done. DeJuan Blair is barely an NBA player. Boris Diaw is nowhere near his last-year form. Stephen Jackson has completely lost it. De Colo, Joseph, Mills? Not ready for prime time, whatsoever. For all the boisterous celebration of San Antonio's bench depth and the wealth legitimate players they carry on the roster, they've become an awfully top-heavy team. Are they deep? Sure, in theory, and the Spurs have a system that's good enough to "cover" for the occasional injury. But at the end of the day the Spurs are exactly as star-centric as any other team. At the end of the day, the Spurs are completely reliant on Duncan's defense and extremely reliant on Parker's offense -- with both on the floor, the Spurs are an elite team with a puncher's chance of winning a title. With both off the floor, the Spurs are a living, breathing bluff.
They talk a good game and whip the ball around enough to fool a team or two. But they aren't beating anyone in a playoff series on the strength of a bluff alone, and when the play tightens up and teams start blanketing Danny Green and forcing Tiago Splitter to post up instead of pretending Splitter is a Duncan-level talent, the system doesn't work with quite the same results. Doubly so if the Spurs on the floor, those ever-perfect mechanical Turks, start to believe their own bluff. If they begin to think their inherent superiority as a team unit and a team concept grants them levity to cut their own efforts and play lazy basketball. No system covers for a team that's playing out the string like they deserve wins solely on the cuteness of their passes and the brilliance of their movement.
The missing piece in Manu's play this year isn't simply that he's getting old. It's that he throws lazy passes that he expects to work solely because the angle is cute or the idea is brilliant, regardless of his poor delivery. It's that he chucks up prayers with defenders closer than they used to be, as though he's goaded into it by a game that's finally starting to pass him by. It's that he doesn't quite put it all on the table the way he used to, as though the Spurs simply deserve the wins and the accolades without really having to suffer for it.
Then, every once in a while, a team calls San Antonio's bluff -- like Minnesota and Portland just did.
• • •
Are the Spurs a good team? Obviously. They've rather strongly established themselves as one of the three best teams of the league, despite big concerns about 75% of the roster. But when media types and friendly fans repeat a lie so often, sometimes you start to believe it yourself. Even if you know better. The Spurs aren't a good team simply because of their killer system or their brilliant coach. They aren't a good team by dint of their own existence, as this recent stretch of utterly putrid basketball makes clear.
No, the Spurs are a team powered by stars in a league that requires them. They're a team that currently suits up the unquestionably best center in the league (and arguably the league's Defensive Player of the Year besides) and the 1B to Chris Paul's 1A at the point guard position. They have a freakishly proficient young stopper with an Iguodala-esque skillset at the three, a dependable defensive shooting guard with a knack for the corner three and a scant few other skills, and a second big man that's better than many playoff squad's first. If you have a top-three like that, you're going to be a contender. Add in a good coach and a lot of well-fit role players and you have the makings of a potential title team. They're in the conversation, no doubt, but given the quality of their top-line talent, that's hardly a big surprise. And that's all without getting into any of their questionable pieces who may recoup by the time the playoffs start -- Manu, Diaw, Jackson, and Neal have all "been there." None of them are quite as bad as they've looked in San Antonio's lowest moments. It's not impossible that they have a vintage playoffs. And if any of them do, San Antonio's chances are that much better.
But as one reclines to watch the Spurs get blown out of the water by lottery teams that shouldn't have a chance, the response shouldn't necessarily be one of absolute surprise. It should be one of recognition, and acceptance of the truth -- the Spurs are not and have never been a team defined by system alone. The system can cover a small talent gap, but it can't cover effort. At the end of the day, if the players on the court are playing a lazy game and relying on the system without putting forth their best effort, the Spurs aren't all that much more than a poker player with a decent bluff and a series of terrible hands. Every tired and lazy poker player goes on a run or two, where they play out a bunch of bad hands in hope that their bluff wins them the string. Even I can win a few, often with large pots. But at some point a player -- quality be damned! -- is going to call your bluff. At some point they're going to realize you don't always have aces in your pocket and they'll want to see your hand. You'll waver, and you'll defiantly push onward, and your losses compound with abandon.
Sure, the Spurs win games despite playing like crap every now and again, like the terrible effort they put forth against Dallas last night. Tim Duncan wouldn't let them lose that one. But what happens when Tim Duncan isn't in quite the mood to put up 28-19 against a hopeless lottery team? What happens when the Spurs lay off and assume that their 50-16 record is enough to win the game on its momentum alone? What happens when teams realize that they don't really need to play Manu Ginobili the same way they used to, or that giving up a semi-open long two pointer to Cory Joseph is just about as likely to produce points as letting Matt Bonner get to the hoop? What then, NBA? What will become of the Spurs in America? We don't need to guess, lie, or ponder anymore. Because now we know exactly what happens: they lose by 30 -- at home -- to a lottery team.
System be damned -- the boys are as mortal as anyone.
• • •
“What though the field be lost?
All is not Lost; the unconquerable will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And the courage never to submit or yield.”