All Stories End
Numbers, Narratives, and Next Chapters: an intimate reflection on the San Antonio Spurs 2018 NBA season and the pending end of one of sports' greatest dynasties.
Now and Then
On Tuesday night, the San Antonio Spurs were eliminated from the NBA playoffs by the Golden State Warriors in what was a predictable end to a season that couldn’t end soon enough. There’s an inherent elitism baked into that sentence. San Antonio won 47 games, made their 21st consecutive playoff appearance, and stole a game from the potential league champions - all while having their best player play in only nine games for them all year.
There are somewhere between six and eight NBA franchises who would trade their current situation for that one in less than a heartbeat.
But after 21 straight years of playoff appearances, making it to the NBA’s second season feels expected the same way that warm summer days feel expected -- which is to say that it’s warm and wonderful and easy to take for granted until it’s winter and you realize just how good you had it.
For the Spurs and their fans, the days are getting shorter, the sun setting earlier, the temperatures dropping lower. That winter may finally be here.
"Finally" because there have been no shortage of times at which the Spurs' dynastic run felt like it could be over.
There was the Ray Allen shot:
This is the pinnacle of basketball theater -- all at once one of the most iconic and memorable moments in the last decade of the NBA, and a moment all of San Antonio wishes they could forget.
It's also proof that the same 60 second stretch of time can be both amazing and awful, euphoric and heart-wrenching, and the only thing that changes your choice of adjective is whether you were cheering for the humans wearing silver and black or the ones wearing red and white -- a fact that we would all do well to remember when engaging in any form of discourse.
Miami went on to win that game 103-100 in overtime, and then won game seven as well to capture their second consecutive NBA championship.
The end of the series and the summer that followed felt a lot like the end of Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.
After a lengthy battle against an army of Uruk-hai -- creatures bred and trained with the sole purpose of winning battles -- the Fellowship fails. Merry and Pippin are captured by said army of Uruk-hai. Boromir, played by Sean Bean, dies because Sean Bean absolutely and certainly must always die every time he appears on a screen. Frodo and Sam break away from the Fellowship because Frodo decides that he should go to Mordor alone, so of course Sam decides he must go with him.
That leaves Arragorn, Legolas, and Gimli -- who, in this analogy, are Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili respectively -- standing together on the shore weighing what happened and what will come next.
"Then it has all been in vain, the Fellowship has failed," Manu-Gimli says, which is an exactly perfect summation of what it feels like to watch a team win 58 regular season games, sweep two playoff series, and be up three games to two in the NBA finals only to lose.
Legolas-Parker looks on in the pained and pensive way that only he can.
For a handful of very long seconds, as Howard Shore's score reaches its emotional climax, it all seems entirely and decidedly over. But then Arragorn-Duncan stands up and wraps his arms around Manu-Gimli and Legolas-Parker's shoulders.
"Not if we hold true to each other," he says, which is precisely the kind of quiet and stubbornly courageous thing that one would imagine Tim Duncan would say in that moment.
Both Tolkien's trio and Popovich's trio resolve to continue on their journeys, and both journeys feature the kind of eventual high-water mark that is expected in stories that are classic and worth remembering.
The Spurs defeated Miami in the NBA finals the following year, which, euphoric and cathartic as it was, was also another moment in which the Spurs dynasty felt like it could be over.
The 2013-14 NBA Championship:
Unlike the Allen shot, which felt like an ending because of the profound despair that accompanied it, the 2013-14 championship felt like an ending because it felt scripted -- a "one last chance" narrative that turns heartbreak into triumph and would otherwise only exist in Hollywood and the WWE.
This was the Spurs chance to end the way Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade ended.
There may not be a better ending to a movie trilogy ever, and maybe both the Spurs and the Indiana Jones franchise would have done well to let this be the actual end. There's an inescapable romanticism to the idea of Duncan, Parker, Ginobili, and Popovich finishing their careers together with a fifth and final championship -- even if the reality of a thought like that, as detailed by Shea Seranno, can't possibly live up to the ideal.
But of course, that isn't what happened.
Real life isn't full of literal sunsets for heroes to ride off into. The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was made, the Spurs continued to fight against father time and the Heat and then the Warriors.
A quick aside: the extension of this analogy is that Kawhi Leonard can be Shia LaBeouf which, in light of how this past season went, feels both scathing and appropriate.
The lack of real life sunsets to send heroes off into means that growing up invariably means having to watch your heroes grow human in front of you. That's why we felt a need to buy a ticket to see Harrison Ford don the hat and whip again even though a less than small part of you knew it wasn't going to live up to the magic of the first three films, and it's why games against even the worst teams made Tim Duncan's last years in San Antonio must watch television -- we all want to hold onto what we grew up with for just a little longer.
The day 21 retired:
On July 11, 2016, Tim Duncan retired. It was expected -- his last season was a lot like the final days in your last summer in high school, when life is changing and you know it, and it makes all your nights full and heavy and wonderful and over all too soon because in the end, knowing a goodbye is coming doesn't make it any easier to say when it finally arrives.
When this one arrived, it did so in a way that was achingly Tim Duncan.
There was no statement. No press conference. No Players' Tribune poem. Just a brief Spurs media release posted to their website without prior warning. The release was written entirely in the third-person and included no comments from Duncan himself. He walked away from the game the same way he dominated it -- quietly, decisively, and in a class all his own.
If that announcement was a movie scene it would be the final scene in Good Will Hunting.
A psychologist named Sean, played by Robin Williams -- who is in this case Gregg Popovich -- checks his mailbox and finds a letter from his patient, named Will, played by Matt Damon -- who is in this case Tim Duncan -- and on that letter there are exactly 21 words written (which just so happens to be Tim Duncan's number).
All it says is this:
If the professor calls about that job, just tell him sorry, I had to go see about a girl.
Sean smiles as he reads the letter and the creases around his eyes say that it's the kind of smile that's reserved for moments in which you are both very sad and very happy for a person all at once.
"Son of a bitch stole my line," Sean then says because the words Will chose were the same words from a speech Sean made earlier in the movie.
Then he closes the door. That's it. Just like that, it's over.
It's exactly how you would expect Will to write a goodbye letter, just as Duncan's retirement announcement is exactly how you would expect Duncan to announce his retirement -- no flash, no filler, their timelessness both born from their simplicities.
Duncan's on court counting stats were replaceable by the end. During his final year he averaged just over 8 points and 7 rebounds in 25 minutes per game. But who a player is matters. Buzz words like "synergy" and "leadership" are easy to throw around and hard to measure but they're both best understood by their absence.
Success didn't necessarily leave with Duncan -- in the two years since his retirement the Spurs went 102-56 and won a division title -- however as the 2017-18 season showed better than any before it, the stability that became synonymous with Duncan's Spurs may have left when he did.
While none of these moments have ended the Spurs, the common thread between them is both obvious and telling. They all come from the last half decade -- time can only be borrowed for so long.
This season, more than maybe any other before it, was full of very good and logical basketball reasons for why the Spurs' oft predicted basketball winter is coming -- or perhaps, has already arrived.
By the numbers alone, the season's flaws and strengths are equally striking.
Per Cleaning the Glass, the Spurs ranked fourth overall in points allowed per 100 possessions (Pts/Poss) and held opponents to an effective field goal percentage (eFG%) of 51.3% -- good enough for eighth in the league. Teams took only 28.9% of their shots from long range against the Spurs, the sixth lowest mark in the NBA, with just 6.6% of those shots coming off of corner threes -- widely regarded as the most efficient long range shot in all of basketball -- and when teams did earn a corner three, they made them a mere 35.6% of the time. For context, that's better than Philadelphia, Utah, and Boston -- the three teams who ranked better than the Spurs in Pts/Poss.
That's good. Not good in the kind of obvious and glamorous way that the Rock joining the Fast and the Furious franchise was good. But still, good.
Conversely though, they allowed teams to take an alarming 31.2% of their shots at the rim -- the 27th worst in the NBA -- and score on those shots 63.5% of the time.
Being elite at stopping teams along the perimeter and below average at stopping teams around the basket speaks to both the Spurs defensive scheme and their personnel. When lineups have to feature some combination of LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, Davis Bertans, and Joffrey Lauvergne guarding the interior, guarding the interior isn't going to go well.
Defensive stalwarts such as Joel Embiid and Rudy Gobert hold opponents to less than 40 Pts/Poss in the paint. Per NBA.com, the closest any Spurs big came to that mark was Aldridge at 43.5, with Lauvergne being the worst of the group at 49.8 in an admittedly small sample size of on court minutes (466 versus Aldridge's 2475).
Although it didn't stop the Spurs from having one of the League's best overall defenses, it remained an exploitable hole that was at best not good, and at worst, glaring.
Glaring is also a precisely perfect way to summarize how underwhelming San Antonio's offensive performance was this year. They managed an eFG% of just 50.9%, the fourth worst in the NBA, and scored just 102.7 points per game.
That's bad. Not in the way that the Star Wars prequels were bad. Bad in the way that Catwoman was bad -- with a lone star (in the Spurs case, Aldridge) serving as a bright spot amidst an otherwise largely unwatchable spectacle.
The three teams worse than the Spurs in points per game? The Dallas Mavericks, Memphis Grizzlies, and Sacramento Kings. Being in any way comparable to the Mavs, Grizzlies, and Kings in 2018 -- three teams who were actively or passively doing their best to lose games and earn a high lottery pick -- is both disappointing and disastrous for a team with playoff aspirations.
All those numbers are as factually true as any other numbers you will find on the internet -- simultaneously strictly accurate and entirely open to interpretation and explanation -- but all teams are more than numbers on a page. They're people. People who deal with real human problems like getting older and being unhappy and wanting a different future than the one you're currently heading towards.
Cue the Kawhi Leonard discussion.
Leonard was supposed to be the chosen one; the one who would take the torch from Duncan the way Duncan took the torch from David Robinson; the one who would bring another 20 years of balance and championship runs to San Antonio.
Instead, he became Anakin Skywalker.
Leonard's alleged displeasure with the organization has been well documented. Depending on whose words you place stock in, Leonard's lengthy rehab from quadriceps tendinopathy has caused anywhere from "a chilling effect" on the team to an outright divide in the locker room.
If nothing else, Leonard's commitment to remaining silent on the matter has caused confusion - both among fans and Spurs players and personnel.
Towards the end of the regular season, when San Antonio's playoff hopes were still in question, Gregg Popovich was asked whether there was any chance Leonard would return to the team to aid their push for the final post season spots in the Western conference.
"You'll have to ask Kawhi and his group that question," he said.
It was the kind of answer that's telling in the way that answers can be telling without actually saying anything substantive. It's also the kind of answer that's wildly easy to misinterpret. Which leads to the most important thing to note in this whole situation: there are likely only two people in the entirety of the world who know exactly and entirely how Popovich and Leonard feel about this situation. Those two people are Popovich and Leonard.
At best, the rest of us can speculate with armchair psychology.
Whether he wants to stay or not, Leonard is a complicated wrinkle for the Spurs. There's no replacing him. When healthy, he's one of the most dynamic two-way forces in the NBA -- a perennial defensive player of the year candidate who showed during the 2016 season that he could shoulder the burden of leading a team on the offensive end as well.
But if he wants to leave, then getting a respectable haul in return for the allegedly disgruntled former finals MVP will be a challenge. He's an expiring contract, and is coming off a season lost to an injury that falls somewhere between mysterious and ominous. Reports have also surfaced suggesting that there could be mutual interest between him and the Los Angeles Lakers when he becomes a free agent, regardless of where he plays out the rest of this contract.
However, if the rumors are noise and the smoke isn't a fire, then the path to building a sustainable contender around him isn't clear either.
San Antonio has an average of $21 million committed to Aldridge for the next three years. Although there's a good chance that contract will look ugly by its end, he's earned it -- this year was his best as a Spur and among the best he's ever had, period. He was a light in the dark. A reason to hope and dream that maybe, just maybe, there was a chance to win on any given night. Without him and his improbably effective turn-around-fading-mid-range jumper, it's hard to see San Antonio as being more than a lottery team this year.
But the Spurs also have $16 million per season committed to Gasol -- who makes rebounding look harder than rebounding should ever look for someone who is 7 feet tall -- through the 2019-20 season. Danny Green and Rudy Gay have player options for next year worth $10 million and $8.8 million respectively, and given the lack of available cap space around the league this summer, it's entirely possible they both opt in.
If they do, and Leonard stays with the team, the Spurs would have over $98 million in salary already on the books for the 2018-19 season, and that's all before negotiating contracts for Tony Parker and Kyle Anerson -- meaning they can only add free agents using exceptions and league minimum salaries.
That makes navigating any roster improvements, be they signings or trades, difficult.
If you're able to talk yourself into the ambiguous ceilings of Dejounte Murray and Kyle Anderson, as well as whoever the Spurs draft with the 18th overall pick in this year's draft, then it's possible to see a short-term future in which the return of Leonard, only a slight regression from Aldridge, and one more Benjamin Button impression from Manu Ginobili, is enough to keep San Antonio in something resembling contention.
And if you're able to talk yourself into all those things, good for you. Truly. Hold onto that optimism because this world needs more optimistic people like that in it.
But talking yourself into all of that also ignores the most important and most painful thing that's happened to the Spurs this year.
On Wednesday April 18th, Erin Popovich passed away.
Erin was a shooting star during Gregg Popovich's last 22 years as head coach of the Spurs -- rarely seen but always noticed.
Even before her health declined she hardly, if ever, accompanied the team on road trips. She didn't sit court side. She never stood next to Pop at center stage during championship celebrations.
"We all know the type of guy Pop is," Manu Ginobili said, his eyes pained and heavy, just hours before the Spurs 110-97 game three loss to Golden State. "Not many people know the type of gal Erin was."
That was by design. Gregg kept that side of his world private because his life with Erin was for him and Erin and not the rest of us and rightfully so.
But the more you look, the more the stories start to appear. Among people who have spent significant time with and around the Spurs organization there is no shortage of anecdotes about the acts of kindness the Popoviches brought into existence. That matters. What we leave behind is as important as how we've lived, and by all accounts Erin left this world a better place.
During their four decades of marriage, her and Gregg had two children -- Jill and Mickey -- as well as two grandchildren, and the pair's effortless smiles in the handful of photographs that have been shared with the public are all the proof anyone could ever need to see that their love was the kind that makes storybooks jealous.
Loss grips everyone differently, and a loss like that is one that most of us can't even begin to imagine.
It feels weird and gross and low and wrong to think about what that means for the Spurs organization. Basketball is infinitely unimportant compared to life and loss. But it also feels right to care and wonder how Pop is doing amidst this heartbreak. There are Spurs fans who have spent their entire lives watching Popovich conduct his basketball symphony behind the bench. It's all they've known. When someone has spent that long coloring in the background to your life, how can you do anything other than have them in your thoughts?
If Coach Pop decided he wanted to walk away from the game to spend all his hours enjoying the little and large moments with his family, that's a beautiful decision. If he decided he wanted to let the thing he loves be his escape and continues to coach, that's beautiful too. Both feel possible. And neither one feels resoundingly more or less likely than the other.
The only right answer is the answer that feels right to him.
Whatever he decides, for the first time in his tenure, it's no longer a straightforward assumption that he will return to draw plays on a whiteboard or give two word answers to sideline reporters or end press conferences abruptly again next season.
When Duncan retired, it was the closing of a chapter, the culmination of a Marvel-esque two decade story arc. But Pop is the book itself. As long as he stands behind the bench, that book remains open, its final pages able to be read the same way that the final pages of any favorite book are read -- slow enough to try to forget how few words are left.
Now, that book may be ready to enjoy its time on the shelf.
Whether you subscribe to numbers or narratives, both paint a very real possibility of this being the actual curtain call to the Spurs multi-decade run.
As a Spurs fan, that's tough to accept.
Knowing that the end of a thing is coming, yet also knowing you are powerless to stop it is an odd feeling. It’s all at once very empowering -- because you know the future -- but it's also a little helpless because you have no say in what comes next, and it's also saddening because even if the future is somehow better than it looks like it will be, it still won't be like the past.
There may not be a better way to summarize what it felt like watching San Antonio play basketball in 2018 -- a wonderfully dreadful mixture of appreciation for the absurdities of the present, anxiety over the future, and nostalgia for the way things used to be.
But if this season hadn't gone the way it did, if Kawhi had been healthy and all the pieces had fallen into place as planned, would it have really mattered? Would it have been enough to topple the Houston Rockets or the Warriors in a seven game series?
Probably not. The Rockets have assembled a basketball Death Star helmed by a trigger happy James Harden and the Warriors, at full health, are the NBA equivalent of Thanos after he collected all the infinity stones.
There also probably wouldn't have been as many Dejounte Murray dunks, or Kyle Anderson post moves making people look silly in slow motion, or games Lamarcus Aldridge carried the weight of an entire city on his back, or stretches where Manu Ginobili decided that age doesn't matter because time is just a human construct.
All of those moments and the countless more that happened over the last eight months were special, not as special as contending for a championship -- nothing in life feels like standing on a mountain top other than standing on a mountain top -- but in the end, only one team every year wins rings. At best, four others are ever even in serious conversation to have a chance.
For the better part of 20 years, the Spurs were in that conversation.
20 years. One fifth of a century. Long enough for an entire generation to go from diapers to drunk at a bar. What a long strange trip it's been.
Maybe this is it, maybe there is no surprise free agent signing or draft day trade or unforeseen leap from a young player to steal more time this time. And if it is, if this is how the run ends, it's hard to be anything but grateful.
This time, just like all the times the end seemed near before it, can't erase what's already happened. Sequels don't dilute the magic of originals and all endings, painful as they may be, are also invariably beginnings.
If there are real lessons to be learned from sports, that's what the Spurs have taught us.