David Lee was making an impact in the first quarter of Game 3 against the Warriors. Read that sentence again. Luxuriate in the whipsaw incongruity of Lee, 34, a noted career defensive nonfactor, crushing spot minutes in the Western Conference finals against the greatest assemblage of talent in modern NBA history. That Lee’s nova-burst backlit the ongoing dissolution of LaMarcus Aldridge’s game — 6-foot-11 and getting smaller every minute — only made it more impressive. Then it was over.
Lee had been on the floor for less than three minutes when he rolled to the rim, caught a crisp pass from Manu Ginobili, laid the ball up, got the foul, and came down with a season-ending knee injury. He was helped off the court and bundled into a waiting wheelchair. He had scored four points on 2-of-3 shooting from the floor Saturday night. The Spurs limped gamely to the finish, at times getting within single digits of the Warriors, using lineups featuring luminous names like Davis Bertans, Dejounte Murray, Bryn Forbes, and Kyle Anderson before falling 120–108. Lee joined Tony Parker (quadriceps) and Kawhi Leonard (ankle) on the roll call of Spurs wounded.
Over the years, I’ve come to think of Gregg Popovich, with his spray of white hair and Gandalfian beard, as some kind of wizard. This season, and particularly this postseason, with Pop’s best players not at his disposal, he’s like the NBA’s version of Sully. A consummate professional, able to land his airplane despite numerous mechanical failures due to a bedrock mastery of craft. And because everything nonessential has already been stripped away.
"It’s about building the blocks," Pop said in 2014 at a coaching clinic in Berlin. "Relationships with your players. How do you get something out of somebody who’s selfish? Or doesn’t really compete the way you would like? … All those things have more to do with winning and losing than being able to draw a certain kind of play."
Now, the airplane is going to crash. Let’s be real. The Spurs are down 3–0 to the best team in the league — a team that won 73 games, lost the title due to the tensile strength of Draymond Green’s impulse control, then went and signed Kevin Durant — and Leonard will not play in Game 4. The Spurs are, barring an intervention from the Dark Lord himself, going to get swept. Which is a shame, because the true brilliance of San Antonio emerges only in the space between winning and losing.
I do not relish writing about the Spurs. In fact, I hate thinking about them. Mostly because it’s been impossible to not think about them for my entire adult life. Spurs fans are always complaining that their squad doesn’t get its proper due, that they’re underrated and disrespected. The annoying thing — because people do rate and praise the Spurs on a regular basis — is that Spurs fans are kind of right.
The reward structure of the NBA can’t accurately value the Spurs. Value is tied to scarcity, a concept that never seems to apply to Popovich’s teams. They haven’t missed the playoffs in 20 seasons. Spurs players compete at high levels into their late 30s, probably due to some unholy combination of rest and cold-pressed juice. They dig deep into the strata and substrata of the draft — they haven’t picked higher than 20 since 1997 — and regularly come back with gems. And when they move on from a player, it’s only after every remaining minute of usefulness has been mined from his career. Remember Tiago Splitter? Me neither.
There’s no award for losing in the Western Conference finals. No trophy for casually dismissing the Rockets, the no. 2 offensive team in the NBA, in six games, while down a Hall of Famer and an MVP candidate. There’s no trophy for crafting an elite defense out of lineups including David Lee and Pau Gasol. That is, unless you count Coach of the Year, which Popovich might win again this season.
There are only championships — the imperfect and ultimate argument-ending measure of greatness because they’re so hard to win and are doled out only once per year. But that metric is a comically incomplete sketch of the greatness of the Spurs. And here’s where the cultish feeling comes in because, again, we talk about this every single year. But look: We are at a point in history when Gregg Popovich is not just a successful basketball coach but an important touchstone of public sanity and rectitude. A man who we turn to for his takes on national politics.
Say "Gregg Popovich should be president of the United States," out loud and watch what happens. Instead of laughing in your face, people stare wistfully into the middle distance. This is where we are.
San Antonio’s five titles are impressive, of course. Do not get me wrong, but they are spaced out over a decade-plus; they never went back-to-back. San Antonio’s title teams never quite gave you that feeling — as the Lakers, Heat, and even today’s Warriors have — like they were going to put the whole league in a chokehold for the next few seasons. But even that flows from some elemental choice.
"We don’t talk about winning the conference," Pop said in that Berlin speech. "We don’t talk about winning a championship. Honest! Never in one year did I know we’re gonna get this done. We’re the best team. Never have we felt like that."
Theirs is a different kind of dominance. The thing about the Spurs is they are always there. Always in the mix. Dynasties have been born, risen to prominence, and crumbled into dust since Popovich took the reins of the Spurs. Michael Jordan was marching to his second-to-last title the last time the Spurs missed the playoffs. Kobe and Steve Nash were rookies. San Antonio has been in title contention for so long that it’s basically a piece of furniture in the room.
No wonder I’m tired of talking about how great the Spurs are. I’m tired of their ability to develop unheralded rookies into stars. I hate the way San Antonio takes the third and fourth names mentioned in a deal, stashes them overseas for a couple of turns, then all of a sudden has them playing heart-attack minutes in a playoff game.
After dragooning the Pacers into trading the 15th pick in 2011 (Kawhi Leonard) for George Hill, the Spurs had the temerity to turn freaking Davis Bertans into a player. That’s like dunking on someone, then returning to dunk on them in their dreams. They’ve changed styles at least three times under Pop — from inside-outside, to outside-inside, to Kawhi-take-us-home. It’s annoying that they’ve barely had any scandals, and that those that arose disappeared like whispers in the wind. They won 61 games the year after Tim Duncan retired. It’s all just too much. But, at the same time, totally normal. Like the way the sun is a gigantic ball of nuclear fire that sustains all life on the planet but is also just kind of there, in the sky, more or less unremarked upon, every minute of your life.
And after all that, this season might be Pop’s best coaching job yet. The league’s best defense, seemingly in spite of personnel. Blooding players like Bertans and Murray. Hanging another "KICK ME" sign on Mike D’Antoni.
On top of all this roster archaeology and nemesis-slaying, there’s the Zaza-Kawhi affair. Pop’s surprisingly frank defamation of Pachulia’s actions as "dangerous" and "inappropriate" is, on the one hand, a somewhat hypocritical position from a guy who coached Bruce Bowen for many years. (If Pop’s opinion has shifted on step-under defensive plays over the past eight seasons, that’s fine. But if it has, it’s also fair to wonder why.) On the other, it’s a master class in having your team’s back and working over the refs. It’s "They ain’t gonna rook us," by a coach 20 years past being a rookie.
Many NBA teams never fully realize that doing the right thing, having a strong process, doesn’t mean everything works out. If the ultimate measure of success is winning the championship, then hard work rarely pays off. The Spurs are the model NBA franchise. But it’s a path few have the patience to follow.
"I guess since we won it worked," Pop said of San Antonio’s 2014 title. "If we didn’t win, would you say it didn’t work? That’s part of the thrill of sport."