Of Mice and Pens

Posted by Rob Mahoney on May 2, 2011 under Commentary, News | 9 Comments to Read

Screen shot 2011-05-02 at 11.23.13 AM

The 2007 Mavericks were dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.

Yet now that those Mavs aren’t the only top-seeded team downed improbably by their eighth-seeded opponents in a seven-game series, the retrospective view of Dallas’ failure should be a bit different. Only it isn’t — the San Antonio Spurs, upon their premature dismissal from the postseason, have largely been met with knowing nods and tips of hats.  That’s not an inappropriate response given the franchise in question, but it’s certainly a startlingly different response than the one the Mavericks faced in ’07.

In both cases, superior teams were defeated due to the pesky complications of specific matchup problems. Lost amidst all the “better team won” cliché of the San Antonio-Memphis series is the fact that the Spurs lost the series despite their objective superiority. According to Basketball-Reference.com’s series preview, the four most probable results of the series — based on the regular season exploits of both teams — were as follows:

  • Spurs in 5 (25.4%)
  • Spurs in 7 (19.7%)
  • Spurs in 6 (13.3%)
  • Spurs in 4 (12.9%)

Granted, the series projections based on the post-deadline data alone paint a different picture. But if we view San Antonio’s 82-game season as their total body of work, there was no reason to expect that they might lose in the first round. A 75.7% chance of taking the series is a fairly dominant mark, and yet one that made sense considering the statistical profiles of both clubs. All signs pointed to the Spurs being the better team, just as they pointed to the Mavs being the better team in 2007. The two teams are more kindred in spirit than the response to this latest upset would suggest. The decidedly rosier reaction to the Spurs’ first round flub a bit confusing, to be honest.

San Antonio didn’t lose to a better team, merely one that — when playing within the context of this particular series – looked like the better team. Yet their first round demise has inspired more mourning than mocking, more admiring lament than schadenfreude. Again, these responses are not inappropriate so much as incongruent; I have no qualms with the respectful reaction to the fall of San Antonio in itself, merely with the fact that another damn impressive franchise wasn’t given the same benefit back in 2007.

The Spurs and the Mavs are, sadly, two franchises defined by their echoes. It doesn’t have to be that way, but sports fans make it so with every time they mock the ringless or fetishize the exploits of a former champion. San Antonio has won four titles in the Tim Duncan era, and as such, is generally considered immune to all criticism. They’ve somehow achieved the ends that justify all means and erase all flaws — past, present, and future. Dallas, needless to say, has not been as fortunate. But what separates these two franchises isn’t an ocean. It’s 58 pounds of hardware. It’s memories of seasons four years ago at most recent, 12 years ago at most distant. The Spurs that were eliminated from the playoffs on Friday weren’t champs at all, but the bare remnants of a team that has, throughout its lifetime, accomplished great things.

Over the years, San Antonio has garnered universal respect through the consistent rebuking of public doubt. Every time a new season or playoff series began, the Spurs had to prove themselves all over again. They were too old. They didn’t have the depth. They were too limited on offense. Some of those points were valid, but over the years that hardly mattered; the Spurs answered their critics with great regular season marks and long playoff runs, even though they were often presumed to be defeated before they even had a chance to compete. As odd as it was, we were all waiting for the day the Spurs would finally fall, and their refusal to abide by the limits of mortal teams only fueled the legend of their excellence.

Only this time, basketball fans have relented. They’ve abandoned the adversarial framework that built up San Antonio’s mythical empire in the first place, and though that concession may benefit the Spurs’ public image, such a shift is of no good to the general discourse.

We know that the Mavs’ 2007 loss to the ‘We Believe’ Warriors is viewed as chokery. Dallas has the unfortunate characterization of being a “regular season team,” as a decade’s worth of work has not resulted in a single championship ring.

I’m also quite certain that had this year’s Lakers — the reigning back-to-back NBA champs, mind you — lost in 6 games to the Hornets in the first round, it would be universally regarded as an embarrassing and derisible failure. They would be considered “soft,” and everyone from Pau Gasol to Kobe Bryant to Phil Jackson would be questioned.

The team that “hasn’t won anything,” was mocked for continuing their ringless trajectory, and the team that has won everything (including those affirming championship rings) would be ripped to pieces for their inability to make it out of the first round. So where, exactly, does that put the Spurs? They’re somehow given the full respect of a champion but without any of the baggage, perhaps the only No. 1 seed in the modern era capable of losing a first-round series with minimal heckling. Many readers and writers of the narrative seem to have things jumbled; highly successful regular season teams are otherwise taunted for the playoff shortcomings regardless of a championship pedigree, yet San Antonio remains untarnished.

To reiterate one final time: as an organization, a team, and a basketball concept, the Spurs deserve respect. I just see no compelling reason why their failures exist on a different plane from those of all other teams, or why the context of this loss is so unique as to be treated with reverence. Sports fans have nothing if not the selective enforcement of their own personal rules, but all I ask for is the slightest bit of logical consistency.

  • Tom

    It is simple. The Spurs weren't a really title favorite despite their regular season record, while the Mavs were and the Lakers are.

    In 2007, Dallas was the title favorite (They had the best record (67 wins – most ever by a team that didn't win the title), the league MVP and were in 2006 NBA Finals)
    In 2011, LA is the west conference favorite and the only western conference team likely to win the title (They are the 2-time defending champs with minimal roster changes and they have Kobe (a.k.a. The Man Who Wishes He Was Jordan))

    Either one of them losing in the first round is missing a title shot.

    In 2011, San Antonio is not a title favorite (They had the second best record (61 wins – much more average total), no league MVP candidate, and haven't been to the finals since 2007)

    The Spurs were not likely to win an NBA title (The Lakers, Bulls & Heat all looked like too much for the Spurs)

  • Kintaro

    The heckling was kept to a minimum because the Spurs blatantly overachieved this season.

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  • Peter

    Its a fair point, but I think the series were different enough that you can't say that the Spurs' hardware is the only difference.

    I don't remember those Warriors having nearly the level of respect that this Grizz team has. Besides winning more games, Memphis played well against the other top seeds in the West, whereas '07 Golden State didn't do much against the other contenders. I also think people looked at the Dallas loss as worse because they had three big losses in that series, including 25 point loss in the close-out. San Antonio's losses were closer, though they never had big win either.

    Not saying its fair, but I think that influences perception, too.

  • trippoli

    i think tom nailed it, with peter adding the perfect side note. plus it was no secret that injuries throughout the spurs roster late in the season were expected to take a toll.

    now, that being said, it's still beyond infuriating that people are letting the magnitude of a #1 vs #8 upset slide like it's not a big deal.

  • Serge

    Maybe the fact that there are more polarizing figures on the Lakers and Mavs means that when they lose, more people want to rub it in the face of theirs fans.

    Also the culture and history of the Spurs would suggest that they gave 100% effort throughout the series, something that probably couldnt be said if the Lakers lost a series like this.

  • http://twitter.com/travisahuse Travis Austin Huse

    I think much of it falls on the idea that this was an inevitable downfall. In the eyes of the public, the Spurs have been so good for so long that something has to give. Much of the media has been waiting with bated breath for this day; however, when it finally came, people started to pine for the good ol' days of Spurs dominance.

  • AletheiaAgape

    Good points all around, both in the post and the comments!

    I'd also add that the HUGE failure-to-finish in the '06 Finals combined with the 07 exit to create the Mavs-can't-compete-when-it-counts narrative. Until then, they were just a good team that hadn't made it over the hump. As Tom said, they became favorites after 06, and became “playoff disappointments” after 07.

    Also, the Warriors lost pretty quickly in the next round, making the Mavs all the more disappointing…even though GS swept them in the regular season, it's hard to remember match-up issues.

    The Spurs' lack of media presence limits reaction both ways. They are probably the most boring champions the NBA has ever seen. Popovich emphasizes character, so it's no surprise that his players don't speak much. They're good, but they're not showy…so nobody pays much attention.

  • AletheiaAgape

    Rob,
    I looked at the Basketball-Reference link you included, and I
    definitely think you underestimated the post-deadline predictions.

    You're right, the Spurs should be considered for their entire season's
    body of work, but not the Grizzlies. They should only be considered post-deadline, since they made so many major trades. It's not that the Spurs got worse (they did, slightly) but that Memphis got better (way better).