The Spurs are headed to their fifth NBA Finals. That’s a tricky situation for those in the storytelling business and the audience we serve. The Spurs go out of their collective way to give us very little to work with. That’s their right, but that leads to the recycling of some tired tropes.
We can’t help ourselves. For obvious – and perfectly reasonable – reasons, we gravitate to the more interesting stories. But by the time the Finals start, the only stories left are the teams who remain, and all there is to talk about with San Antonio is basketball. That’s the last thing anyone’s editor or producer wants to hear.
So we’ve got to give you something, and I’ve got a pretty good idea of what you’re going to get.
Tim Duncan is under(insert word here). Underrated. Underappreciated. Under-something. It will come up on talk radio shows across the country, and has begun popping up on talking head television programs. My best guess is this phenomenon started in 2003, when his Spurs won their second championship and vanquished the three-time defending champion Lakers – with the star power of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant – in the process.
But let’s be serious: Where are these people who underrated Tim Duncan?
He’s widely considered the greatest power forward of all time (even if his coach thinks he’s a center). Duncan has made first-team All-NBA 10 times, including his first eight seasons and 2013, 15 years after receiving the honor for the first time. He has made first-team All-Defense eight times. He has two MVPs and has finished in the top five of the voting nine times. He has started 12 All-Star games.
Those are honors from fans, coaches and media. Underrated? Impossible. I even looked it up to make sure. “Underappreciated” doesn’t even seem to hold. You couldn’t even form your lips to sell Duncan short – assuming anyone has ever done so, of course – before someone lets you know how much you should revere him. It’s a neat story, but the entire notion of Tim Duncan, the ugly duckling of NBA superstars, is invented.
The Spurs play the right way! Those columns have already started coming in. They all leave out one question, though – who, exactly, is playing the wrong way? Is it Miami, featuring a selfless superstar? The Pacers, whose whole is certainly greater than the sum of its parts? Or is this just a euphemistic way of saying the Spurs don’t make a lot of noise?
The Spurs are boring to watch. This is the opposite of the “right way” crowd, which is composed of a lot of boring people. This is a powerful storyline, given how San Antonio is kryptonite for the NBA Finals. Maybe it’s the fact that Duncan, despite being universally lauded as an on-court superstar, never averaged 26 points per game. Or the fact that his face only changes to complain about a foul call. Or the fact that the Spurs rarely contribute a compelling off-court narrative (but we’ll get back to that).
But really, is watching Duncan work somehow less exciting than it was watching Patrick Ewing do his thing in the post? Is Popovich’s system less thrilling than the methodical triangle offense associated with Michael Jordan and Kobe? Is watching Tony Parker, unguardable for years, and Manu Ginobili worse television than Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars?
If people say the Spurs bore them, then that’s just what it is. But a team that moves the ball, has two dynamic perimeter players and the best big man of this era isn’t fun to watch? What do they have to do, bring back George Gervin?
Those are the three big manufactured stories, with “why don’t we talk more about Parker?” just missing the medal stand (even though he was an MVP candidate before getting hurt in March). Of course, the Spurs will be no more offended by any of this “disrespect” – legitimate or otherwise – than anyone who writes that their inability to grab casual fans is some great tragedy.
That’s the rub with Duncan and the Spurs. When they do well, fans are chastised by media for not paying attention to them. But if they’re not at the precipice of a championship or hoisting the trophy, they give us little to discuss. They just don’t care to do so.
It’s not a simple matter of them being “boring.” After 16 years of success, anyone would be able to find stories to tell about Pop and Duncan (plus Parker and Ginobili)...if those guys wanted their stories to be told. But over and over again, they’ve made it clear that’s not what they’re here for. They simply want to play and coach basketball, and they want to be discussed for only those things. In return, fans have done just as they’ve asked. No need to guilt trip anyone for that. They’re off the radar, and they like it that way.
And right now, it’s really coming in handy. Friday, reports trickled in that Duncan’s wife filed for divorce. The team confirmed this Saturday, and it was barely mentioned that night after tipoff of Game 3; not even after Duncan looked especially locked in during overtime of that 104-93 victory.
The Spurs relative anonymity didn’t hurt, either, when Tony Parker divorced actress Eva Longoria...and that one thing came up.
Imagine any of those things happening to the Lakers.
Duncan has passed up millions in endorsement dollars because he’s not concerned with the money he would make or fame that would come with it. Look how well that’s working out now.
Rather than talk about why folks should pay more attention to the Spurs, now might be the time to point out why it’s okay that we don’t. Their coach and centerpiece are universally praised. Their point guard, a former Finals MVP, is so good that informed opinions of the Spurs’ chances have hinged on his health.
They’re not boring. There just isn’t much to talk about, and it’s probably better that way for everyone.