San Antonio Spurs Have Nothing Left to Prove, and That Makes Them Dangerous

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San Antonio Spurs Have Nothing Left to Prove, and That Makes Them Dangerous
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

Toting the burden of proof is one such bother the San Antonio Spurs do not share with 29 other NBA teams.

Another banner season to their name, their core still intact, the Spurs are in possession of pressure-free power. There is nothing left to prove, no expectations left to meet, no feats or follies left to chase or avoid that will define them as something other than what they already are.

Next year's Spurs are picture-perfect stability incarnate, more so than last season, when the stench of NBA Finals defeat lingered and championship business was left unfinished. 

No such sense of incompleteness follows them into 2014-15. These Spurs are, unequivocally, masters of their own fate, at the mercy of nothing and no one besides themselves and the path they've chosen to pave.

 

Returning on Their Own Terms

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Last year's title run could have been the end.

Sensing their collective mortality, the Spurs could have disbanded, willingly accepting and facilitating the conclusion to 17 years of preeminent relevance. 

Tim Duncan, like David Robinson before him, could have retired on top, five championship rings in hand, a stainless legacy to his name.

Manu Ginobili could have done the same, walking away with four titles, two All-Star appearances and, most importantly, no regrets.

Gregg Popovich could have called it quits as well, taking his surly disposition and title-stamped resume with him.

Not even Tony Parker needed to stick around, in the loosest sense of the phrase. Retirement remains a ways off at only 32 years old, but a multiyear commitment wasn't necessary. Anticipating the end to San Antonio's illustrious reign, he could have kept his options open.

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None of them left or even came close to leaving. They all elected to stay and play even further beyond their shelf life. Not out of necessity, either. Rather, they stayed, they're back, out of sheer want.

Contracts didn't keep the Spurs together. Convenience isn't at the heart of their return. Neither desperation nor obligation can be cited. Their continued existence is about themselves and their decision to play on.

No other team enjoyed the luxury of absolute, fallout-free choice. Only the Spurs, who remain in a league all their own because the easier it became for things to change, the more this group stayed the same.

 

Nothing Left to Prove

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Satisfaction can be the enemy of success. It breeds complacency and lethargy, diminished drive, eradicated urgency. And with nothing left to fight for, how do teams actually fight?

The Spurs, to their credit, are different. They always have been.

When other teams rushed for change, they remained the same. When free agency and trades became foundations for rebuilds and instant turnarounds, they continued developing and improving from within. 

Different rules apply in San Antonio. The same things that damage aims elsewhere—like a lack of change—don't play in River City. 

Continuity has been their friend. The same coach, guiding the same core, playing (mostly) the same way has won the Spurs numerous titles and yielded 17 consecutive playoff berths.

David J. Phillip/Associated Press
The Spurs have realistically done all they can do.

And it's not like the Spurs don't have anything to play for. They know their day in the sun is drawing to a close. They know what a sixth championship would mean for Duncan's already sturdy legacy. They know this is a chance for them to erase doubt as to whether they're a dynasty by winning back-to-back championships for the first time.

"Those consecutive championships may or may not be a requisite condition for the 'dynasty' label," Bleacher Report's Stephen Babb writes, "but it's a distinction that would certainly help San Antonio's case."

Help. Not define or shape, but help. 

If the Spurs win another title—or come close to hoisting another Larry O'Brien Trophy—it only enhances their championship charm. If they fail to win, they won't have actually failed at all.

Everything they do from here is either extra or inconsequential. The good becomes great, and the not-so-good doesn't matter.

They already have the highest winning percentage (70.6) of any team since 1997, and it's not even close. They rank fifth in offensive efficiency and first in defensive efficiency during that time, too, per Basketball-Reference.com. The longevity of their success is peerless in that it's reached the point where no one event—triumph or foible—makes a noticeable dent.

Their marble-etched reputation was in full force even before they won their most recent title. It's what allowed CBS Sports' Matt Moore to declare the Spurs' current Big Three—Duncan, Ginobili, Parker—the best ever weeks before they unseated the Miami Heat:

I'm willing to go ahead and say it. I think this team, this Spurs core that has been together since 2002, when you factor its entire 12 year-and-counting run, is the greatest NBA team of all time. The Chicago Bulls had better players, and much better individual seasons in the 90's. The Lakers and Celtics captured our imaginations the way that this team never has. But going back to when Duncan was drafted, that this team has been so dominant for so long? That this core for 12 years has been this good?

It's fine if you believe it's Russell's Celtics, or Jordan's Bulls, or Magic's Lakers or Bird's Celtics or, if you want to get really inventive, Kobe's Lakers. But that's where I'm at. I've never seen anything like what this Spurs team has done over such a long time.

That, again, was in May. Winning another title only strengthened that mystique. And it's the same story next season, only more so. 

No matter what happens—good or bad, beautiful or ugly—the Spurs will still be the same Spurs of the last 17 years. 

 

Danger Alert

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Put in the simplest of terms, the Spurs are still insanely dangerous because they're still the Spurs. But equally important, it's never been a better time for the Spurs to be the Spurs.

The offseason has done nothing to hurt San Antonio's chances next season. The starkest improvements came within the Eastern Conference. 

LeBron James and Chris Bosh didn't journey west. Kevin Love went east. Pau Gasol went east. 

More valuable still, the Western Conference's top contenders did little to improve overall.

The Oklahoma City Thunder aren't any different. The Los Angeles Clippers (Spencer Hawes) and Golden State Warriors (Shaun Livingston) made marginal improvements. So, too, did the Memphis Grizzlies (Vince Carter) and Portland Trail Blazers (Chris Kaman). The Houston Rockets whiffed hard in free agency.

No outside-the-bubble team improved drastically, either. Omer Asik won't vault the New Orleans Pelicans into contention. The Denver Nuggets' greatest weapon is the hope that maybe, quite possibly, they'll be healthy. The Los Angeles Lakers didn't work free-agency miracles.

Although the absence of power-shifting moves doesn't promise anything, it does, as Pounding The Rock's J. Gomez details, leave San Antonio on the offensive:

Now, all of this doesn't mean the Spurs are guaranteed to repeat as champions or even come out of the West. Far from it. The Spurs have their own flaws they didn't address and they are still very fragile when it comes to health. But the status-quo was maintained and that always benefits the people on top. Last season, with virtually the same roster they will have this upcoming year, the Spurs were undoubtedly the best team in the league. And it seems like none of the teams that could be a real threat to unseat them has improved that much over the off-season.

The path to a repeat won't be easy. But the way things transpired in free agency at least signal that, at least on paper, the title is the Spurs' to lose.

Defending champions are usually dangerous. The Spurs are no different, but they're also something more.

Age is still an obstacle. They must hope Patty Mills gets healthy and stays healthy. They need to pray Boris Diaw's new contract doesn't color him lazy. They need Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard to keep making leaps. 

They need things to remain unchanged.

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Freak accidents notwithstanding, there's no reason to believe they won't. Remaining the same has been their forte for more than a decade. That's all they have to do now, sans the burden of proof, the same one that creates pressure and the possibility for failure.

"I'm honored to be on this team right now because he's going to be great for years to come," Duncan would say of Leonard after beating the Heat, per USA Today's Sam Amick. "And I'm going to hold on as long as I can."

That Duncan and the Spurs continue to hold on makes them dangerous, because with nothing to lose and everything to gain, they are holding on to an immediate future that cannot include failure.

 

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