There is more at stake in the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers' series-deciding Game 7 Saturday night than the rights to a deeper playoff push.
Make no mistake: The deeper playoff push matters. The immediate picture takes precedence over everything else this time of year, when the NBA title pack is thinning out.
Win, and your championship pursuit rages on into the second round against the Houston Rockets. Lose, and you're done—another season in the books, another missed opportunity in the rear view.
On a micro scale, it's that simple for the Spurs and Clippers on Saturday night. At the macro level, each is fighting for something more—something that transcends this one game, this one series, even this latest postseason push.
Los Angeles Clippers: Avoiding the What-If Prophecy
A loss in Game 7 means more to the host Clippers than a win would.
Winning only represents a chance for them to move on and fulfill their potential as a title contender. Losing is yet another blemish on a track record that's been mottled by the very standards they've been trying to meet during the Chris Paul era.
Nothing about the Clippers' performance over the last four seasons implies failure of any kind. They own the league's third-best winning percentage during this span, according to Basketball-Reference.com, and have established themselves as a premier powerhouse in a Western Conference where anything less doesn't survive.
Still, in this what-have-you-done-lately-that-you-haven't-done-before league, the Clippers are falling behind. They have yet to make it out of the second round with the current core of Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Paul, and a loss to the Spurs would mark their second first-round exit in the last three years.
Nearly capped out through next season before even factoring in Jordan's free agency, per Basketball Insiders, the Clippers will face scores of difficult questions this offseason if they bow out before the Western Conference Finals.
After all, how can they reinvest in a foundation that has peaked with a second-round appearance?
Re-signing Jordan will take tens of millions of dollars, perhaps even a max contract, and cut into whatever flexibility the Clippers are set to enjoy under the inflated salary cap in 2016. Keeping him and, by extension, this nucleus is much easier if you're building toward something and making visible progress.
Ensuring the current core stays intact may end up being a no-brainer regardless of how Game 7 plays out. Short of burning this dynamic to the ground, the Clippers are not in a position to reverse course without incurring serious setbacks. And when the alternative is regression, a second-round ceiling doesn't seem so bad.
But this is about so much more than justifying what's already in place.
The Clippers' reign as a top-four playoff seed is not forever. In the event they free up cap space in the coming summers (likely in 2016 or 2017), there's no guarantee they make the necessary improvements.
Paul is also streaking toward his 30th birthday. By the time the Clippers actually have that cap space, he'll be on the back end of his career, his regular-season reputation sterling as ever, his postseason resume tainted by early exits and outside optics.
Ian Levy expands upon this for The Cauldron:
And yet, that individual talent and all his personal accomplishments are held up against a 24–34 playoff record and zero appearances in the Conference Finals. The last paragraph of his legacy will inevitably be about his teams’ final outcomes. If things don’t change soon, he risks being shuffled off into a separate, second-class of NBA greatness. Comparisons with Karl Malone, Chris Webber, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing — and a lifetime of nagging, subtle bitterness — will be waiting for him.
It’s not fair.
No, it's not fair. Paul has generally played spectacular basketball during the playoffs.
Among the 250 players to log at least 2,000 minutes of postseason action, his player efficiency rating (24.9) ranks fifth, according to Basketball-Reference. He is no failure.
Public perception counts, though. His reputation, however unjust, won't fade or improve if he doesn't advance. The urgency behind each and every playoff run heightens as he ages. It has never been more pervasive than it is now, just as it will become even more ubiquitous if he doesn't make it past the second round by next season.
The impossibility of predicting future runs complicates the situation even further. The Clippers cannot bank on being in this position every year, not with the way the Western Conference is structured.
Next season alone will see the Oklahoma City Thunder reach full strength, the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets return unchanged or better, and Anthony Davis inch closer toward his prime. The Spurs themselves could be back for another run.
All at once then, the Clippers are trying to safeguard Paul's legacy against additional criticism, simplify their offseason and prove they have enough to win now—before their title window closes by their own hand (roster reconfiguration) or on its own.
San Antonio Spurs: Maximizing the End
No team lives for the present quite like these Spurs.
“We’ve been in this situation several times before in our run together,” general manager R.C. Buford told Grantland's Zach Lowe. “None of us look beyond where we are right now.”
Like it or not, though, the bigger picture is catching up with the Spurs.
Tim Duncan just turned 39 and Manu Ginobili is 37. Both are on expiring contracts and could retire after this latest run, ending a dynasty that spanned nearly 20 years and just one regime change (David Robinson and Duncan to Tony Parker, Ginobili and Duncan). The prospect of that happening is very real.
As Lowe wrote:
The franchise hasn’t faced this level of top-to-bottom uncertainty since Duncan dined with the Magic in 2000, and it’s hard to quash the feeling of preemptive nostalgia as you watch Duncan drain bank shots and nail every rotation while Ginobili dances steps he literally invented. Appreciate it all, because this really could be the last springtime run for one of the greatest core groups in the history of team sports.
More than that, this could be the last impression these Spurs leave.
Five titles into the Duncan era, the Spurs have nothing to prove. Losing Game 7 wouldn't change all they've done. Getting swept in either of the coming rounds wouldn't, either. Their body of work is unimpeachable.
But recency bias is real. Again, the NBA is about accomplishing the unaccomplished, and the Spurs are trying to do something they've never done before: repeat as champions.
While that may seem like nothing more than a self-indulgent legacy accessory, making that push is important. Remaining supernaturally good is the Spurs' modus operandi. Anything less is, by their standards, insignificant.
Just look to how coach Gregg Popovich reacted to Game 6's loss, courtesy of Turner Sports' Rachel Nichols:
It won't matter if the next version of the Spurs is just as successful as this one. It doesn't even matter if these same Spurs come back retooled and refreshed ready to do this all over again next season.
By their own admission, there is nothing more important than now. And though the bigger picture is bearing down on them more so than ever before, the Spurs' first and only priority is protecting this indelible portrait they've created for themselves.
They can't do that following a Game 7 loss, on the heels of their first opening-round exit since 2011, after being thrust into an offseason that could bring about another more permanent end unbefitting of everything these Spurs have done.
Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @danfavale.