Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Biggest "What-If" in Sports

The San Antonio Spurs.

Sixteen straight 50+ win seasons. (1998 being a strike shortened season but they still had a .740 winning percentage)

All for what? Little.

Today is the day that the Spurs won their 50th game in 2013 for the 16th straight time (technically 14th, but when it comes to winning percentage, it's a different story), the most in NBA history. An accomplishment over shadowed by the debacle in L.A. and Miami running train for the last month. It only leaves an individual, such as myself, asking one major question: What if San Antonio were a big market city? For this blog we'll just say New York.

The New York Yankees have been a franchise that has been long pronounced as Americas powerhouse when it comes to sports in the United States. They run a $200 million+ business (with only the players) and have been successful since 1995. Prior to 1995, they were an unknown commodity, they hadn't been to the playoffs since 1981 losing to the Dodgers in 6 games in the World Series. That is 13 straight seasons of ineptitude for a franchise, prior to 1995, as the most heralded franchise in all of sports with the most championships ever in American sports history.

Where do the Yankees fit in with the Spurs discussion? Understanding that the playoffs in baseball are much more difficult to attain than in basketball I will say that the Yankees were no slouch in the 1980's. They had three 90+ win seasons (post 1981) but they also had five sub .500 seasons leaking into the early 1990's.

The Spurs, since joining the NBA in 1976, have had six sub .500 seasons with five of them in the 1980's, similar to the Yankees. Even before this impressive run that the Spurs have been on, the Yankees have been more talked about even though their run is much similar to that of the Spurs. I'll dive deeper to give you more significance of this Spurs run.

The Lakers (7), Yankees (7) and Patriots (5) have all been to more Championships than the Spurs (4) since they started this run in 1997-98. I will admit, the greatness hasn't been their when it comes to making it to the NBA title compared to these three teams, but it is only these three teams that the Spurs really do not have much say in the argument with.

I will concede that the Lakers have been a better franchise during the same time the Spurs have been on this run. With the market the Lakers have, they are expected to keep a high level of consistency which even though they have in championships, they have not been to the playoffs every year the Spurs have been on this run. Also think about this as you rip the Spurs and give little respect to their small market:

Since the Spurs started this run, name the other three teams that have been in the NBA finals for the West since 1997-1998? Jazz (1998), Mavericks (2006,2011), and the Thunder (2012). 11 of those 15 prior Western Conference representatives have come from either L.A. or San Antonio and mind you both of them matched up in the playoffs several of those times and the Lakers won more often than not.

So the Lakers have it better, fine! But did they make the playoffs in 2005?

Does anybody remember the year after the Lakers put together that Hall of Fame crew with Gary Payton, Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant, and Shaquille O'neal along with getting swept in the finals? They were one of the worst teams in the NBA. While the Lakers were passing Kobe the ball on every possession and losing more than they had seen in a long time, the Spurs were dominating the NBA with their smash mouth defense and playing "un-watchable" basketball with games played in the 60's, and I'm not talking about the era, I'm talking about the score.

If the Lakers were playing this brand of basketball in the playoffs, people would say other wise and think that there was a transition occurring in the NBA. That's just how big markets work, things rotate around them so that the league can generate more money. But nobody remembers that because they were worrying about "the collapse" of the Lakers this season similar to that of the 2004-2005 Lakers squad. There's a rise, and there's a fall, and people like it when teams who are great rise and fall because it gives them a sense that even when they are down, they can get back up. A classic example of the Lakers. But the Spurs haven't done so in nearly a generation.

The New York Yankees of 2008. Does anybody remember this "collapse?" Granted, again, baseball is very hard to make the playoffs and win on a consistent basis, but if you're raking in $200 million+ of player salary (ungodly the most in Major League Baseball) you are expected to do so. The Spurs are no where near that level of a market and have been doing this well for so long. That year in 2008 the Yankees were a train wreck and somehow mustered up a second half comeback to make it back to respectability. But considering the hole they dug themselves, it was just too deep to climb out of. Then came talk on the four letter network of "the end of the dynasty" because it was the first year that the Yankees hadn't been to the Playoffs since the strike year of 1994. Again, very impressive and a 13 year run that in this era may not be duplicated again... but they still missed the playoffs. The level of success the Spurs have had since the 1997-1998 season compared to that of the Yankees is difficult to compare, but even this year they are talking about the fall of the Yankees once again for the possibility of them not making the playoffs.

The Patriots in 1999, 2000, 2002, and 2008 didn't make the playoffs. 2008 was an anomaly. The Patriots went 11-5 and somehow didn't make the playoffs which is still ridiculous to this day. Still, they didn't make the playoffs after their super bowl championship in 2001. They went 9-7 and barely made any noise in their second act during a super bowl championship defending season. The Spurs every year, after they have won their championships, have been in the playoffs to defend their reign as basketball's supremacy. Yes, they have never repeated like the three teams mentioned in this blog, but they can at least say they were around to defend each and every championship. Also, something fishy such as spy gate has never been brought up through the Spurs, and Greg Popovich never wears a hood on the sideline. Granted, the Patriots have never been a big market club either and have built their way up to get to where they have. They have done it in the most recent era, which I give them huge credit for, and have done it in the most popular sport in America... but they haven't won the equivalency of 50+ games every year for 16 years in a row.

Let's play fairy tale world for a bit with this Spurs franchise and imagine they were the "hot bed of sports." We all know that every time they come on SportsCenter or any other sporting news show they are either put up front, moved aside, mentioned with some historical anomaly, then forgotten throughout the program.

No team has ever done what this team has done. None. No franchise, no nothing has ever done what this franchise has put together, especially in an era where the individual and the spotlight are the main attraction. They don't want the spotlight, and still put together an incredible set of teams year in and year out. Their tactics are flawless, always set up to compete with the best even when their draft stock means absolutely nothing year in and year out. They always reload, always bring in the best foreign players and their scouting is the best in sports history, period. If this team played in down town Madison Square Garden and was doing what they have been doing the past 16 years, this franchise would be the heart of sports and the NBA would put them on ESPN every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and TNT would show them every Thursday night.

The NBA would not rotate around superstars, and the atmosphere would be the same from the superstars all the way down to the IR guys wearing the suits who can't play because they have the flu. Our society would value the team instead of the individual, and problems within the the individualistic mindset wouldn't be as valued as problems within the familial mindset. Imagine how much more powerful the brand of basketball would be around the world if the Spurs brand of basketball was in such a large market such as New York. Greg Popovich would be a media mogul and his style of basketball would get spread through the league quicker than a tweet from Richard Sherman defending his "All-Pro Stanford Graduate" status. Branding would be on team play, fundamental basketball, and games would be even more competitive in the regular season than they are today.

This is the part people miss about the NBA. Most people know that, yes, Jordan was unstoppable and a force to be reckon with, but when Magic and Bird ran the League in the 80's turning the league into what it is today, they would tell you first that their TEAM is what made them great. The players surrounding them is what boosted the NBA into what it has become, and it didn't hurt that they played in LARGE MARKETS so one player could be utilized to represent the team. But, this Spurs team is gritty, gutty, and will come to play every night and give you their 110% because they are paid professional athletes with no ego playing for a simple goal in a TEAM GAME. Yes they sit their superstars and certain players at certain times during the regular season, but even when their "best" are sitting, they can still compete with the Miami Heat.

It is something that the NBA is lacking, and something that we all wish the NBA could be again, especially today in this self-image promoting, media bonanza, me-me-me superstar driven league. The Spurs are running the most consistent organization sports has seen since the Celtics of the 60's. That was 40+ years ago. We may never see this again, and it is especially difficult knowing that all major media markets turn a blind eye to the beauty that is team sports. Put the Spurs product in New York, and don't tell me that the brand of the NBA would be completely different and an even better brand today.

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