The Spurs, The Trail Blazers, and What Contention Means


The San Antonio Spurs are world champions again. They shish kabobed the Miami Heat in the Finals, and Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich won their fifth title together. They were on par with any team I’ve seen play as a basketball fan, and they are far and away the best franchise in sports. Take a few moments to appreciate them, because they can’t last forever.

Done? Good, because there is other stuff to talk about. The Spurs’ win is being sold as a testament to perseverance and dedication, which is true. But it also raises interesting questions about roster construction that are relevant to the Trail Blazers’ current situation.

How do you know if you have enough? Both teams in this year’s finals were playing roughly the same cores that they played in 2011. They both decided to bring those cores back the next three years. The decision for the Heat was easy–LeBron was 26, and the Big 3 experiment had yielded a finals trip on the first go. But the Spurs’ decision is more interesting.

The Spurs got pounded by the upstart Grizzlies in the first round, and Tim Duncan, then 34, had taken a big step back. The Spurs faced a choice, and decided to keep rolling with minor adjustments to the same team. Boris Diaw and Kawhi Leonard ended up being major upgrades, but there was no way of knowing that at the time.

So the Spurs kept at it, losing to the Thunder in the 2012 lockout season, and losing in such a way that suggested that the 2012 iteration of the Spurs might be prohibitively flawed. They won the first two games of the series, their 19th and 20th straight, before getting stomped in the last four games. It looked like the Spurs had been made irrelevant by the impossibly young Thunder, who looked like they would march into Finals matchups with the Heat over and over for the next decade, as a millennial Lakers-Celtics.

But weird stuff happens in the NBA. Magic and Larry met in the Finals just three times in their careers. We remember them dominating the 80s and playing each other in June time and time again because it’s exceptional to get the same matchup three times in the same decade. We shouldn’t have expected a Heat-Thunder Finals. They clearly weren’t inevitable.

May 29, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Serge Ibaka (9) and guard Russell Westbrook (0) react against the San Antonio Spurs during the second half in game five of the Western Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

You probably remember what happened. The Thunder struggled with injury the next two years, which allowed the Spurs to make the Finals both times. Counter-factual history is impossible, but it’s unlikely that if Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka stay healthy, the Thunder don’t win at least one of those Conference Finals. We know that the Thunder are still a terrible matchup for the Spurs–they barely escaped with their lives once Ibaka returned in game three.

I don’t mean to say that the Spurs got lucky. They were an impossibly good team and they waded through an absolute minefield of a Western Conference. Their first round matchup, the Dallas Mavericks, would probably be the third-best team in the East. The Spurs deserved 100% of this championship.

What I mean to point out is that the Spurs testify to an underrated part of success in the NBA. As much as we like to talk about teams of destiny and born winners and the like, there is a lot of value in just showing up where the cool kids are and hanging around for a few years, making marginal improvements and hoping one of these years it works out. It’s how Dallas won the Finals in 2011, and it seems to be the Clippers’ strategy too: set yourself up to be a top-three or top-four seed for a while, then hunker down and hope it pans out one of these years. In a league as competitive as this one, that’s all you can typically hope to do.

Which brings us to Portland. The Trail Blazers have a good, reasonably young team. They got to 54 wins this year, one short of the 55 some have mentioned as a rough benchmark for contention. If we assume some improvement from the current group thanks to internal development and experience playing together, that puts the Trail Blazers on the fringes of contention in a loaded west. Neil Olshey has suggested–see footnote 1 in the link above–that that is exactly where they want to be.

But the Trail Blazers also have to deal with LaMarcus Aldridge’s looming free agency, which will be a test of their commitment to that philosophy. There probably won’t be a parade in Portland next year, but they will be good. When that happens, by Olshey’s logic, they should roll with Aldridge and minor upgrades rather than going for some high-upside move.

This offseason has a huge number of fascinating storylines–Kevin Love, the Big Three’s free agency, the draft–and the Trail Blazers likely won’t be involved in any. Expect a couple moves in the vein of the Thomas Robinson trade, but nothing more. They’re not especially close to a title as things stand today, but the ball bounces funny in the NBA sometimes, and the Trail Blazers aren’t in a bad spot to capitalize.

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