I usually write about soccer, having grown up in a small city in the UK, living and breathing a sport where the big market teams win and the small market teams don’t. As such, I know a thing or two about the trials and tribulations, the highs and the lows, of following a team you know won’t win the lot come seasons end. In reaction to the Kawhi Leonard trade, a popular take has been to hammer the Spurs for taking a current All Star with a limited ceiling as oppose to the unknown of a pick heavy package. The reason behind this being precisely the word ceiling. San Antonio are sacrificing the potential to be great for the security of being good. Let me teach you a little about the value of being good, not great.
San Antonio likely lost their opportunity to become great during this era the moment their MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard lost the trust of the organization. The general consensus dictates a franchise will rarely, if ever, receive 100 cents on the dollar when trading away All NBA talent, such is the impact a superstar can have on a court shared with just nine other players at one time. Even the successful trades, as recently as Indiana acquiring Victor Oladipo once franchise player Paul George had made his intentions clear, were not perceived as a fair trade at the time. This cold truth of NBA reality the Spurs had avoided for so long left them facing two paths. Bottom out and rebuild. Or embrace becoming a team that is good, not great.
Having accepted the latter fate, the Spurs will now spend the 2018/19 NBA season jostling for the bottom four play off seeds in an ever loaded Western Conference. A team led by Demar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge is quite the zig in a 3 point zagging league and will not be viewed as a legitimate title contender. However, they should still have the opportunity to be good, and in a boom or bust era of basketball, that is okay; to be good, not great.
If the NBA was a film, we would all be rooting for the scrappy underdog. The team that is given no chance, with a star whose previous franchise stopped believing in. Perhaps the only difference from reality is in the film the scrappy underdog takes the championship home. There is no doubt the current roster will not go down as one of the Spurs’ greatest. They will not be nationally revered. There will be “modern basketball” scoffs, as Demar banks a long two. But maybe, those underdog qualities can make this team all the more endearing to the San Antonio faithful. An us against them mentality may begin to form, “they don't believe in us SZN” tweets start to trend (locally), small morale victories pile up. Perhaps all time coach Gregg Popovich leads this team to a sixth, maybe a fifth seed. Maybe they pull of an upset, knocking off a more talented team who don’t quite know who they are yet, after a raucous atmosphere in Game 6. The kind of atmosphere you don’t feel in the AT&T centre when they sweep an 8 seed. Who knows, their story may win the hearts of the nation in a way a team with four All-Stars never could. If not the best team, they could become the most loved as 2020 approaches Pop. Sometimes it’s okay to be good, not great.
Romantics aside, there are also big picture basketball reasons to make this move. Whilst it may seem short sighted, the San Antonio Spurs are as old as the NBA. They will continue to exist for decades to come. In the grand scheme of things, delaying a rebuild by a couple of years will have no real impact when we look back at the franchise’s accomplishments. Consider this, what did the NBA look like two years ago? Now compare it to the current NBA Landscape (ignoring the Warriors are, well, the Warriors). None of us know what the NBA could look like in two years time. Who knows who the next disgruntled superstar will be. After continuing to be good, perhaps the Spurs ironically find themselves in the position the Raptors were coming in to this season. They could make a swing for a discount disgruntled superstar. After years of continuing to be good, said superstar holds the franchise in high regard, relates to the winning culture, trusts the front office, and after helping take the franchise to the next level, re-signs there. A lot can change in a couple of years. Sometimes it’s okay to be good, not great.
There will come a time for the Spurs to rebuild. The NBA quite literally provides a mechanism to do so. No team wants to sit in the middle forever. It’s why Toronto swung for Kawhi, why the Sixers began The Process™. My question is, why does that time have to be now? How many teams realistically compete for a championship each year, four maybe five? In actuality, that number is probably even lower during this Warriors run. If 27 other teams all tanked, three quarters of them will be very disappointed with their draft pick come lottery night. You can’t have a top and a bottom without a middle. The key is to find the beauty in that middle ground. Sometimes it’s okay to be good, not great.
At least this way, the San Antonio Spurs’ supporters get to send off their Messiah, Gregg Popovich, rooting for their own team to win rather than for others to lose. Basketball fans get to marvel at Pop’s coaching talents one last time, gush about how he ekes out more than the sum of the parts. A team with no real superstar may be the best way to remind us of the Spurs way, Pop implementing his motion offence and team basketball one last time, a squad of underdogs embracing his famed philosophy. Perhaps, in hindsight, we will look back at this trade and be grateful for the Spurs’ insistence on staying relevant. In the long, long term, the biggest winner from this move could be the Spurs’ legacy. That is more impactful than any late lottery pick could ever hope to be.
Going out with a title is not the only fairy tale ending in sports. At the end of the day, a sports teams duty is to go out there and represent its people. This trade gives coach Popovich one last chance to do that. And who knows, the impossible has happened before. Ask anyone from a small city in the UK called Leicester.
Sometimes, it is okay to be good, not great.