With three straight stomach-churning losses to open the season, the last team the Clippers want to see tonight is probably the San Antonio Spurs. Asides from the fact that they’ve lost sixteen straight games to San Antonio, the Spurs franchise embodies a no-frills, quiet professionalism, that stands in stark contrast to the Clippers organization. The Spurs are an old team, and the reign of Tim Duncan is slowly coming to a close. But they are a team that has a clear understanding of who they are; as a franchise, as a unit on the floor, and as individuals, and that makes them dangerous to a Clippers team that is searching for an identity, and is teetering on despair.
Much has been made of the Spurs good fortune, when David Robinson missed most of the 1997 season and the Spurs lucked into the first overall pick Tim Duncan. But the core of this Spurs team has been built upon shrewd picks late in the draft; Manu Ginobli in the second round at 57th, Tony Parker at the tail end of the first round at 28th, George Hill at 26th, DeJuan Blair at 37th, and Tiago Splitter at 28th. The Spurs ability to find gems in the latter stages of the draft goes beyond the prowess of their scouts and talent evaluators. It stems from a clear philosophy that drives the organization and the close working relationship between Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford who strive to fulfill that vision. The Spurs search not only for raw athletic talent, but for personnel who has the temperament, humility, and drive to fulfill a specific role on their team. This self-awareness as an organization is the corporate knowledge that Popovich referred to in the San Antonio Express-News yesterday. Speaking about Tony Parker’s recent contract extension, Popovich remarked that, “Continuity and corporate knowledge have always been something that’s helped us over the years. We obviously think it’s very important, that’s why we did it (rewarding Parker with a lucrative contract extension).”
It has often been said that Clippers owner Donald Sterling is extremely loyal to people who have shown loyalty to him personally. And the Spurs have certainly shown a great deal of loyalty to their core players as well; with the recent contract extensions to Ginobli and Parker, keeping the core of their dynasty intact for one final run at glory. But there is a difference in being loyal to a specific individual and being loyal to an idea. Pledging allegiance to an individual above all other considerations will often lead to nepotism, but loyalty to an idea can sometimes inspire a greater cause, larger than one self. There might not have been much wisdom in rewarding rich extensions to players on the downside of their careers as individuals, but there is some wisdom in keeping a proud unit intact, so that the baptism they underwent together as young men will allow them to persevere when things go badly, when faith in one another is all that remains.
According to the San Antonio Express-News, the Spurs players believe that the “front office’s show of allegiance to the team’s core serves as a sign it believes in the roster as constructed.” Ginobli added, “It feels like they trust us…Even though the last three years haven’t been as successful as the previous three, they trust us. They know we have a good team, and good people, too.” Two or three years down the line, when age diminishes the abilities of Duncan and Ginobli, these contract extensions might turn out to be sentimental mistakes. But it is difficult to fault a front office that chose to honor a core group which have earned the franchise so much laurels during the past decade.
The Spurs are a team that have faith in their system, their organization, and in each other. The Clippers emerged from the off-season with promises of a new beginning and a new plan for the future. But unlike most organizations, the Clippers franchise has a heavy chain around their neck, weighed down by 25 years of futility under Donald Sterling. Coaches and players have come and gone, each proclaiming a new day, only to be crushed under the weight of reality, departing with their dignity in tatters, fighting Sterling for their pay in court. It will take more than words or marketing slogans to turn the Clippers franchise around. For the Clippers, the slippery slope downward to despair yawns menacingly each and every year, particularly if losses pile up early in the season. At what point will the veterans give up—having this seen this horror show before—at one point will the rookies lose trust in one another, and at what point will it become every man for himself? The Clippers might be lauded by preserving their financial flexibility and not overpaying for second-tier stars during the off-season, and the Spurs might be criticized by mortgaging so much of their future to veterans whose best days have passed, but on this night, the Clippers with their uncertain future met the Spurs in the twilight of their splendor. And the result was sadly predictable.
Breene has already done an impeccable job with the game wrap up below, so I won’t concentrate on the recap here. There were some positives for the Clippers in this game, but the immutable law of the universe which governs all Clippers-San Antonio matchups seem to hold. Without Baron in the lineup tonight, Eric Bledsoe stepped up and played well. Even Willie Warren got a few minutes of effective playing time when both EJ and Bledsoe got three fouls before half time. Bledsoe’s athleticism and speed was something to behold, and his incredible block of Tony Parker in the third quarter brought fans out of their seats, even when the Spurs were pulling away. Perhaps the most positive thing to take from this loss was that the team played harder tonight than in the previous two games. EJ also spent a lot of time handling the ball and played with an aggressive swagger. As Ralph Lawler said after the game, with his size, Eric might be able to become an elite point guard in this league, but it will be difficult for him to do so as a two guard. But as great as Eric Gordon played the point, it wasn’t enough. And as effective as Kaman and Gomes were tonight on the offensive end, it wasn’t enough.
Every time the Clippers made a run, the Spurs would answer with a quick three or layup of their own. They exploited every Clippers missed rotation and slashed down the lane for an easy bucket every time a Clipper was slow to get back on defense. First it was Ginobli answering every Clippers surge in the first quarter, then it was Parker. Eventually it was one of their undrafted rookies, which they somehow always seem to find, Gary Neal, who came in and sank four three pointers to break the Clippers’ back. And of course, the forgotten man in the Spurs lineup, Richard Jefferson, finally looked like the dead-eye rifleman they thought they had signed last year. He shot 7 for 11 for 18 points tonight and looked as if he has been playing in the Spurs system all his life. Many pundits were surprised when San Antonio restructured Jefferson’s deal over the summer and extended his contract. Jefferson had been a huge free agent disappointment for them after all. But R.C. Buford and Popovich saw something in Richard Jefferson; they knew what type of player he was, and how he would fit into their system. And so, they defied the pundits’ expectations and adhered to their own vision.
And what of the Clippers’ vision for their squad? Does management have a plan as to how the team is constructed and what type of players will work in Del Negro’s system? We catch fleeting glimpses of it, hear whispers of an underlying vision, but somehow, someway, the personnel might change, the coaches might change, but the results remain the same. For the Clippers tonight, it is the seventeenth straight loss to the Spurs and another 0 and 4 start to a new season. Once again, we are starting in the hole, trying to fight our way back out toward respectability before all hope is lost.
When I met our new writer Jordan Heimer for the first time, we talked about our shared fondness for neglected 1970’s crime drama. One of our favorites was “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” based on the landmark novel by George V. Higgins. The final lines in that book was spoken by an exasperated defense attorney who asked, “Is there any end to this shit? Does anything ever change in this racket?”
To which the prosecutor replied, “Of course it changes. Don’t take it so hard. Some of us die, the rest of us get older, new guys come along, old guys disappear, it changes every day.”
“It’s hard to notice, though,” Clark said.
“It is,” the prosecutor said, “it certainly is.”