With the NBA Finals starting on Thursday, fans around the country will tune in to watch the showdown between the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs. While the Spurs are a consistently successful team, they lack the drama associated with more dysfunctional franchises. Last year at this time, Matthew Yglesias explained that our relative lack of interest in the Spurs exposes America’s preference for controversy over good, clean basketball. His original article is reprinted below.
America—at least in its own imagination—stands for certain things. For the idea that hard work and sound judgment bring success, and that success deserves celebration. That winners should be celebrated as long as they play by the rules. That teamwork, leadership, loyalty, and excellence all count for something. And that’s why the San Antonio Spurs, currently riding a stupendous run of 19 straight victories, are America’s favorite professional basketball team.
Except, of course, they aren’t. Not this year when they tied for the best record in the league, and not last year when they were the best in the West. Not in their 1999 championship run or the follow-ups in 2003, 2005, and 2007. Not for a single moment amid the glorious 15-year run with coach Gregg Popovich and big man Tim Duncan have the Spurs captured the imaginations of the American people or even its basketball fans. That’s because we are, ultimately, a nation of hypocrites that prefers drama queens, bad boys, and flukes to simple competence and success.
This year’s Spurs team somehow managed to earn less recognition than its predecessors even as it has finally demolished the longstanding excuses for America’s refusal to embrace our most successful sports franchise. Apologists for the American fan have long argued that the Spurs don’t get attention because they have a “boring” style of play. This was an arguably accurate characterization of San Antonio’s 2005 championship squad. Those Spurs were a slow-paced, defense-first team, anchored by solid perimeter rotations, Duncan’s ability to control the paint, and Bruce Bowen’s grabby hands on the perimeter.
This never quite explained the Spurs’ rampant unpopularity. The brutal, slow-it-down Knicks and Heat teams of the late-1990s didn’t exactly strike out-of-towners as lovable, but they were iconic. At a minimum, people loved to hate those teams. The Spurs are just ignored.
But as Duncan’s legs aged and the league’s evolved, so has Popovich’s system. The current iteration of the Spurs is a scoring powerhouse that combines sharp ball movement with accurate shooting to rain threes on the opposition. Playing with an above-average pace and the best field goal percentage in the league, the Spurs ended the regular season second in overall scoring and first in offensive efficiency. When the Phoenix Suns leapt into contention with a fast-faced, point-guard-led, long-ball-heavy offense fans around the country jumped for joy. Now that San Antonio’s embraced gunning, nobody cares.
Nor is it credible to attribute the Spurs’ obscurity to San Antonio’s alleged “small market” status, a hoary cliché that fails to notice the extraordinary population growth in Texas since the ABA-NBA merger brought the Spurs into the league. It’s true that San Antonio remains considerably smaller than New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, or even Dallas and Houston. But it’s far from the NBA’s smallest market. The San Antonio metropolitan area’s 2.2 million inhabitants ranks it above Sacramento, Orlando, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Memphis, New Orleans, and not least of all Oklahoma City.
It’s the popularity of the Thunder, the Spurs’ opponents in the Western Conference Finals, that proves San Antonio’s lack of sex appeal isn’t a consequence of geography. Sure, OKC’s backwater status probably holds that team back publicity-wise. It’s difficult to imagine “Linsanity” occurring on any team other than the Knicks. But the fact that nobody lives in Oklahoma City hasn’t stopped Kevin Durant from appearing on the cover of video games or the Thunder getting gushing write-ups in GQ.
No, there are two main reasons why the Spurs are genuinely boring. The first is that, unlike the Thunder and pretty much every other NBA team, they don’t have anybody who dunks. San Antonio’s top dunker, Tim Duncan, had just 35 slams this season, tied for 63rd-most in the league. That’s 157 fewer than the league’s top dunker, Blake Griffin. And I assure you that none of Duncan’s dunks were spectacular.
Second, the Spurs organization’s top-to-bottom dedication to winning is incredibly stultifying. The star never tries to get the coach fired. There are no contract disputes. Nobody fights about whether it’s “still Tim Duncan’s team” as first Manu Ginobili and then Tony Parker stepped up to play a bigger role. Nobody’s eager to leave for a flashier city. The face of the franchise is on the last year of his contract and nobody’s speculating about whether or not he’ll come back. No other team even bothers to try to hire away San Antonio’s coach despite his indisputable track record of success. Even when the team indisputably miscalculates, as when the Spurs signed Richard Jefferson to a high-dollar multiyear deal, the situation is dealt with quietly and efficiently. He played major minutes and contributed to the team. Nobody grumbled about the fact that his relative compensation was out of whack to his skills. And when the opportunity presented itself to make a financially advantageous trade and swap him for Stephen Jackson’s less-onerous deal, management got it done.
Competent, businesslike success gives us nothing to work with. Kobe Bryant’s egomaniacal play, LeBron James’ absurd television special, and Dwight Howard’s “should I stay or should I go” antics are polarizing. By inviting hatred and criticism, they promote response and enthusiasm. The all-consuming dysfunction of the Knicks fuels successive waves of outrage, hope, and resentment.
There’s a reason that Bridezillas is a show and there’s nothing called Reasonably Well-Planned Wedding Enjoyed by All. Americans don’t want excellence, and we certainly don’t want long-term sustained excellence. We want our dynasties to come with a side order of drama, controversy, and bad behavior. We want anti-heroes and the occasional impulsive retirement to pursue a baseball career. We want to watch a train wreck and then tut-tut in a smug self-satisfied way about the irresponsibility of the people who caused it. We want to maintain our high ideals, without needing to walk the walk. Nobody can hate the Spurs, so nobody wants to love them. It’s more comfortable for everyone if we can just pretend they don’t exist.