The end of a dynasty is never pretty, but the Spurs had a particular haven’t-you-left-yet quality rarely seen in the sporting world. In most cases — like the Bushes and the Clintons — a dynasty has some level of popularity, becomes disliked for winning so much for so long, and then dies in a spectacular flameout.
San Antonio never traveled that arc. For one thing, it was never popular, as its anemic NBA Finals ratings attested, so it never rose to the level of being hated. The Spurs’ winning four titles in nine seasons was more of an annoyance to anyone outside of South Texas. And, sheesh, you call winning four titles in nine seasons a dynasty?
The most frequent short answer to the question of why the Spurs never caught the national imagination is, “They’re boring.” But it runs deeper than that. The Spurs missed five of the essential ingredients that made dynasties into legends:
1. They never won back-to-back titles
The hardest thing in sports, as we are often reminded when a championship team does a faceplant the next season, is to repeat. The Spurs not only never repeated after winning in 1998-99, 2002-03, 2004-05 and 2006-07, but they also never made it to the Finals the season following a championship. They didn’t just miss the NBA Finals. They missed the Western Conference finals. In 1999-2000, the Spurs didn’t even make it out of the first round. It’s hard to win four titles in nine seasons, but it’s not awe-inspiring like winning, say, three titles in a row, as the Los Angeles Lakers did between the Spurs’ first and second championships.
2. They had no swagger
You can’t help but admire great players with manageable egos, such as Tim Duncan, the defining player of the Spurs’ championship run. Tony Parker doesn’t lord it over us that he is married to Eva Longoria, and we are not. The Spurs are great people. And America yawns. Meanwhile, the Chicago Bulls got rock-star worship wherever they went, with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen providing the on-court swagger, and the likes of Dennis Rodman making the off-court life more delicious. Even the Belichick-dull New England Patriots had swagger, between Tom Brady’s quarterbacking and his off-the-field, gossip-column-level canoodling. We might admire the Spurs, but their relatively stoic nature made it hard to love them — and to hate them.
3. They had no great rival
A big reason there is inherent excitement over a Celtics-Lakers final is that each team has a long history of defining ultimate success as beating the other in the NBA championship. (It's the 11th meeting between the Celtics and the Lakers in the Finals, with Boston winning the first eight, and Los Angeles winning the last two.) The Spurs beat four different teams — the eighth-seeded New York Knicks in 1999, New Jersey in 2003, Detroit in 2005 and Cleveland in 2007. Even in the Western Conference, San Antonio had no long-standing, attention-grabbing rival knocking at the door. Without that great rival, it was harder for the Spurs to prove legendary greatness. The Patriots at least had the Indianapolis Colts as a measuring stick, and the Brady-Manning rivalry provided the dynasty more juice. The Spurs, and Duncan, had rivalries with no one.
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