Functioning Cogs: Excellence and the San Antonio Spurs

Boring. Predictable. Excellent.

My favorite album of 2011 was Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues. And while most of the albums I love speak to me on some level beyond my conscious understanding, HB cracked me over the head with an overt lyrical challenge, nestled right in the meaty part of the title track.

I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see
And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me

But I don’t, I don’t know what that will be
I’ll get back to you someday soon you will see

I secretly think that Tim Duncan wrote this song and imparted it to Robin Pecknold, because I’ve never seen a song so perfectly encapsulate what an athlete is all about (Pecknold probably added the chorus himself though, because let’s be honest: Tim Duncan knows exactly what his function is and what his great machine is doing).

Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes

Watching Duncan and the Spurs is a unique experience for a neutral observer for the following reasons:

1. The Spurs’ most notable names (Duncan, Ginobili, Parker) are 35, 34, and 30, respectively. The only team with a more aged core is the Celtics, but since the Spurs’ trio have been together for nine seasons, it feels like they’re older. If you don’t pay a lot of attention to the NBA during the regular season (or you do, but you’re not a Spurs fan), you could easily look at San Antonio’s number one seed as some kind of aberration that will be quickly corrected once they run into a younger, more athletic team. Ask the Jazz and Clippers how that’s worked out for them.

2. Every team in the NBA playoffs this year has a higher Possible Excitement Factor than the Spurs. The Celts have Rondo and his potential for a 25-16-12 stat line every night. The Clippers had “Lob City” (as Scott Van Pelt noted, that looks way better on a t-shirt than it does on the court, but still.) The Thunder have a trio of young guns and an uptempo style that nobody else can match. The Heat have May and June’s best soap opera. Even the Sixers have Andre Iguodala, who might alternately lead a fast break that looks like something out of NBA Jam, or implode in a fiery mass while shooting 4-21 from the field. The Spurs have none of that. Instead, they have the greatest power forward of all time enjoying a mini-renaissance because his coach played him only 28 minutes a game this season. They have ten players averaging more than twenty minutes a game. They have a 6-10 white guy who seemingly never misses a three but whom nobody ever bothers to guard. They have young guys filling perfectly young-guy-shaped holes in their rotation. And in a few weeks, they’re probably going to have another title to add to their case.

3. No one on the Spurs has any measurable personality.

In other words, the Spurs are boring, predictable, and wholly unsexy. Oh, and mind-numbingly effective. And, yes, I know that everyone who watches or comments about the Spurs says the same thing, but that too should help my case.

Every person on the team knows, accepts, and performs his role, including the head coach. They are all of them – sure-fire Hall of Famers, crafty veterans, young guns, defensive specialists, brawl participants – sold out to the idea that when they apply their skills in a clearly-defined, concentrated area, they elevate the play of those around them to such a level that almost all other would-be flaws are erased. To that end, none of their individual players are likely to have a transcendent 40-18-9 game like LeBron had in the Heat’s game four win over the Pacers. There is no brightest star in San Antonio’s sky, no sharpest knife in their drawer, but none of them seem to care. The results? The Spurs have won 18 games in a row and 46 of their last 53.

Watching the Spurs’ series against the Clippers was like watching a formula action movie where every audience expectation of formula action movies is turned on its head and you spend the entire two hours feeling like the earth has shifted beneath your feet. The Clippers are a good team that looked entirely out of its league about 90% of the time. The Spurs, possession after possession, passed crisply, found the open man, stayed home on defense, and picked their spots to slow it down or run. Even in game three, when the Clippers outscored the Spurs 33-11 in the first quarter, Bill Simmons tweeted that the entire Spurs team looked focused and steady. I should point out that none of what the Spurs does is “ugly.” It’s easy to think that teams with less obvious talents have to “slug it out” by, for example, running every shot clock down to five seconds before starting a play, but the Spurs do nothing of the sort. It’s cold, efficient, predictable, and workmanlike, but it isn’t ugly.

Near the end of “Helplessness Blues,” Robin Pecknold sings:

If I had an orchard, I’d work till I’m raw
If I had an orchard, I’d work till I’m sore
And you would wait tables and soon run the store

He imagines a future in which he has a simple job, narrow in scope, clear in purpose. No glamor, no accolades, no fortune, just a simple task and the willingness to see it done with everything he has to offer. This is a vision of bliss for him,  a future he can wrap his mind around and find satisfaction in. He has set aside the false promise of transcendence through the isolated pursuit of what our world would call “greatness,” and become a functioning cog, serving something beyond himself.

Fleet Foxes’ lesson is the same as the Spurs’: Don’t get sidelined by the allure of personal glory. Instead, focus on the task in front of you, whatever that is, and execute it with the abilities you’ve been given. This is a valuable thought, especially for me. I spend a lot of time worried about where I want to end up, and not enough focused on what I’m doing right now. I want to be a writer (and yes, I realize you’re reading something I’ve written, so, ipso facto… but you know what I mean), and while I hope that one day that means published – even lauded – novelist, for right now I’m going to take a page from the Popovich  playbook and work till I’m sore.

It won’t be glamorous, but I’ll be better for doing it.

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Categories: Ground Ball Democracy, The Tape Deck

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3 Comments on “Functioning Cogs: Excellence and the San Antonio Spurs”

  1. Ben Taylor
    May 25, 2012 at 9:50 pm #

    I played this song for my students this year and asked them to imagine what their “orchard” would be.

    They didn’t get it…

    So much for what I thought would be a brilliant discussion on vocation. Which, I guess, proves your point?

  2. April 19, 2013 at 9:27 pm #

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  3. Wow that was strange. I just wrote an very long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t show up. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that
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