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The Recency Effect and The Spurs’ Offseason

By Jeff Koch on July 14, 2012.

The recency effect is a cognitive bias wherein we assign too much significance to an observation that occurred recently in comparison to earlier observations or to the trend represented by the entire record of observations.

Or, in terms of the San Antonio Spurs, we remember the last 4 games of their season, and not the 20 (or 45) that preceded it.

Flaming out so spectacularly to a team that seemed to coalesce overnight between Games 2 and 3 and completely outclass us over 4 games (only to get outclassed themselves in the Finals) left a bad taste in my mouth. As I’m sure it did many Spurs fans. How could this not be our year? We were on a historic run, we were playing amazingly beautiful and elegant basketball, everybody was healthy, and we had the perfect mixture of youth, athleticism, intelligence, savvy, and experience. When that all came crashing down, I got really depressed. In a lot of ways, it’s much worse to get so close and really start to believe than it is to get beaten in the first round, or be decimated by injury. I was shocked, and the 4 losses stung.

The Recency Effect would tell us that we’re not good enough, we need to rebuild or add a major piece to truly compete against OKC, that Danny Green and Matt Bonner are stiffs who can’t play in the NBA. Lucky for us, the Spurs front office is much smarter than the rest of us.

They’re getting the band back together.

Never has an offseason been so busy without really doing anything at all. First order of business, the team re-signed Tim Duncan, which was always going to happen. The only question was, for how much. And really, that didn’t matter all that much, either. Duncan is worth every penny, and he has earned every penny. He’s also earned the right to dictate the terms of the end of his career. Last season showed up that with monitoring and supervision, he has plenty left to give on the basketball court.

After that, everything fell into place. Boris Diaw for two more years, a good signing. I loved what he brought to the team, and he fit in so seamlessly so quickly with the rest of the team that it seemed as if he’d been playing with us for years. Imagine how good he could fit after having actually played with the team for a while.

Patrick Mills re-signed. While he didn’t play much in the playoffs, he can be a major contributor off the bench once he gets more familiarity with the systems. He’s shown that he can shoot, score, and be a scrappy defender. He is also our only true back-up PG off the bench, and I like the idea of having a true back-up PG to allow Neal (and to some extent, Manu) the chance to play their real position. Neal, in particular, is so much better as a scorer/shooter off the bench for 10-15 minutes a game.

We signed Nano DeColo from overseas. I don’t know much about him, but he’s French and has played with Diaw and Parker, so there’s that. I’ve heard good things.

And finally, the one “controversial” signing: Danny Green for 3 more years. In all honesty, this seemed kind of like a no-brainer to me. (Apparently it did to Buford and co. as well.) Yes, he didn’t play particularly well against OKC. But he played very well all season long, and had good series (with moments of true greatness) against both the Jazz and the Clippers (remember his fantastic defense on Chris Paul in the closing moments of some of those games?). He has demonstrated that he is a good fit with the team, he is a hard worker, and a willing defender. He didn’t cost all that much, and he was better than any other option out there at his position. (In a nice humorous twist, the Recency Effect may have helped our ability to re-sign Green, as only two teams really showed any interest in signing him away from the Spurs. After the Clippers series, all the talk was how Green had earned himself a nice paycheck in this league; after the Thunder series, apparently his entire skill set had deteriorated to the point that he was no longer a quality NBA player. 6 games, mind you. Thank you, other NBA GMs, for overvaluing those 6 games.)

So we’ve got the same team back together. A team that won 50 games in a 66 game season, at one point won 20 games in a row, and was very close to reaching the NBA Finals. And yet, it somehow doesn’t feel like enough. Don’t we need more to get past OKC? And possibly the Lakers, with their recent acquisition of Steve Nash? And the Clippers and the Grizzlies should still be right there.

First, the best chance of improvement for the Spurs is internal improvement. Most fans forget this (especially Spurs fan, as we’ve spent years watching veteran players come to the team), but players do get better over time. Especially younger players. The best offseason “moves” that we can make are the improvements of Green, Neal, Splitter, and Leonard. Particularly in the Spurs system, when success is so contingent on familiarity, internal improvement will often trump new, “shiny” acquisitions. Besides, there weren’t any players out there that the Spurs could have reasonably gotten that would have made us appreciably better. So let’s bank on the coaching staff, experience, and the will of our young players.

Second, the line between the Conference Finals and the Finals is razor thin. Yes, OKC will enter the season better than us. But there will be plenty of chances to acquire talent during the season (every major move the Spurs made last year happened in season, most to great effect). And all it takes is one minor injury to bury a team. The Spurs should know this very well over the last 5 years. No one wishes injury on any player, but health is the great mystery and wild card of any sport at any time.

The last time I was this distraught by a playoff exit was 2006. Game 7, Dallas, the Nowitzki foul. The Spurs time seemed to have passed.

Instead of burning it down, the Spurs rolled out the same team the next year, eventually winning their 4th title. Golden State flukily beat the Mavs in the first round, eliminating our biggest threat, and we rolled into the Finals.

So while it does seem like we missed our best last chance at a title, we have no idea what will happen in the 2012-2013 season. As the cliche goes, “that’s why they play the games.” And there’s no team I’d rather watch play all of those games than this version of the San Antonio Spurs.

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