Did you know that the San Antonio Spurs were one of the 11 original ABA franchises? That they were originally dubbed the Dallas Chaparrals and played games in Fort Worth and Lubbock? Did you know that low attendance prompted the team to relocate to San Antonio in 1973?
Those bits of trivia are just a small window into the curious history of the Spurs, a team that has been usually snubbed from the limelight despite its success. Now again on the cusp of yet another trip to the NBA Finals, the Spurs simply refuse to go away despite an aging core and the notion that this kind of NBA streak of winning should simply not happen.
Today we take a look at how the Spurs have been able to dominate for more than a decade and a half, the legacy they are building and how they compare to the rest of the NBA.
By a simple measure, playoff appearances, the Spurs franchise had always been a contender dating back to their ABA years. During their first 29 seasons as a pro franchise (9 ABA plus 20 NBA), the Chaparrals/Spurs made the postseason on 25 occasions, though they never were able to reach a league championship series. Close calls 1979 (loss to the Bullets in 7 games), and again in 1982 and '83 (falling twice to the Magic-led Lakers), were the paradigm for a team that was constant but never truly a contender.
By this point, the team had featured quality rosters that lacked star power. Their only eventual Hall of Famers were George Gervin (1974-1985), and the great David Robinson, who had come into the league in 1989 only to fall short of the Finals in each of his first 7 seasons despite a cumulative .667 winning percentage in the regular season, an MVP, defensive player of the year, and rookie of the year honors.
The 1996-97 season turned out to be the inflexion point for San Antonio's history, mostly due to serendipitous circumstances. Coming off a 59-23 season, the Spurs were again favorites in the West, but the multiple injuries suffered by Robinson and co-star Sean Elliott led the team to a horrendous 3-15 start that prompted the firing of Coach Bob Hill. Gregg Popovich, who had been with the team as General Manager since 1994, named himself as Hill's replacement while the team stumbled to a franchise-worst 20-62 record.
The ensuing draft lottery was very kind to San Antonio, who won the first overall pick despite only having the third-worst mark in the NBA. The pick went to drafting Wake Forest mega-prospect Tim Duncan, who immediately became the game-changer San Antonio had always needed to get over the hump.
Duncan won Rookie of the Year, leading the team to a 56-win season that was again derailed in the second round of the playoffs by Utah. However, the building blocks had been cemented to install San Antonio as the class of the Western Conference. The 1998-1999 shortened season saw the Spurs earn the top seed and steamroll their way to the first championship in franchise history. Their 15-2 run during the playoffs remains one of the top team performances in playoff history, and the start of a dynasty that is still up and running more than 15 years later.
Since arriving in the league in 1997, the Duncan-Pop partnership has produced some astonishing numbers, including:
- 17 straight playoff appearances
- Only 3 playoff exits in the First Round
- At least 50 wins in each season (except 1998-99, where only 50 total games were played)
- 7 times where the team earned the #1 seed in the West
- Only 2 times where their seeding was 5th or lower (1998, 2010)
- 4 NBA Championships (1999, 2003, 2005, 2007)
Even in a league that thrives on consistency and dynasties, what the Spurs have been able to accomplish is outstanding. During the same span, the Lakers won 5 championships, and the Miami Heat won 3 thanks to the help of superteams centered around Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and other stars, but even these teams had rebuilding seasons, turmoil, and just the regular cycles that professional teams need to go through in order to regain their form.
On the other hand, the Spurs have flown mostly under the radar while following a simple winning formula: trust Duncan on the court, Popovich on the bench, and RC Buford off the court. Buford, the unsung hero in this endeavor, has been the GM since 2002, though his background as a scout and friend of Pop dates back to the late 80's.
Duncan, known as the “Big Fundamental” for his unflappable character and precision to details, has always been the anchor of a team that thrives on avoiding mistakes and innovation. And while at first he was the perfect complement for David Robinson, who retired in 2003, the constant influx of international talent and role players has been the key for the Spurs to sustain this improbable level of excellence.
Tony Parker, drafted by Buford, arrived from France in 2002, while Manu Ginobili came from Argentina in 2003 to form what would become the blueprint for more than a decade. The proverbial “Big Three” has thrived under Popovich's formula for team play and synergy, which has normally caused San Antonio to go unnoticed by casual NBA fans who have deemed the team as “boring” several times.
The fact that the team has finished with an above-average offensive rating during each of Popovich's seasons is testament to his commitment to efficient attacks, as San Antonio has been credited as being the first NBA team that adopted an effective Euro-style offensive system that relies on three-pointers and shots close to the restricted area.
Despite all the accolades, the fact remains that in the 4th smallest market in the NBA, and the 8th smallest overall among American sports, which makes the lack of media exposure a logical thing. However, the team has demonstrated time and again that they don't need the coverage of the Knicks and Lakers to run the best franchise in modern NBA history.
Popovich is 65 years old, Duncan is 38, Ginobili is 36, and Parker is 32, so we might be mighty close to the inevitable end of the Spurs as we know them. However, the core of the team is signed through 2015 and could have yet another run at NBA glory if this season doesn't end with the Larry O'Brien trophy. After 2015? Well, Parker could be a free agent, while Duncan, Pop, and even Manu retire, which could be the official ending to a remarkable streak.
Many years from now, the legacy of this Spurs will reflect at least the 4 titles that are in the bag, with 4 sure-fire, first-ballot Hall of Famers and the introduction of several new styles of play to an NBA that had been stagnant in the early part of the 21st Century.
Even as Duncan may never have Kobe's notoriety, Parker will never win an MVP, and Popovich lacks the aura of Phil Jackson, the Spurs can comfortably say that they have been the best team of the modern NBA. Though knowing them well, they would never care to boast about it.