By Sekou Smith, NBA.com
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Trying to identify the specific reasons for the San Antonio Spurs’ sustained excellence for the better part of the past two decades requires vision clear enough to notice that living legend of a big man sitting quietly in whatever corner of the locker room he occupies on a given night.
Yes, Tim Duncan was, is and remains the secret to the Spurs’ success formula. You have to start with superstars in the NBA. Toss in a Hall of Fame coach (Gregg Popovich), a couple more superstar players (in their own right) and a steady cast of young and veteran role players willing to sacrifice for the greater good and it’s not hard to fathom a well-run franchise putting together years and years of quality, championship-caliber production.
No one, not even the Los Angeles Lakers, have been as consistently good (and some folks would insist “great”) as the Spurs have been during the Duncan era. And yet, they have never been to The Finals in back-to-back years. Might this be the year that the Spurs defy those odds?
I say why not? This has been a strange season all around, what with the Eastern Conference depression in the standings and musical chairs being played by contenders by the supposed contenders all year-long. My sparring partner on almost every debatable topic, NBA TV research ace Kevin Cottrell, has his own theory and weighs in on the Spurs and the “Spurs’ Way” …
Since Tim Duncan was introduced to the NBA (1997-98), the San Antonio Spurs have compiled a 959-439 record (68.6%), best in the league over that span. It should come as no surprise that Monday night the Spurs extended the Philadelphia 76ers franchise worst losing record to 25 games. If the defending Western Conference Champs can continue their winning ways, they too will establish a franchise first, reaching the NBA Finals in consecutive seasons.
At 54-16, the Spurs have eclipsed the 50-win plateau for the 15th consecutive season, but their current 14-game win streak is the longest in the Duncan era. Coincidence? Possibly, but the difference between this season and the previous four following a finals appearance was the painful defeat the Spurs suffered last June. As a result, there seems to be a “3-M” plan put in place: Motivation, Maintenance and Man Power. As shown below, the Spurs are really good following a Finals appearance. But the Game 7 loss may serve as added motivation separating this season from others.
Season Following FinalsLongest Winning Streak
1999-2000 — 7
2003-2004 — 13
2005-2006 — 9
2007-2008 — 11
2013-2014 — 14 (and counting)
It’s commonplace to turn on a Spurs game and identify a San Antonio reserve being placed in the starting lineup due to their internal maintenance plan. Many teams implore this practice to monitor the health and recovery of star players battling injuries, the Spurs are simply keeping players fresh for a deep postseason run. Regardless of the opponent or venue, when Popovich decides to rest one of his future Hall-of-Famers, the next man is expected to step in and perform at a high level.
The youngest of the team’s “Big 3”, Tony Parker, leads the Spurs in minutes per game with a mere 30.3 minutes. Parker’s average is the fewest by any player in the NBA to lead his team in minutes. Last season many believed Manu Ginobili‘s proverbial tank ran low during the Finals, but as the table reads that shouldn’t be an issue this time around.
Spurs Minute-Men (mpg)
Tony Parker (30.3)
Tim Duncan (29.4)
Kawhi Leonard (29.1)
Marco Belinelli (25.1)
Boris Diaw (25.1)
Danny Green (24.2)
Manu Ginobili (23.0)
Another striking difference for this Spurs team is that they are hunters following a Finals appearance as opposed to being the hunted. The league has been controlled by the Miami Heat since LeBron James‘s big decision and with the last two titles comfortably resting in South Florida. In short, the Heatles are still the leagues measuring stick.
Since the All-star break, though, San Antonio has been a team on a mission, boasting a 16-1 record and winning their last 14 games by an average of 15.7 points. Again that’s a sign of motivation because the Spurs are not only defeating the Sixers of the NBA world, but they’ve defeated the Clippers and Heat in the midst of this historic win streak. The credit can’t be placed solely on a maintenance plan and motivation but the added man power supplied by their front office.
The Spurs most notable addition being Marco Belinelli (2014 Three-Point Contest Winner) who’s currently fourth in the league in 3-point percentage (43.8 %). Along with Belinelli, the Spurs second unit is loaded with Jeff Ayres who’s added quality depth in the front court along with Patty Mills that has scored in bunches throughout the year in Parker’s absence. Even NBA journeyman Austin Daye has shown flashes leading the team with 22 point (6-for-10 from deep) against the 76ers Monday night.
The Spurs are on pace to surpass their win total (58) from last season. Yet, they won’t garner the national attention due to their 15 consecutive 50-win seasons. Some complain about their style of play, others claim they’re getting old but in the end they find a way to win games. Go ahead, call it boring, black and white or even the “Spurs way” but after coming up short in Miami during last year’s Finals, San Antonio seems motivated to be called NBA Champions for a fifth time.
All that said, I maintain the one other underlying factor working in the Spurs’ favor for back-to-back trips to The Finals is that they weren’t expected to get their last season. Before Oklahoma City Thunder All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook went down with that knee injury against the Houston Rockets, that was the crew picked by most pundits to win the West.
The Spurs making the 2013 Finals was a surprise, to most folks, and the Spurs don’t do surprises.
There is no guarantee they make it this time around. There are no guarantees for the Spurs, Heat, Thunder, Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Clippers or anyone else deemed a contender at this stage of the season. But of all of the teams of that ilk, the Spurs are the only ones heading into the playoffs that actually look the part of a true champion on a nightly basis.
That alone leads me to believe that they just might have a chance to defy the odds … doing it the Spurs Way!