SAN ANTONIO – If you ask the San Antonio Spurs about the greatest sports dynasty of our time, they’ll probably caution you not to rush to judgment.
After all, they might not be finished.
When the Spurs put the finishing touches on the destruction of the Miami Heat on Sunday, with one last whipping in Game 5 of The NBA Finals, maybe the only thing more impressive than their sheer dominance of the two-time defending champion was the simple fact that the Spurs, inexorably, keep on winning.
Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs’ taciturn forward who was named The Finals MVP, was only 7 years old when his teammate Tim Duncan raised the same trophy over his head in 1999, when the Spurs won their first title by beating the New York Knicks. Through the interim, the Los Angeles Lakers have risen and fallen and risen and fallen again, and now lie in a ditch so deep they might need more than a long rope to climb out. The Boston Celtics resurrected their past glory for a few shining seasons but have now fallen on hard times. The would-be contenders, the Oklahoma City Thunder and Memphis Grizzlies, have changed cities and, in one case, changed names.
The Spurs have changed, too, from a deliberate, rugged team built on a foundation of tough, unyielding defensive chops to a work of offensive artistry that emphasizes quickness, ball movement and 3-point shooting.
What’s stayed the same is an organizational philosophy that promotes professionalism, selflessness and sacrifice. It is those core beliefs, and the way they have been carried out over so many years, that have produced the five championships that solidify San Antonio’s case as one of North America’s greatest sports dynasties ever.
When asked by ESPN’s Stuart Scott the biggest difference between the two titles, 15 years apart, Duncan gave the simplest and most accurate answer: “Fifteen years, probably?”
A coach, a player
No other player-coach/manager combination, outside of Duncan and Gregg Popovich, has climbed twin peaks of excellence over such an extended period. The New York Yankees have long been the American measuring stick of sports royalty with their 27 World Series titles. Only they have had a sustained era of excellence that lasted for 1 1/2 decades (1923-38), that under two managers, Miller Huggins and Joe McCarthy.
But the leagues were much smaller then and so they — along with the achievements of George Mikan’s Minneapolis Lakers and Bill Russell’s Celtics — must be viewed as something different, something encased in Jurassic amber.
In the so-called modern era of the last 30 years, the Yankees won four titles in five years (1996-2000). The NFL’s San Francisco 49ers won five Super Bowls (1982 to 1995), but with a change of coaches and different star quarterbacks. The New York Islanders captured the Stanley Cup four straight times (1980-83).
The NBA’s only real challengers of the past three decades are the Showtime Lakers, who won five championships and played in nine Finals from 1980 to 1991, Michael Jordan’s Bulls with their pair of “three-peats” (1991-93 and 1996-98) and the Lakers with their five titles of the Kobe Bryant Era — though they must be split into separate entities, with and without Shaquille O’Neal.
It seems only Phil Jackson, who coached those Bulls and then the Lakers, questions the Spurs’ pedigree as a dynasty because they have never won back-to-back.
Still, Merriam-Webster defines a dynasty as “a powerful group or family that maintains its position for a long time.”
“I consider the question irrelevant because it’s somebody else’s term for greatness,” former NBA coach and current ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy told the San Antonio Express-News. “You could put whatever word on it you want as long as it speaks to their greatness. Sustained greatness is the hardest thing to achieve in any walk of life. And that’s exactly what the Spurs have stood for.”
Sustaining the greatness
Since Duncan arrived in San Antonio in 1997, the Spurs have won 1,099 of 1,585 games (regular season and playoffs combined), a stunning 69.3 winning percentage. While the Lakers, Pistons and Celtics have blazed across the sky to win championships in that span, none even made the playoffs this season. The Spurs have reached the playoffs 17 consecutive years in the Duncan Era, been in The NBA Finals six times, the Western Conference finals nine times and are currently working on an record string of 15 straight seasons winning at least 50 games. They even won 50 it in the lockout-shortened 2010-11 season when the schedule was cut to 66 games.
Hall of Famer David Robinson retired as Duncan’s partner after the Spurs’ 2003 championship, but Manu Ginobili arrived to join Tony Parker and Duncan, forming the three-headed monster that has now grabbed the Larry O’Brien Trophy four times together.
The stretch between their last championship in 2007 and this one was marked with the frustration of a first-round loss to Memphis in 2011 and the torment of 2013, when they let the title slip from their grasp in the final 28 seconds of Game 6.
“There were times that people said we should be breaking it up,” said general manager R.C. Buford, named 2014 Executive of the Year. “But what’s the alternative? Our best alternative was to keep the group together.”
The Spurs have able to sustain their dynasty because of the bond that formed between Duncan, Parker and Ginobili, who have stuck together in this free-agent era of team-hopping for an unheard-of 12 seasons, during which they have won more playoff games than any other playoff trio in league history. They are happy with San Antonio, with each other and with themselves. Each of the three could have taken a big payday elsewhere. Yet they choose to remain yoked together and driven by Popovich, named Coach of the Year for a third time in 2014.
“We took less money to stay here to win championships,” Parker said. “So it makes it even better to have been able to play my whole career with Timmy and Manu.”
The Spurs got back to the top by pulling off a brilliant 2011 draft night deal that brought in Leonard; by adding the wonderfully diverse talents of Boris Diaw; by leaning on Tiago Splitter’s fierceness inside, Patty Mills’ ebullience and by giving Danny Green three different opportunities to stick and eventually to thrive.
The best ever
But maybe the Spurs’ most notable achievement is that they have tripped but never fallen to their knees. Popovich revamped their offense and changed their style of play, but the level of expectation never dropped. The Spurs play every season to win it all. Every season, for the last 17, they’ve had a chance.
“I think what we’ve accomplished hasn’t been seen by many other teams,” Ginobili said. “Having a group of three players and a coach for more than a decade and winning [five] championships and making it to the Finals [once more].
“I don’t know what the word dynasty exactly means, but I know that we’ve accomplished a lot of things and we’ve won a lot of games together. We’ve won many playoff games and that’s pretty unique.”
The 2014 is the best Spurs team of the dynasty. Jordan’s Bulls never had to run the gantlet that the Spurs had to survive in the Western Conference, beating the 49-win Dallas Mavericks in the first round, the surging Portland Trail Blazers in the semifinals and the formidable Thunder in the conference finals. And for their latest crowning act, the Spurs took a page from the book of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Lakers, when they battled Larry Bird’s Celtics, and claimed the championship by simply seizing it.
LeBron James , the de facto best player in the game, and his Heat were the two-time defending champs. They won 54 games, shoved aside the Eastern Conference contenders in the playoffs — and the Spurs crushed them like an empty beer can in The Finals, beating them by an average of 18 points in the four wins. The Spurs claimed 12 of their 16 playoff wins by 15 points or more, a record for sheer dominance.
“With the front office putting the teams together that we’ve had, and our roles changing over the years, I feel we can do it until we don’t want to do it anymore,” said Duncan. “As long as we feel we’re being effective, we’re going to stay out here and we’re going to play.”
So hold off on the final judgment. Chances are, the Spurs aren’t done.