Using smarts and a solid system, San Antonio has racked up 16 straight 50-win seasons -- a rate of victory few can match
POSTED: Apr 4, 2015 1:03 AM ET
(From left) Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich have keyed the Spurs' run of 50-win seasons.
When your eyes aren't mesmerized by the crisp ball movement, the hard cuts, the well-learned moves to produce all those wide open 3-point shots and clever backdoor layups, some of the real fun in watching the San Antonio Spurs is the interaction that by now is intuitive.
Power forward Tim Duncan gives an eye-roll to point guard Tony Parker and the message is understood. Sixth man nonpareil Manu Ginobili doesn't even have to wait for coach Gregg Popovich to flap his wings like an excited penguin to feel the cold wrath that follows a bad play. The sphinx that is small forward Kawhi Leonard impassively soaks it all in without so much as a raised eyebrow.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, half the marriages in the United States are over by the eighth year, which makes the union of the Spurs and consistent excellence -- at twice that length -- an accomplishment of tolerance, dedication and bliss.
By defeating Denver on Friday night, the Spurs have now won 50 games for 16 consecutive seasons, extending their NBA record half a decade beyond the next longest strings. The Los Angeles Lakers (1980-91) are in second place with 12.
"Think about it. There's not many marriages that last 16 years," said ESPN analyst and former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy. "Think about working that closely together in a relationship, under that pressure and scrutiny and still enjoying each other's company.
"What they've done is sustained greatness. I think that's much more telling than five championships. First of all, it's something that nobody's done before. Winning 50 and having a plus-.500 road record all that time, to me that's incredible.
"I am totally against the whole mindset that everything is about championships when it comes to evaluating players, evaluating teams. 'Did they win a championship?' Really, is that all you've got? I'm telling you, sustaining greatness is much harder than a one-, two- or three-year greatness."
The Spurs' run has been much like their style of play -- more of a steady hum than a loud roar.
Since Duncan arrived in San Antonio in 1997, the Spurs have won 1,102 of 1,661 (50-26 this season) games, regular season and playoffs combined. That means they come out on top virtually seven of every 10 times (66.3 percent) that they step onto the court. The string of 50-win seasons would be at 18 if not for the 1999 lockout that shortened the schedule to 50 games. Still the Spurs finished 37-13 (.740) and won their first championship.
While teams such as the Lakers, Detroit Pistons and Boston Celtics have blazed across the sky like comets to win championships in that span, all are franchises that more closely resemble a construction site at this time.
Champions Revealed: Loyalty
Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker talk about their loyalty to the Spurs which made them stay in San Antonio for their entire career.
The Spurs uninterrupted stretch of excellence spills over the boundaries of the NBA and washes over all major pro sports in North America.
During the same 16-year span, only the New England Patriots of the NFL have a better overall winning percentage (194-73, .727) than the Spurs. But the NFL equivalent of 50 wins in a season is 10.6 and the Pats have had years of 10, 10, nine and five and also missed the playoffs three times. They have four Super Bowl wins to the Spurs' five NBA titles.
To match San Antonio's clip, a Major League Baseball team would need 107 wins, a figure that's only been met 14 times in history and just once (Seattle Mariners, 116) since 2001. The NHL plays an 82-game schedule equal to the NBA, but there have been 50-win seasons just 31 times total since 2000 entering the 2014-15 season. And only the Detroit Red Wings have done it as many as four times.
"Winning 50 games 16 years in a row is almost incomprehensible," said Rockets general manager Daryl Morey. "It takes unbelievable effort, acumen and discipline.
I used to say the 33-game winning streak of the Lakers was the most unbreakable record in the game ... Now I'm convinced this one by the Spurs will never be touched.
– ESPN analyst and former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy
"Their ability to develop a core, maintain the health of a core and build around a core with smart draft picks, trades and signings will likely never be duplicated again. I am in awe."
It is the kind of monument to consistency that is appreciated most by others who are trying to achieve it.
"What the Spurs organization has been able to accomplish is a level of sustained excellence that is really hard to imagine in today's era of sport," said Thunder general manager Sam Presti, who got his start in San Antonio. "One of the things that they've demonstrated over the course of time is their endurance as an organization, a collection of competitors able to maintain a standard of performance, but also respond and react to different adversities that come in pro sports.
"The testament is not only to their achievement, but also to their endurance, the way they continue to press forward and have an organizational resiliency."
Popovich usually shrugs off praise and says it doesn't take the smarts of a Stephen Hawking to take Duncan with the No. 1 pick in the 1997 Draft and then ride the coattails of the 15-time All-Star, two-time MVP to glory for more than 1 1/2 decades.
However, the Spurs have been able to be successful for so long for more reasons than just the future Hall of Famer Duncan. They are the product of a synchronicity between Popovich as coach, R.C. Buford as general manager and principal owner Peter Holt.
Their ability to develop a core, maintain the health of a core and build around a core with smart Draft picks, trades and signings will likely never be duplicated again. I am in awe.
– Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey
"The organization must come first," Presti said. "It's the most important thing -- protecting that and investing in that. You have to continue to bring back ideas of what is best for the program. There does need to be a certain level of independent thinking that is important. You have to have exceptions to every rule. But the Spurs have demonstrated that organizational approach and it has allowed them to sustain over the course of time."
Part of that approach was to be the first team in the NBA to constantly expand the boundaries of scouting for talent all around the world. It was a purposeful philosophy that produced the Argentine Ginobili as a second-round draft choice (57th overall) in 1999, who joined the team in 2002, and Frenchman Parker as a 19-year-old first-round pick in 2001.
A look at the international, multicultural flavor of the San Antonio Spurs.
Through the years, the rest of the cast, all of the complementary parts, have constantly changed and been refreshed. Nine members of last year's championship team were born outside the United States.
But the threesome has remained as the core, contracts shrewdly timed to give the front office most flexibility under the league's salary cap rules and at the same time forging a personal bond to each other and a commitment to team-first winning that has resulted in Duncan, Ginobili and Parker all passing up more lucrative opportunities elsewhere to remain in San Antonio. Along the way they have become the winningest trio in NBA history.
"It takes a special group," said Mavericks All-Star forward Dirk Nowitzki, who has often gone head-to-head with the Spurs as a division rival throughout his career. "It takes a great coach. It takes a great franchise. And it takes some good players that buy into the entire system. It doesn't get much more stable than Ginobili and Parker and Duncan all these years together."
Champions Revealed: Reflections
The Spurs core group reflect on the memories they've shared over the years.
Former Mavericks guard and now TV analyst Derek Harper says the Spurs are unique in his entire NBA experience.
"Everybody always says the objective is just to win," Harper said. "But this is a very unselfish group of guys in San Antonio that have walked the walk. They've sacrificed salary and everything else for the sake of the big picture and that's what has been this unbelievable run possible."
"I think certainly anyone that passes through that organization walks away with clear understanding of the fact that the players are the most important thing," Presti said. "They are the guys that make it possible. When Pop speaks so deferentially about Tim, he is being honest in his assessment.
"But what R.C., Pop and Mr. Holt have established is creating an environment where players can be at their best by protecting players and putting them first. And also creating an environment that can encounter and overcome the different changes that come about."
Perhaps the greatest misconception about the Spurs is that they have never deviated from from their plan, when it is actually change and adaptation -- along with perseverance -- that has enabled them to remain in the mix as playoff and Finals contenders.
The fact is that if you want to very good for a long time, the longer you are good, the more obstacles and pitfalls you'll encounter. Most teams take one good hit and it takes them out. They start over. They rebuild.
Sustained success requires sustained resiliency. The more hands of poker you play, the more chances you have to win. The Spurs have had seasons when they've lost in the first or second round of the playoffs. But their basic template has allowed them to stay at the table and play another hand. They have never allowed anything to fold them.
From 2009-11, the Spurs lost twice in the first round of the playoffs. The defeat in 2011 was particularly galling since they'd won 61 regular-season games, entered the playoffs as the No. 1 seed ... and were shockingly taken out by the No. 8-seeded Memphis Grizzlies.
Ginobili played with an elbow injury. A 34-year-old Duncan looked worn down, slow and near the end of the line. Swingman Richard Jefferson, who was acquired by trade in 2009 and re-signed to four-year, $39 million free-agent contract in 2010, was a huge playoff disappointment vs. Memphis. It was a non-Spurs type move that simply never fit or paid off and they traded Jefferson in 2012 and didn't look back.
For a lot of franchises, the disappointment of that loss alone -- only the fourth time in history that a No. 1 seed lost to No. 8 -- would have been hard to overcome and might have triggered the plans to start over. But the Spurs adjusted, adapted, moved ahead. They never put themselves in a position where there's an end point.
Weeks after the Memphis loss, the Spurs boldly traded starting point guard George Hill. He was Popovich's favorite player. He was steady, dependable. But the team was missing athleticism on the wing and gambling to trade up in the Draft to get Leonard has now potentially extended the run another 5-10 years.
Mini-Movie: 2014 Finals Game 5
The Spurs close out The Finals with another dominant victory.
After years of playing a pound-it-inside power game built around Duncan, Popovich also made the transformation of his offense to the share-the-ball, movement, bury-the-open-3-pointer thing of beauty that ultimately ran LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the rest of the Heat ragged in the 2014 Finals.
The system has evolved. It never leaves the players without options. It provides a structure and clarity at both ends of the floor where they never have uncertainty. It's never, "Danny Green, go make a play. Tony, you have to overpower your man and score." Defensively there are no standouts beyond Leonard and Duncan.
Champions Revealed: The Spurs Way
Tim Duncan and the guys speak on "The Spurs Way" of winning well and losing well.
Much of what the Spurs do is about limiting the weaknesses of their players, not about one or two players having to be superhuman. There was the infamous night in November 2012 when Popovich sent four key players -- Duncan, Parker, Ginobili and Green -- on a plane home rather than play them at the end of a grueling road trip in a nationally-televised, high-profile game at Miami. The team was fined $250,000 for the move, but the leftover Spurs ran the system and nearly took down the Heat. On nights when players have poor individual games, the system allows them to maintain an equilibrium and be successful.
Buford finds players that fit into the system like a foot into a custom loafer. Boris Diaw was bought out by Charlotte before his all-around skills were resurrected and utilized in San Antonio. Green was cut twice by the Spurs and was playing in Slovenia during the 2011 lockout season when he was brought back to town and has stuck.
As the core players have declined, the system has evolved to take stress out of the game for them. Minutes are kept way down for Duncan, Ginobili and Parker, even it it occasionally means sacrificing games. They measure themselves not by outcomes, but the quality of the work
Champions Revealed: Perseverance
Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili relive the 2013 NBA Finals loss to the Miami Heat and talk about how they bounced back the following season.
They are independent in what they do and sometimes, people think of it as arrogance. But the Spurs simply do what is best for them, which, over time, is hard to do in sports. So many people are pulling at a successful team. Everyone wants a slice of the pie.
On the floor and in the locker room, it's Duncan's personality -- as great as he is as a player -- that has not allowed anyone to get outside themselves. He commands and personifies the Spurs. "This is how we do it around here." He walks the talk.
Another key to the Spurs' sustained success is never making decisions one year that will rob the opportunity for success the following years. In their formative years they were trying make sure Duncan had as many chances to win as possible.
Check out Tim Duncan's milestones throughout his career from his first points in Milwaukee to his 25,000th point at the Staples Center.
"That is very important when you are a key player," Nowitzki said. "We had our own streak a while ago of winning 50 games, 11 years in a row. That usually means a higher seed in the playoffs. It means that you should have a good chance. That keeps you excited, full or energy every year. To me, the only frustrating part was we never made the most of so many opportunities. We didn't get the hardware. The Spurs have made the most of their chances."
Their elite level streak of 50-plus win seasons has far outrun history's other great NBA dynasties -- Bill Russell's Celtics (1959-68), the Lakers of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1980-90), Larry Bird's Celtics (1980-88) and Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls (1990-93, '96-98). Even if Jordan had not walked away to take a swing at baseball, Chicago's longest string would have been nine seasons.
"I just don't know that we're ever going to see something like this happening again," Harper said.
"I used to say the 33-game winning streak of the Lakers was the most unbreakable record in the game," Van Gundy said. "But hey, the Heat got to 27. Now I'm convinced this one by the Spurs will never be touched."
One reason is the system now in place in the NBA is devised to break up continuity. The art of how you build team has changed. It's not just about getting better every year and steadily climbing. The tools have been being taken away by salary-cap and luxury-tax penalties that cripple and inhibit teams now more than ever.
Inside Stuff: Tim Duncan
NBA TV's Steve Smith talks with Tim Duncan about his five NBA championships and his 17 year career as a Spur.
It's why Indiana lost Lance Stephenson, Washington lost Trevor Ariza and Portland lost Mo Williams. Contracts are shorter, there are different agendas in play and it is now a game of choices. Player sharing is code for player movement and lack of continuity.
Yet the Spurs lay down planks to keep having a pathway to continue to win.
Sure, they have made mistakes ... but never the kind that take them out of contention. They have rarely gone into the playoffs as the consensus pick to win it all. But no one can ever say they don't have a chance. That's what makes it all so remarkable -- and feel so special, even to those on the inside.
They've sacrificed salary and everything else for the sake of the big picture and that's what has been this unbelievable run possible.
– Dallas Mavericks analyst and former NBA player Derek Harper
"It's a very nice record to have," Ginobili said. "To have been that steady for all these years. Everybody goes through ups and downs. After a great season or a championship or after three or four years, you see teams go through a reconstruction and bad seasons.
"The fact that we've been so fortunate to have everybody for so long. Pop pushing us all the time. It's really hard to get 50 wins every year. You can do it three, four, five times. But when it happens 16 times? Wow!
"I've said it before. There was not one season of my entire career that I truly believed, 'OK, this year we have no shot.' That is special."
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