Top 10 Greatest San Antonio Spurs Teams in Franchise History
Last week, I celebrated the 40th anniversary of the San Antonio Spurs by ranking the top 10 players in their history. This week, it's time to rank the teams.
Most of the Spurs' success has come since 1997, when Tim Duncan was drafted, but that doesn't mean that earlier teams won't be included.
Teams will be ranked based on regular-season success (record and point differential) and playoff success, as well as the star power and depth of the teams.
Honorable mentions: 2007-08, 2010-11, 1978-79, 2001-02
Note No. 1: Teams from the Dallas Chaparrals era (1967-1973) will not be ranked. While they are part of the Spurs' franchise, they not under the Spurs name, which is the one being celebrated.
Note No. 2: All statistics used are from Basketball Reference, unless otherwise indicated.
Regular season record (point differential): 58-24 (+7.8 points per game)
Playoff record (point differential) and result: 7-6 (-0.4 points per game), Lost Western Conference Finals (4-0) versus Los Angeles Lakers
The 2000-01 Spurs had a very successful regular season, nabbing the best record in the NBA and looking like one of the top championship contenders in the league.
That is, until Derek Anderson's shoulder injury.
Anderson had been the Spurs' second-leading scorer during the regular season, scoring 15.5 points per game. In a second-round game against the Mavericks, Anderson separated his shoulder (according to Sports Illustrated) and was out for the rest of the playoff run. Even before the injury, though, Anderson had been struggling. His scoring average had dipped to just 7.7 points, on 26.2 percent shooting.
Once Anderson went down, the Spurs' lack of depth showed in their sweep at the hands of the Lakers.
After Tim Duncan and David Robinson, there wasn't much talent on the 2000-01 Spurs. Nobody (besides Anderson) scored more than 10 points per game during the regular season.
Regular season record (point differential): 57-25 (+7.2 points per game)
Playoff record (point differential) and result: 6-4 (+3.1 points per game), Lost Western Conference Semifinals (4-2) versus Los Angeles Lakers
What would have happened if Derek Fisher hadn't have made the "0.4 shot" (courtesy of YouTube) to give the Lakers a 3-2 series lead in the Western Conference Semifinals?
Would the Spurs have lost to the Lakers anyway? Would the Spurs have lost to the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals? Or, an even more intriguing scenario—would they have won three straight championships from 2003 to 2005?
No one knows, but we do know that the 2003-04 Spurs were a very good team. Heading into the series with the Lakers, they had won 15 straight games (11 in the regular season and four in a first-round sweep of the Memphis Grizzlies).
This team was very similar to the championship team of the previous year, but slightly weaker. The Spurs had essentially replaced Stephen Jackson and David Robinson with Hedo Turkoglu and Rasho Nesterovic, easily a net loss.
Regular season record (point differential): 63-19 (+7.8 points per game)
Playoff record (point differential) and result: 7-6 (+2.3 points per game), Lost Western Conference Semifinals (4-3) versus Dallas Mavericks
Another year, another "what if?" situation.
In Game 7 of the Western Conference Semifinals, Manu Ginobili inexplicably fouled Dirk Nowitzki (at 0:04 in this YouTube video) on a driving layup with the Spurs up three points with just 21 seconds left in regulation. Needless to say, Nowitzki hit the basket and the free throw, sending the game to overtime.
The rest is history, but not in a good way.
Tim Duncan had a down year statistically due to plantar fasciitis, according to the Spurs' official website, but was still the top player on the team. Tony Parker made his first All-Star game, and Ginobili was quickly becoming one of the best shooting guards in the game.
However, the Spurs didn't have much variety in terms of role players. Their next best players after the Big Three (Michael Finley, Brent Barry, Bruce Bowen) were all merely spot-up shooters on offense.
Regular season record (point differential): 62-20 (+6.0 points per game)
Playoff record (point differential) and result: 9-6 (+4.8 points per game), Lost Western Conference Finals (4-2) versus Houston Rockets
Surprise! A team without Tim Duncan on the roster or Gregg Popovich on the sidelines makes the list at No. 7.
The Spurs' 62-20 record in 1994-95 marks their second-best record in team history, and this team had it all. Sean Elliott was a great source of scoring (18.3 points per game), Avery Johnson was an unselfish point guard (8.2 assists per game), Dennis Rodman cleared the boards (16.8 rebounds per game) and Vinny Del Negro did a little bit of everything.
Oh yeah, and the 1994-95 NBA MVP, David Robinson, a center that could do everything on the court—except guard Hakeem Olajuwon of the Houston Rockets.
In the Western Conference Finals, Olajuwon torched Robinson to the tune of 35.3 points per game, 12.5 rebounds per game, 5.0 assists per game and 4.3 blocks per game (for more information on this series, watch this YouTube video). The 47-35 Rockets stunned the favored Spurs by winning in six games, which is why the 1994-95 Spurs are ranked this low.
Regular season record (point differential): 50-16 (+7.2 points per game)
Playoff record (point differential) and result: 10-4 (+5.9 points per game), Lost Western Conference Finals (4-2) versus Oklahoma City Thunder
The 2011-12 Spurs were the offensive version of the 2003-04 Spurs.
Both teams went into the playoffs with double-digit win streaks, and continued their streaks for at least a series in the playoffs. While the 2003-04 Spurs held the NBA's No. 1 ranking in defensive efficiency, the 2011-12 Spurs possessed the most efficient offense in the league.
In shocking developments, both teams ended their seasons losing four straight games after being up 2-0 in a series.
The two edges for the 2011-12 team? Going a round further in the playoffs, as well as amazing depth. The 2011-12 Spurs boasted nine players who averaged at least nine points per game—only four players did that for the 2003-04 Spurs.
Regular season record (point differential): 60-22 (+5.4 points per game)
Playoff record (point differential) and result: 16-8 (+5.5 points per game), Won NBA Finals (4-2) versus New Jersey Nets
I realize this pick isn't going to be popular, but stay with me on this.
Tim Duncan was at the height of his powers in 2002-03 in his second consecutive MVP season. I think we can all agree on that.
However, his supporting cast wasn't as impressive as it was in the three other title years. In fact, Duncan's lack of surrounding star power is likely what helped Gregg Popovich win Coach of the Year award in 2002-03.
Tony Parker turned 21 during the 2003 playoffs, and only gave the Spurs just 14.7 points per game and 3.5 assists per game during the NBA playoffs, with a subpar 11.9 player efficiency rating. The Spurs were even tempted to bring in Jason Kidd to replace Parker at point guard during the summer of 2003, according to Yahoo!'s Adrian Wojnarowski.
David Robinson, reduced to a role player by this point, averaged 8.5 points per game and 7.9 rebounds per game. Rookie Manu Ginobili was at 7.6 points per game. Stephen Jackson and Malik Rose, while valuable contributors, hovered around 10 points per game. Bruce Bowen had not yet hit his defensive pinnacle.
Basically, this championship was won by Tim Duncan and a bunch of solid role players. The good-not-great regular season point differential illustrates this point.
Before all you Spurs fans come after me with axes, just know that these top 5 teams are all very close.
Regular season record (point differential): 58-24 (+6.4 points per game)
Playoff record (point differential) and result: 15-6 (+7.0 points per game), Lost NBA Finals (4-3) versus Miami Heat
Yes, I know the Spurs didn't win the Finals this year, but they were a Ray Allen three-pointer (or a Kawhi Leonard missed free throw) away from winning the series in six games, just like the 2002-03 Spurs did.
And I don't think I really have to explain why the 2012-13 Heat are better than the 2002-03 New Jersey Nets.
The Big Three was at its worst in a long time in 2012-13, mostly thanks to Manu Ginobili's precipitous decline, but the "Little Three" of Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter and Danny Green made huge strides.
Click here for a good article about the Little Three from Spurs Nation, written during the regular season.
A final thought about the 2012-13 Spurs—you know you're a pretty good team when your sixth-best player (Danny Green) sets the record for three-pointers in a single NBA Finals series.
Regular season record (point differential): 58-24 (+8.4 points per game)
Playoff record (point differential) and result: 16-4 (+4.0 points per game), Won NBA Finals (4-0) versus Cleveland Cavaliers
The 2006-07 Spurs got a little bit lucky to win this title, but this team was still very, very good.
People can complain all they want that the Phoenix Suns would have beaten the Spurs in their Western Conference Semifinal series if it weren't for the gambling scandal (link from ESPN), and they might be right.
What we do know is that the Spurs' Big Three were close to their peak in 2006-07, and still would've been tough to beat on a level playing field.
Not to mention Brent Barry's best season in a Spurs uniform (.666 true shooting percentage), All-Defensive First Teamer Bruce Bowen and great interior post defenders like Fabricio Oberto and Francisco Elson.
The 2006-07 Spurs still hold the team record for the best regular-season point differential.
Regular season record (point differential): 37-13 (+8.1 points per game)
Playoff record (point differential) and result: 15-2 (+7.2 points per game), Won NBA Finals (4-1) versus New York Knicks
Imagine a starting power forward and center duo in the NBA today that averages 37.5 points, 21.4 rebounds and 4.9 blocks per game between the two of them.
Having trouble with that? It's because no post duo in the NBA even matched one of those numbers in 2012-13, much less all three of them.
The owners of these impressive numbers, Tim Duncan and David Robinson, were true "Twin Towers" in 1998-99. Their size and skill dominated the opposition night after night.
This was a Spurs team that might have taken advantage of the laziness of other squads during the lockout. After a rough 6-8 start to the regular season, the Spurs went 46-7 the rest of the way, including the playoffs. Give this Spurs team credit for keeping their conditioning up during the lockout. It sure showed as the season wore on.
Aside from its two men in the middle, the Spurs had several valuable role players. Avery Johnson was a steadying presence at point guard, while Sean Elliott, Mario Elie and Jaren Jackson were great long-distance marksmen. Malik Rose and Antonio Daniels injected youthfulness into the team with their athleticism and energy.
Regular season record (point differential): 59-23 (+7.8 points per game)
Playoff record (point differential) and result: 16-7 (+4.3 points per game), Won NBA Finals (4-3) versus Detroit Pistons
The San Antonio Spurs were at their best in 2004-05.
Tim Duncan was an All-NBA First Teamer and registered his highest PER of any of his championship years. Tony Parker had the best defensive season of his career (4.5 defensive win shares) and also scored 16.6 points per game (17.2 in the playoffs). Manu Ginobili was an All-Star and led the Spurs in win shares (4.2) in the playoffs. He was also doing stuff like this (from YouTube).
Basically, it was the perfect storm for the Spurs' opponents to have every member of the Big Three in their athletic prime.
Remember, this was the team that was humming along at 50-15 until Tim Duncan sprained his ankle (via ESPN) against the Pistons in a regular-season game.
Although this was their least dominant Finals win, I would argue that it was against the best team. The Pistons were the defending champions and looked even better than they had the previous year, when they won it all.
As is the tradition in title-winning years, the Spurs' supporting cast was excellent. All-Defensive First Teamer Bruce Bowen had his best season (.111 win shares per 48 minutes), Brent Barry was his sharp-shooting self and Robert Horry almost single-handedly won Game 5 (from YouTube) of the NBA Finals for the Spurs.
It will be a long time before we see a Spurs team better than the 2004-05 squad.
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