Where Does San Antonio Spurs' 2014 NBA Finals Team Rank Among Franchise's Best?
The San Antonio Spurs are a dynasty.
After winning their fifth title of the Tim Duncan era, which began when he was made the No. 1 pick of the 1997 NBA draft, there's no doubt about that. Of course, this franchise has always been excellent, even before The Big Fundamental hopped on board.
Going back to the days of the Dallas Chaparrals in the ABA, the Texas-based unit has missed the playoffs only five times since their inaugural season in 1967-68. Five. That's it.
How many franchises can say that they've had as many titles as regular-season exits? Just the Spurs (five titles and five playoff misses), Boston Celtics (17 and 17) and Los Angeles Lakers (16 and six).
Despite the constant postseason appearances, though, San Antonio has advanced to the NBA Finals only six times. And here's where plenty of organizations wish that "only" could be followed by claiming six appearances in the last round of the playoffs.
Those are the squads we're ranking—the five title-winning bunches and the one that came up just short of holding up the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
The 2013-14 group is the most recent. But is it the best?
Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from Basketball-Reference.com.
How Do We Judge These?
How well did this team perform during the regular season that led up to a championship?
Basketball-Reference.com keeps track of what it calls "simple rating system," or SRS, and it's a one-number-for-everything metric that ranks every team in the league based on two factors: strength of schedule and point differential.
This is far better than win-loss records, as not every win is created equally. Which is more impressive: a one-point victory at home against the worst team in the league or a 25-point rout of the best team in the league while playing on the road?
SRS can differentiate between those two victories; win-loss record cannot.
In order to determine which teams had the best regular-season performance, I looked at each team's SRS, as well as how it stacked up against those produced by other teams that season.
This was broken down into two subcategories. One looked at performance leading up to the NBA Finals, and one looked at performance during the final series of the postseason.
Each matters, though the latter carries a far heavier subjective weight.
How easily did a team breeze through the competition? How many games were required to get to the Finals? How many sweeps did a team rack up, both during the early portion of the postseason and during the Finals?
All these questions are factored into these rankings.
At the heart of this category is a simple inquiry: How quickly do the exploits of this spring to mind?
This is admittedly a purely subjective set of rankings, but it's based off memorable moments, superstars involved and lasting historical appeal.
There are plays and games that everyone remembers. There are championships that lead off conversations about basketball history. There are nail-biting moments when the clock is ticking down and the team pulls out a shocking victory.
Memorability is also the most important category. While regular-season performances and playoff victories are important, titles are ultimately what is remembered. This is what allows one to stand out above the other.
Once these scores were determined, each squad was ranked accordingly, and then the categories were weighted. The regular season accounts for 20 percent of the final score, the playoff performance for 30 percent and the memorability for 50 percent.
Therefore, a perfect score—finishing at No. 1 in all three—receives a score of 10. Anything higher is worse, and memorability ranking serves as the ultimate tiebreaker.
Note: This methodology and explanation, with some slight alterations, was lifted from my article ranking the NBA's actual and potential three-peaters.
6. 2012-13 San Antonio Spurs: 60 Season Score
How impressive is it that a 58-24 squad is the least impressive of the Spurs' six best teams of the Duncan-era dynasty?
It's not that San Antonio wasn't a dominant team throughout the 2012-13 campaign. It was.
However, it just wasn't on the same level as the top squads in the Association during the regular season. With a margin of victory that ranked fourth in the NBA and a middle-of-the-pack schedule in terms of opponents' strength, there just wasn't anything indicating that this squad was better than its record.
Category Rank: No. 6 (12 points)
These Spurs were a complete terror during the postseason, up until the point they entered the final series of the year.
First, San Antonio swept the Los Angeles Lakers rather decisively, taking advantage of an injury-riddled team that barely made it into the postseason. The Spurs followed that up with a 4-2 series victory over the Golden State Warriors before taking care of business against the Memphis Grizzlies in just four games. Granted, the series was far closer than history will remember down the road, but it was still a sweep.
Unfortunately though, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and the rest of the squad couldn't live up to the challenge offered by the defending champions. It's hard to rank any higher than dead last when you're the only team in the rankings that didn't finish things off with a victorious Finals.
Category Rank: No. 6 (18 points)
History won't remember these Spurs as champions because, well, they weren't.
The Heat ended up winning back-to-back titles after LeBron James figured out Boris Diaw's defense, as they stormed out to a win in Game 7. With the exception of an insane shot-clock-beating jumper by Tony Parker to win Game 1, most of the memorable moments belong to Miami.
Ray Allen's shot to send Game 6 to overtime and complete a ridiculously improbable comeback? Miami.
The confetti streaming down after Game 7 as everyone prepared for a celebration? Miami as well.
Everything might have changed had the Spurs been able to make one more free throw or pull down that final rebound in Game 6, but that's not what ultimately happened.
Category Rank: No. 6 (30 points)
5. 2002-03 San Antonio Spurs: 47
Of the six squads eligible for these rankings, only two finished without the No. 1 spot in SRS that season—the 2012-13 unit and this one.
However, while last year's team only earned the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference, these Spurs managed to hold down the best record in their conference, narrowly beating out the Sacramento Kings and winning a tiebreaker with the Dallas Mavericks. Both teams finished ahead in SRS, though.
While San Antonio played the toughest schedule of the bunch, it also had the worst margin of victory. Winning by an average of 5.41 points per game isn't quite as impressive as what was done by Sacramento (6.50) and Dallas (7.78).
Category Rank: No. 5 (10 points)
Though this team ultimately emerged with the Larry O'Brien Trophy, nothing came easy.
The Phoenix Suns pushed things to Game 6 in the opening round of the playoffs, and six contests were required in the dispatching of the Los Angeles Lakers and Mavericks as well.
That Western Conference Finals against Dallas was particularly tough, as Dirk Nowitzki put on quite a show with his 25.3 points, 11.3 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game. But Duncan, who averaged 28.0 points, 16.7 rebounds, 5.8 assists and 3.0 blocks per game, was even better during those six outings.
In the Finals, San Antonio got the job done in six games once more.
As a whole, the Spurs won two-thirds of their games during the postseason, which is the bottom mark among the six eligible seasons. However, they rank higher than No. 6 in this category because they won the title and did so without needing to go the distance, which can't be said about the 2004-05 club.
Category Rank: No. 4 (12 points)
If you're not a Spurs fan, this season probably doesn't resonate with you all that much.
The Finals against the New Jersey Nets drew relatively little attention for such a major sporting event, as the NBA faithful generally seemed to lack interest after the Lakers failed to make it all the way to the final round.
Here's the Associated Press, via Sports Illustrated with info on the television ratings:
The final ratings for the NBA Finals between San Antonio and New Jersey were the lowest since the Nielsen ratings service began using the current method 27 years ago.
The six games, all aired in prime time on ABC, drew a 6.5 with a 12 share.
The previous low came in 1981, when Boston and Houston drew a 6.7 rating, according to Nielsen Media Research. This year's highest mark came in Game 6, when the Spurs won the series.
By contrast, last year's finals, between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Nets, had a 10.2 rating on NBC even though it went four games and was less competitive. That series, however, featured two of the game's biggest stars -- the Lakers' Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant.
TV ratings obviously aren't the be-all, end-all for memorability, but they accurately summed up what happened during the 2003 NBA Finals.
Even though Duncan was completely dominant, averaging a mind-boggling 24.2 points, 17.0 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 1.0 steals and 5.3 blocks per game en route to earning MVP, there wasn't enough star power on the opposition to gain much traction. Jason Kidd didn't really get the job done.
Category Rank: No. 5 (25 points)
4. 2004-05 San Antonio Spurs: 43
From this point forward, every single team finished with the No. 1 mark in SRS during its respective season.
The 2004-05 Spurs went 59-23, boasting the league's best margin of victory while playing a schedule that was slightly more difficult than the league average. It was enough for a 7.84 SRS, which narrowly beat out the Phoenix Suns' mark of 7.08.
But there's one slight problem.
Phoenix, led by Steve Nash during one of his MVP seasons, won 62 games, thereby establishing itself as the top seed in the Western Conference.
Category Rank: No. 4 (eight points)
This year, the Spurs dominated before the NBA Finals rolled around.
They only dropped one game to Carmelo Anthony and the Denver Nuggets during the opening round, dispatched of Ray Allen and the Seattle SuperSonics in six contests, then decisively took out the Suns. Nash and Amar'e Stoudemire, who averaged an insane 37 points per game, weren't contained, but the rest of the team was over the course of five outings.
However, the Finals were a battle.
An 81-74 victory did away with the Detroit Pistons in Game 7, but not before the Spurs were pushed to the brink of elimination. Despite a 2-0 lead early in the proceedings, it was still a seesaw affair, and that struggle in the final round depresses 2004-05's rank in this category.
Category Rank: No. 5 (15 points)
No Finals had gone to seven games since the 1994 clash between the Houston Rockets and New York Knicks, but this year changed that.
It was a defensive battle between two evenly matched squads, and the fact that a Game 7 was necessary really wasn't surprising. This was a contest between the league's best regular season team (despite the No. 2 seed) and the defending champions, after all.
Game 5 was particularly memorable, featuring a dozen lead changes and even more tied scores before things were decided in overtime. Robert Horry managed to post 21 points in the game, despite not even scoring until the closing seconds of the third quarter, and his lefty slam and game-winning three-pointer will stand the test of time.
Big Shot Rob, indeed.
Category Rank: No. 4 (20 points)
3. 2006-07 San Antonio Spurs: 23
There has never been a Spurs team better than this one during the regular season.
Though the 58 wins piled up in 2006-07 are far from being a franchise record, the Spurs have never posted an SRS higher than the 8.35 produced this particular season. Remember, win-loss record is not all-important in a historical sense, even if it's the only thing that matters at the time it's compiled.
Not only did these Spurs win games by an average of 8.43 points, over one point more than anyone else in the Association, but they did so while playing a fairly typical schedule. If anything, they were quite unlucky.
Pythagorean records take margin of victory into account, and they show that these Spurs should have won 64 games during the 2006-07 season, which would have been a franchise record.
Category Rank: No. 1 (two points)
Earning a sweep in the Finals certainly helps, even if it came against an overmatched Cleveland Cavaliers outfit. None of the other title-winning squads have managed to earn a championship without dropping at least one game.
Additionally, the Spurs didn't have much trouble getting to the final matchup with Cleveland.
They lost a combined four games against the Denver Nuggets, Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz during the Western Conference portion of the playoff festivities.
Category Rank: No. 2 (six points)
Who could forget this team?
Even though the Finals weren't particularly dramatic, they were still quite memorable because the Spurs absolutely took it to the Cavs, shutting them down over the course of four games. I mean, just look at Cleveland's point totals during the sweep:
- Game 1: 76
- Game 2: 92
- Game 3: 72
- Game 4: 82
That's pure defensive excellence, especially against a team that featured LeBron James. And that's not all.
The Western Conference Finals were quite memorable as well, especially when Robert Horry hip-checked Steve Nash into the scorer's table, a moment that led to a rather questionable suspension for Amar'e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw.
This is certainly a run to the title that will live on. Only working against it is the lackluster nature of the opponent in the Finals. There's a reason we refer to LeBron carrying his team as "Cleveland mode" now, seeing as this 2006-07 Cleveland squad really was close to being a one-man unit in the truest sense of the phrase.
Category Rank: No. 3 (15 points)
2. 1998-99 San Antonio Spurs: 19
Placing this squad is a rather difficult endeavor, simply because there's an asterisk on the season. Not on the Spurs' performance, as I don't want to take any credit away from them, but on the season as a whole, seeing as a lockout shortened it to only 50 games.
During those contests, the Spurs won just as many games as the Utah Jazz, winning the tiebreaker to finish with the No. 1 overall seed in the NBA. Their 7.12 SRS was tops in the league as well, as the 8.06-point margin of victory trumped the fact that San Antonio played the second easiest schedule in the league.
Had this taken place over 82 games, it likely would've ranked either No. 2 or No. 1. But it's tougher to maintain this type of dominance over an additional 32 outings, so the benefit of the doubt pushes the 1998-99 Spurs down into the No. 3 spot for this category.
Category Rank: No. 3 (six points)
Pure and utter domination.
With David Robinson and Tim Duncan leading the charge on the inside, combining to average 38.8 points, 21.4 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 5.0 blocks per game, they were a virtually unstoppable force. Having Avery Jackson and Sean Elliott on the perimeter only aided the cause.
During the first three series of the postseason, San Antonio lost only a single contest. They were unable to win Game 2 of the opening round, as 23 points, 12 rebounds and six assists from a young Kevin Garnett were too much to handle.
But other than that, perfection.
In the Finals, San Antonio beat the New York Knicks by a 4-1 margin. Even though the team lost one game to Patrick Ewing and the rest of that New York squad, the overall postseason winning percentage of 0.882 is easily the top mark among any of the six teams in the rankings.
Category Rank: No. 1 (three points)
This was the passing of the torch.
The Admiral had long been one of the best players in the NBA—and he remains one of the most underrated—but he began ceding control of San Antonio to a young Duncan during these playoffs. Duncan was only 22 years old, and it was only his second professional season, but it was already clear he was the future of that team.
The image of Duncan and Robinson holding up the trophy together is one that will never be forgotten, especially because it sparked a dynasty that is still in full force during the present day.
It was Gregg Popovich's first season at the helm. It was San Antonio's first trip to the Finals. It was Duncan's first title.
Those certainly wouldn't be the only times those events came to pass, though.
Category Rank: No. 2 (10 points)
1. 2013-14 San Antonio Spurs: 18
The Spurs never drew too many headlines during the regular season, but they still managed to win 62 games, falling just one shy of the franchise record.
Not only did they do that against a ridiculously stacked Western Conference, giving them a strength of schedule slightly harder than the league average, but they did so while winning games by an average of 7.72 points per game and fighting against a constant stream of injuries and lineup changes.
Their SRS of 8.00 was the No. 1 mark in the league, narrowly beating out the Los Angeles Clippers (7.27) and Oklahoma City Thunder (6.66). We have to get nitpicky here, given the strength of all these San Antonio seasons, and the SRS margin isn't quite impressive enough to earn top marks.
Category Rank: No. 2 (four points)
Blame the Dallas Mavericks.
Against all odds, Dirk Nowitzki and the rest of an aging Dallas squad staunchly opposed to playing quality defense managed to force Game 7 against the Spurs in the opening round of the postseason. But after that, San Antonio knocked out the Portland Trail Blazers in five games, went six against the Oklahoma City Thunder and then took care of business against the Miami Heat.
This isn't the best winning percentage the Spurs have compiled during the postseason, nor is it even close.
However, let's not forget about that tough slate of competition.
Category Rank: No. 3 (nine points)
Knocking off the two-time defending champions and preventing the Heat from joining the exclusive club of three-peaters? Check. Getting revenge against Miami after a heart-breaking defeat in the 2013 Finals? Check.
Earning Tim Duncan a fifth ring to push him into the top-five conversation while potentially ending his career on the highest note possible? Check. Passing the torch to Kawhi Leonard, who thoroughly dominated the Heat and held his own against LeBron James after a rough start to the Finals? Check.
Utter destruction in Games 3 and 4, leading to absolute routs that made me want to turn the games off at halftime? Check. Some of the most beautiful basketball of all time, thanks to brilliant passing and ball movement? Check.
This Spurs team had it all.
"Tell us this is the best Spurs team since that 2007 championship-grabbing confab, better than the time-defying, Western Conference-winning clique from last year," wrote Dan Favale before the Spurs finished things off against Miami.
I'll do more than that. This is the best Spurs team of all time.
And of course, Tony Parker still told the Associated Press, via NBA.com, they're just "playing Spurs basketball."
Nothing could be more fitting.
Category Rank: No. 1 (five points)