The San Antonio Spurs have been making basketball look easy since 1999. Theirs is a story of evolution and consistency, an apparent paradox that speaks to the complexity of greatness.
The Spurs team that just won the 2014 NBA Finals hardly resembles the defensively stingy club headlined by David Robinson and Tim Duncan. But culturally this is still an organization that clings to the same principles—beliefs in professionalism, roster continuity and individual sacrifice.
More than any single piece of talent, more than any X's and O's dogma—it's those principles that have made this a franchise for the ages. The debate over whether it constitutes a dynasty should be replaced by the question of where it ranks in the pantheon of dynasties.
In recent memory, it's hard to argue against it ranking at the very top.
Before digging into the meat of the argument, a caveat applies. The early Minneapolis Lakers or Boston Celtics of the 1950s and '60s belong in a separate conversation altogether. The league was much smaller then, and basketball itself wasn't nearly the phenomenon that it is today. The level at which the game is currently played would make any direct comparison one of those apples and oranges situations.
No need to go there.
Let's start in 1980, when the Los Angeles Lakers had won their first title since 1972. The Lakers owned the 1980s, and you could make a pretty compelling case that no team will ever dominate a decade quite so thoroughly. Led by Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the Showtime Lakers played with the kind of tempo and unselfishness that typifies today's Spurs.
That translated into nine NBA Finals appearances between 1980 and 1991. Five of those appearances resulted in titles.
Doing the math, it seems like today's Spurs are at a severe disadvantage in comparison. Though San Antonio has also claimed five titles, it's only appeared in six NBA Finals.
You could chalk up the gap to the Lakers' supremacy, but the real difference has been the quality of the Western Conference. Compare, for example, the quality of the No. 8 seed this year with that in 1988, the last year those Lakers won a title. In '88, the No. 8 seed—which happened to be the Spurs—finished the season with a record of 31-51. Los Angeles quickly dispatched those Spurs in the first round three games to zip.
This season's No. 8 seed—the Dallas Mavericks—were 49-33. They pushed San Antonio all the way to a seventh game. And they did so not because the Spurs were anything less than dominant, but because the Mavs were just really good—nearly a .600 team during the regular season and just three seasons removed from a title of their own.
In 1987, the Lakers' first-round opponent were the 37-45 Denver Nuggets. Again, the depth of competition in the West looked nothing like it does today. In turn, Los Angeles' trips to the Finals didn't involve the same kinds of tests.
Chief among those tests for these Spurs was facing off against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals. The Thunder were so good all season long that many favored them to reach the NBA Finals despite the Spurs holding the No. 1 seed. It certainly helps that they boast an MVP and an extremely valuable sidekick in Russell Westbrook.
Did the Lakers ever have to beat a team that good on their way to the Finals?
It's difficult to make direct comparisons. Records can only communicate so much about the quality of a team, especially when trying to compare that quality to teams of a different era. But it's fair to at least suggest that beating a team like the Thunder is an argument for San Antonio's superiority.
Had Shaquille O'Neal stuck around with those Lakers and remained in top form, this would be a different conversation. From 2000-02, the Lakers were absolutely dominant.
They were tested in 2000 by the Sacramento Kings and later the Portland Trail Blazers but eventually prevailed in the Finals 4-2 over the Indiana Pacers. A year later, L.A. was even better—thanks in part to the continued improvement of Kobe Bryant. In 2001, the Lakers swept the first three rounds of the playoffs en route to a 4-1 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers.
Things didn't come quite as easily in 2002, but the result was a sweep of the New Jersey Nets in the Finals.
The difference between those Lakers and these Spurs? Los Angeles never had to beat a team as good as the Miami Heat in the Finals. It's principal obstacles were the Sacramento Kings and San Antonio Spurs, a team that was never quite a contender and one that had yet to hit its stride in earnest.
That's also one of the big differences between San Antonio and MJ's Bulls. As good as those Bulls were, they never faced a team like Miami—itself a two-time defending champion, a team that's advanced to four NBA Finals straight.
The Heat have the best player on the planet at the moment, a supremely talented physical specimen who has quickly surpassed Kobe as the true heir to Jordan. The Heat also have a supporting cast led by two All-Stars.
None of Chicago's opponents ever fit that description. Not the fading Lakers. Not the Portland Trail Blazers or Phoenix Suns. Certainly not the Seattle SuperSonics or Utah Jazz. These were all teams that fought their way out of the Western Conference only to face the inevitable. The Bulls so immensely outmatched their opposition in part because there were no superteams among that opposition.
There were just mortal teams, one-off contenders who never had a chance at real dynasties.
At least the Showtime Lakers had the Boston Celtics to contend with.
Beating Miami puts the Spurs in a league of their own—largely because the Heat were already in a league of their own. Just a season ago, the talk revolved around where Miami's dynasty would fall in this pantheon of great teams. But that dynasty was just interrupted by a force once thought to be in regression.
Once all but forgotten.
And that's the final argument on behalf of San Antonio's singular excellence. The Spurs have been at this for an awfully long time, piling up years of success in the process.
Forget about the five titles for a second. Forget about how close San Antonio was to a sixth in 2013.
During the Tim Duncan era, this is a team that's made it to the conference finals nine times. In its own right, that's quite an achievement—but consider that it's happened during the golden age of the Western Conference. Admiring the depth of said conference has become nothing short of a yearly ritual, and yet San Antonio has consistently emerged at or near the very top.
The Duncan era also includes five other trips to the conference semifinals (14 total). Since the Big Fundamental was drafted, San Antonio has lost in the first round just three times.
When you account for a few injuries, roster changes and everything else that's happened since 1997, that's a pretty mind-boggling record of success. And it's the kind of longevity that no team has replicated. Not the Lakers. Nor the Bulls.
Should Miami stick together, it still has a chance. James is going to be the best of the best for some time to come. If he ages as gracefully as Duncan, there's nothing stopping the Heat from retooling as San Antonio did—nothing stopping them from turning these trips to the Finals into a protracted habit.
But for now, only one team has been this great for this long.
If it's not the greatest dynasty of our time, it's certainly the most unique. And the scariest part?
It's not over yet.