Repeating as Champs Will Be San Antonio Spurs' Biggest Hurdle Yet

Stephen BabbFeatured ColumnistAugust 27, 2014

SAN ANTONIO, TX - JUNE 15: Manu Ginobili #20 of the San Antonio Spurs celebrates with the Larry O'Brien trophy after defeating the Miami Heat in Game Five of the 2014 NBA Finals at the AT&T Center on June 15, 2014 in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

"Just the close of a career. I know it's coming to an end," San Antonio Spurs icon Tim Duncan told reporters after claiming his fifth title in June. "Don't know if I'll ever have a chance to do this again."

Now that Duncan has committed to at least one more season with the franchise that drafted him in 1997, it appears he'll indeed have the chance to win back-to-back championships, which would be the first time in Spurs history.

The question is whether that chance is a particularly good one.

Having won four titles during the Duncan era (and in franchise history), San Antonio has had four opportunities to repeat as champion. And it hasn't come close to doing so on any of those occasions.

In 2000, the Spurs lost to the Phoenix Suns in the first round after beating the New York Knicks to claim the team's first title in 1999. San Antonio twice followed up victory tours with losses in the conference semifinals—to the Los Angeles Lakers in 2004 and to the Dallas Mavericks in 2006.

The closest San Antonio has ever come to a repeat was a conference finals run in 2008 that was dashed once again by the Lakers.

Granted, it's a small sample size that means very little to this season's chances. After a historically lopsided series against the Miami Heat, these Spurs may in fact be the crowning achievement of head coach Gregg Popovich's legendary reign.

SAN ANTONIO, TX - JUNE 15: Tim Duncan #21 and Head Coach Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs celebrates after winning the NBA Championship against the Miami Heat during Game Five of the 2014 NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs at A
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

But remaining on top of the league won't be easy, especially in a Western Conference that's only grown more crowded since the Spurs marched through it just months ago.

The same Dallas Mavericks that took San Antonio to a seventh game in the opening round of the playoffs have made significant strides this summer. The organization signed restricted free agent Chandler Parsons away from the Houston Rockets and traded point guard Jose Calderon to the New York Knicks in a bid to land center Tyson Chandler, the guy who manned the middle during Dallas' 2011 title run.

The Oklahoma City Thunder might have pushed San Antonio to a seventh game as well in the conference finals, but a leg injury kept power forward Serge Ibaka out of Games 1 and 2. For a second consecutive season, OKC's title hopes were severely hampered by untimely injury. By now, the Thunder surely rank as the West's most determined team after so many flirtations with a title—including a 2012 appearance in the NBA Finals.

Led by superstars Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, the Los Angeles Clippers are waiting for a turn of their own.

And while the Portland Trail Blazers were overmatched by San Antonio in the semifinals, there's little doubt point guard Damian Lillard will return with a vengeance. This is a young team that's just getting started.

SAN ANTONIO, TX - MAY 14:  Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers drives around Tony Parker #9 of the San Antonio Spurs in Game Five of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at the AT&T Center on May 14, 2014 in San Anton
Chris Covatta/Getty Images

Houston almost certainly took a step back with the losses of Parsons, point guard Jeremy Lin and center Omer Asik, but the Rockets can contend so long as James Harden and Dwight Howard remain in the picture.

That's five teams that pose a legitimate threat to San Antonio's repeat ambitions, and that's to say nothing of what might happen in the Finals themselves—where the reloaded Chicago Bulls or new and improved Cleveland Cavaliers may be waiting.

Nor does that equation account for the kind of teams that could pull off a first-round upset—clubs like the Memphis Grizzlies or Phoenix Suns, perhaps even the Los Angeles Lakers.

The competition is stiff.

Spurs general manager R.C. Buford (the 2014 Executive of the Year) was probably wise to preserve continuity this summer, but this team may need some in-house development to keep pace with increasingly dangerous threats.

Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard should continue his steady evolution, perhaps emerging as an All-Star-caliber talent capable of carrying San Antonio's aging core.

The 23-year-old averaged just 12.8 points (and 6.2 rebounds) per contest a season ago, but that ostensibly modest production is largely attributable to Popovich's egalitarian distribution of playing time—along with the fact that the Spurs boast a number of scoring threats. Leonard scored a combined 71 points through the last three games of the Finals, suggesting he's perfectly capable of rising to the occasion when needed.

Complemented by the finest veteran leadership in the game, Leonard is in prime position to gradually grab the torch from his All-Star predecessors. 

"Tim Duncan can still play quite well, has aged as gracefully as any Hall of Famer ever has, and if anything, has the luxury of not being leaned on so completely and totally," writes GQ's Bethlehem Shoals. "Maybe Leonard's Finals MVP makes it that much more likely...that, for the first time ever, the Spurs will win back-to-back titles."

But this roster also has its question marks.

Though the 38-year-old Duncan has aged incredibly gracefully, it's certainly possible that 37-year-old partner Manu Ginobili takes a step back.

And after cashing in on a lucrative contract, it's also possible that 32-year-old forward Boris Diaw has a more pedestrian season.

Much will still depend on shooters like Danny Green and Marco Belinelli getting hot at the right time. No matter how good the Spurs are during the regular season, this team's playoff success remains heavily predicated on perimeter shooters getting the job done. A cold streak at the wrong time would quickly sink chances of another title.

Then there's the risk that Patty Mills—the electric spark plug that brought life to San Antonio's bench at all the right moments—never finds his rhythm this season.

The 26-year-old Australian had shoulder surgery in July and, per The Sydney Morning Herald's Chris Dutton, "could miss up to four months of the 2014-15 NBA season."

SAN ANTONIO, TX - MAY 21:  Head coach Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs talks with Patty Mills #8 and Manu Ginobili #20 in the first half while taking on the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game Two of the Western Conference Finals during the 2014 NBA Play
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

As is always the case in these situations, virtually everything has to go right. The Spurs will have to enter postseason play healthy and in stride, and they'll have to maintain their virtually flawless ball movement until the job is done.

While it may be an overstatement to suggest the franchise's legacy is on the line, there's little doubt back-to-back championships would cement its status as this generation's most accomplished dynasty.

In April, famed coach (and current Knicks president) Phil Jackson mentioned in off-hand fashion that "I wouldn't call San Antonio a dynasty," according to the New York Daily News' Peter Botte.

Jackson instead described the Spurs as "a great force," further noting, "They haven't been able to win consecutive championships, but they've always been there."

Those consecutive championships may or may not be a requisite condition for the "dynasty" label, but it's a distinction that would certainly help San Antonio's case.

Either way, few will argue with the scale and longevity of the organization's accomplishments.

As's Brett Pollakoff argues with respect to San Antonio's frequent comparisons to the Lakers, "The Spurs have achieved great, great success under Popovich, and it's been sustained much longer [than L.A.'s], with 17 consecutive playoff appearances."

And as Sheridan Hoops' Michael Scotto notes, "The Spurs became only the fourth franchise in league history with five or more titles joining the Boston Celtics (17), Los Angeles Lakers (16) and Chicago Bulls (6)."

The accomplishments are undeniable, but that doesn't make a Larry O'Brien Trophy in 2015 any less desirable.

This team is looking to make the most of a seemingly open-ended title window, to ensure Duncan and Ginobili ride off into the sunset on a high note. Odds may not be entirely in their favor, but by now we should know better than to bet against the San Antonio Spurs.