While the Lakers and Celtics are undeniably the most celebrated franchises in professional basketball- and rightfully so- the incredibly consistent San Antonio Spurs are deserving of a spot atop the next tier.
In 43 seasons in the both ABA and the NBA, the Spurs have reached the playoff 38 times, and even the lean years were fruitful. Of the five times the Spurs have missed the postseason, two of them resulted in David Robinson and Tim Duncan!
To be fair, three of their playoff trips came in seasons sub-.500 seasons- as the ABA’s Texas Chapparrals in 1970-71 (30-54; yikes!) and under their current name in 1985-86 (35-47) and 1987-88 (31-51; Ugh!). While those are some sorry records and none of those team went on to win a postseason game, we can’t blame the Spurs. They played the games on the schedule and somehow reached the playoffs.
The Spurs joined the NBA in 1976, and proceeded to reach the postseason in nine of their first ten seasons, including the first seven consecutively. In those first seven seasons, the Spurs made three trips to the conference finals- the Eastern Conference Finals in 1979 (lost to Washington in seven games), and after realignment, the Western Conference Finals in 1982 and 1983, falling to the Lakers each time.
The Spurs of the late 1970s and early 1980s were led by George Gervin, who received some excellent supporting performances, first from Larry Kenon and James Silas, and later from Mike Mitchell and Artis Gilmore.
In 1986-87, the Spurs, now with their star power and attendance fading quickly, missed the playoffs for the second time in four years with a 28-54 record. However, as we’ve come to learn, even when the Spurs lose, there tends to be a silver lining.
Enter the ping-pong balls.
That spring, the Spurs won the top pick in the 1987 draft in the draft lottery, a pick used to select David Robinson, a superstar center from the U.S. Naval Academy. Although Robinson was drafted in 1987, he wouldn’t join the Spurs until the 1989–90 season, due to a two-year commitment to the Navy.
The Spurs dodged a bullet in the final months of Robinson’s Navy commitment, as there was speculation he might choose to spurn the Spurs and to become a free agent. However, the Spurs wound up hitting the jackpot for the second time in three years, as Robinson ultimately chose to take his talents to the Alamo.
The arrival of “Mr. Robinson” in 1989 catapulted the Spurs to the upper echelon of the NBA. After winning just 52 games in the two seasons prior to Robinson’s debut, the Spurs have won 52+ in 16 of 21 seasons since- logging win totals of 47, 49 and 50 in three of those sub-52-win seasons.
Another of these seasons- the Spurs’ only sub-.500 season in the past 21 years- came in 1996-97, with David Robinson playing in just six games as the Spurs stumbled to an atrocious 20-62 record.
Fear not Spurs fan! The trust ping-pong balls will come to your aid. And come to the Spurs’ aid they did! The franchise won the top pick in the 1997 draft, can’t-miss big man Tim Duncan.
The following season, with a healthy Robinson and uber-rookie Tim Duncan, the Spurs quickly returned to the NBA’s top tier, winning 56 games and reaching the second round of the playoffs.
Now, remember those five sub-52-win seasons? The last of these came in 1999, when the Spurs won just 37 games.
Oh yeah! The lockout-shortened 1999 regular season consisted of just 50 games, of which the Spurs won 74% of their games (37-13), before going on to secure the first of their four NBA championships.
In short, the Spurs’ run over the past 21 years has been nothing short of exceptional. 20 winning seasons. 20 trips to the playoffs. One season with a winning percentage under .573. Seven conference finals appearances. Four NBA championships. Not bad, huh?
And while David Robinson is long gone, Tim Duncan is on the 16th fairway of his nearly flawless career, Manu Ginobili looks to be fading and Tony Parker’s days with the franchise may be numbered, Spurs’ fans have plenty to be thankful for.
Plus, there’s always the ping-pong balls.