One year later, the defending champions have returned to the playoff picture, but they sit far from center stage. A slow start and historically awful month of December have the team ranked seventh in the Western Conference and fourth in the Southwest Division. Having already picked up 15 losses with the All-Star Game over a month away, the Spurs are in danger of falling short of the 50-win mark that they've hit in every one of Tim Duncan's seasons outside of their lockout-shortened 1999 championship campaign.
With an unprecedented amount of competition in the West, it's not unlikely that the team finds itself in an underdog role when the postseason arrives.
Though that might be disheartening to some who expected routine dominance from last year's top squad, it's certainly not a death sentence for the franchise's 2015 title hopes. Though recent trends suggest that teams need to finish with a top-three seed to be a realistic contender, the Houston Rockets—fresh off a 58-win championship season—proved 20 years ago that anything is possible once the playoffs roll around.
After struggling out of the gate in 1994-95, Houston flipped a switch, trading for Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler. The Rockets ultimately finished with 47 regular-season wins—good for the conference's sixth seed—but had enough talent to blast through the playoffs, eventually sweeping the Orlando Magic in the Finals as Houston secured its second-straight NBA title.
It was a playoff journey most improbable—one sparked by a midseason roster shakeup that gave the Rockets the star power necessary to surge forward when the season's first half made a repeat seem unlikely.
Twenty years later, the San Antonio Spurs may be destined to follow a similar path, as the team—having fallen victim to an ongoing injury bug—has been robbed of similar star power, with 2014 Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard having missed a large chunk of time with a hand injury that will keep him sidelined for two more weeks.
Leonard isn't alone in his extended absence. Tony Parker has missed a total of 13 games with hamstring-related issues, while Patty Mills (shoulder) and Tiago Splitter (calf) missed the first quarter of the season.
Veterans Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili have managed to evade the bug, but they have received—and will continue to receive—ample rest throughout the season in preparation for the playoffs.
With injuries galore, the final product has been inconsistent playing time, constantly-changing lineups and a start to the season that hardly suggests that the team is primed for a repeat.
Similarly, the Houston Rockets returned in 1994-95 with lofty goals, but by February, they bore little resemblance to their title-winning selves from the year before.
The Houston Rockets entered the 1994-95 season looking to join the ranks of the last four champions, who were all able to repeat as back-to-back NBA champions. Yet by midseason, Houston hardly looked like a serious contender and was in dire need of a spark to their transition game.
The Rockets fixed what ailed them in Februrary at the trade deadline, shipping rugged power forward Otis Thorpe to Portland in a deal that put Hall-of-Fame guard Clyde Drexler back in Houston. It didn’t take long for Drexler and Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon — a teammate during their college days at the University of Houston — to pick up where they left off so many years ago.
Prior to the acquisition of Drexler, the Rockets lacked big-time scoring options outside of Olajuwon. And while the Houston big man certainly proved himself capable of handling a heavy scoring burden, it eventually became evident that the team's chances of a repeat were slim.
After all, the 1993-94 Rockets won the title with a historically limited supporting cast, per The Dream Shake's Patrick Harrel.
Otis Thorpe was a fan favorite, 23 year old Robert Horry was coming into his own, and Mad Max and Kenny the Jet were both big time contributors, but those guys were not the typical supporting cast to a championship squad. In fact, Thorpe was the only other player on the roster with an above average PER during the regular season. On top of this, the team was only the second team since they began tracking turnovers in 1977 to have a championship team with only one player with a PER above 17, a feat only matched by the 1978-79 Supersonics.
The subsequent season saw them get off to a 29-17 start which—much like San Antonio 21-15 record—was good enough to qualify for the postseason but hardly expected from the defending champions.
So, to fill out the supporting cast, Houston made the hard decision and shipped out Thorpe to bring in another dynamic scorer to compete alongside Olajuwon.
The move could not have worked out much better for the Rockets. While Thorpe's considerable rebounding talents have been missed, Houston now has two bona fide scoring options in its starting lineup. Before, the only time that was the case was when erratic guard Vernon Maxwell was riding one of his hot streaks to back up the scoring of center Hakeem Olajuwon.
"Hakeem Olajuwon has been so big for us," Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich said Tuesday at Orlando Arena, "but we said, 'How long can we keep going through him 90 percent of the time with him as the focal point?' And with Clyde, we have a guy who should have been an All-Star this year."
It was a midseason move that changed everything, similar to what San Antonio presumably expects with the return of Kawhi Leonard, among others, to full health.
Without Leonard, the team's defense has suffered incredibly, much like Houston's offense pre-Drexler. Duncan's defensive responsibilities rival Olajuwon's offensive workload, with the big man doing his part to anchor the defense, though the holes are still obvious. When Leonard returns, he'll bolster the defense much like Drexler did the offense.
And the roster comparisons don't end there.
What the Spurs have in Danny Green, Houston had in Robert Horry, while Manu Ginobili fills Sam Cassell's role as a second-unit leader and dynamic bench scorer/facilitator.
The road will be more difficult for the Spurs, who will have to ride an aging Duncan—rather than Olajuwon in the prime of his career—in the postseason while simultaneously competing in a much more difficult Western Conference.
But as Houston proved 20 years ago, the only necessary regular-season feat one needs to accomplish to win a championship is to qualify for the playoffs. From there, it's a whole new ballgame.
After all, as Rudy Tomjanovich noted after his '95 Rockets sealed the Finals sweep, "don't ever underestimate the heart of a champion."
San Antonio proved last year that it had the heart to bounce back from one of the most devastating Finals collapses in NBA history. The Spurs managed to shock the world after pundits had written them off after the public watched them crumble on the national stage.
And once again, they're finding themselves passed over in contention discussions. Yet they've done some of their best work flying under the radar, using their lack of recognition as fuel.
There's no denying that Coach Gregg Popovich's squad has the collective heart of a champion—that much it proved last year. Once the team returns to full health and makes the necessary midseason fixes, it will have the opportunity to start anew, much like the '94-'95 Rockets.
As long as the team's stars are 100 percent come playoff time, San Antonio will have the chance to put their slow start behind them. Even if recent history suggests that a strong regular season is needed to compete for a title, Houston set a precedent 20 years ago, proving that no trend is unbreakable.
On a similar path right now, with doubters lining at the door and a strong likelihood of fixing the problems that currently ail them, the San Antonio Spurs may very well be next in line to break it.