A Winning Tradition that goes Unmatched (and Unnoticed)

For all of the Spurs’ greatness and consistent dominance, they are not included in conversations with the big boys in New York, LA, Boston, etc. And if the standard we’re measuring them against is based on number of championships,  I can’t say that I would disagree.

However, based on an overall analysis of the team’s success, I believe they belong in this conversation just as much as anyone else.

I’d be lying if I said that this was an easy argument to make. I mean… The Yankees, the winningest franchise in all of sports with 27 championships; the Montreal Canadians with 24; the Boston Celtics with 17; and the Lakers with 16. That’s tough company.

Then there’s San Antonio, sitting humble with their four championships. Now I know that four titles alone does not put the Spurs in elite status. But there are other factors that earn the Spurs a spot in this conversation.

Tim Duncan admires his work as he stares at four banners hanging from the AT&T Center in San Antonio, TX.(Photo: Ryan Hurst)
Tim Duncan admires his work as he stares at four banners hanging from the AT&T Center in San Antonio, TX.
(Photo: Ryan Hurst)

For starters, the Spurs did not get their start in the NBA until the 1976-77 season; the NBA was founded in 1946. The Lakers and Celtics were there from the start. By the time the Spurs got their start in the NBA, the winningest team in NBA history (in terms of championships), the Boston Celtics, who have won 17 total championships, had already won 13. The Los Angeles Lakers had already won 8 of their 16 championships, too.

Given these circumstances, it’s a bit unfair to compare teams based on total championships.

To add to the disadvantages, in the early stages of the league, when the Celtics and Lakers did most of their damage, there were only eight teams competing. It was not until 1968 that the NBA expanded from 9 to 14 teams. By this time, the Celtics and Lakers had already won 15 of their now total 33 championships. Including the Celtics winning 11 (of their 17) championships in a 13-year span, with 8 in a row from 1959-1966.

LA and Boston bullied their way through the league. LA had players such as George Mikan, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain and eventually Kareem Abdul-Jabar, a former MVP who demanded a trade from Milwaukee to either New York or Los Angeles (*cough* big-market power); The Celtics had Bill Russell, Bob Cousy and John Havlicek.

Wilt Chamberlain has seasons where he averaged 50+ points, 73% shooting and 27+ rebounds. Don’t get me wrong, Chamberlain was truly a man among boys. He would be successful in any era; but the talent he played against, or lack of, was a huge advantage for him self and the Lakers. With all due respect to one of the most decorated players in NBA history, Wilt’s competition was average on most nights, at best.

This is not to take away from any of these players; they were obviously great in their era. But the NBA has since expanded to 30 teams and has become much more competitive in the process.

Lastly, the New York Yankees, the winningest team in the history of sports with 27 championships, began playing in 1901; that is a 75-year advantage on the Spurs and just a wee-bit unfair.

To measure all teams equal, a team’s all-time winning percentage seems fair. With all the greatness the big franchises have seen and  great win percentages established through their winning traditions, the Spurs won’t belong with these guys even when we level the playing field, right?

Guess again.

The San Antonio Spurs have the second best all-time win percentage out of all four major North American sports leagues,  winning 61.1% of their games. They are second to only the Los Angeles Lakers who have a win percentage of 61.8%.

In an article labeled The top 5 sports franchises by regular season win percentage on yahoo.com, the author, Patrick Michael, evaluates all four major North American sports leagues to find the five best teams in terms of win percentage. He writes, “of all the winning teams on this list, the San Antonio Spurs were the biggest surprise as I was researching this article. In their [37] NBA seasons, the Spurs have made the playoffs [33] times. Besides consistently winning games, players such as Tim Duncan and David Robinson have represented their franchise well on and off the court.”

I’m sure that most people would be equally surprised to find the Spurs on this list.

The Spurs have been crowned division champs 21 out of their 37 seasons in their ever-competitive Southwest division; this is no easy task in what is typically one of the strongest divisions in basketball. Some mainstay names the Spurs have edged out over the years include Dominique Wilkins, Hakeem Olajuwon,  Clyde Drexler, Dirk Nowitzki, Chris Paul and many more.

Spurs fan holds up sign similar to LeBron's trademark Witness slogan.(Photo: Alan Ruhd)
Spurs fan holds up sign similar to LeBron’s trademark Witness slogan.
(Photo: Alan Ruhd)

There is no team in the history of the NBA that holds a winning record against the Spurs. The Los Angeles Lakers, unfortunately, boast the most impressive record against the Spurs with a draw, both teams winning 74 games. Of all the stats and facts I’ve discovered, this one blows me away more than any. It’s not only a winning record the Spurs hold against the rest of the league, it’s domination; most of the records are not even close.

I don’t want to beat this drum any more than I already did in my last post, but, for a small-market team to keep up the level of excellence that the Spurs have had is one of the most amazing accomplishments that any team, in any sport, has ever seen.

The Spurs four championships rank fourth most of all NBA teams. This is a deceiving number for the Spurs, however. Teams like the Chicago Bulls have won six; and that reflects their history well. They have been good enough to win a championship about six times. The Spurs, however, have been legitimate contenders more often than not since joining the NBA. From 1997-present, they have been legit title contenders. While George Gervin’s era was more about establishing the Spurs as a force in the NBA, they had a couple real chances at winning it all. David Robinson had a title-worthy team many years in his era as well.

Unfortunately for the Spurs, injuries, 5-second mental lapses, or being great when the Lakers had the unstoppable combination of Kobe and Shaq, have limited them to just four championships. As stated before, this does not accurately reflect the kind of teams San Antonio has produced. In reality, the Spurs have had championship-capable teams more than 15  of their years.

This is not to make excuses for the team, these types of downfalls are a part of basketball. Trust me, I know that. However, I do say it to show how great the franchise has constantly been and with just a few do-overs, the ring count could easily surpass 10 in San Antonio; they’ve been that good.

Just imagine if Derek Fisher’s 0.4 shot (it absolutely killed me to hyperlink that shot) in the 2004 playoffs never happened. If only we could take back Manu’s crucial bonehead foul on Dirk in the 2006 playoffs. What if OKC’s bigs didn’t inherit Dirk Nowitzki’s jump shot midway through the series in last year’s playoffs? I could go on for days. The Spurs had championship teams many years with some really unfortunate breaks.

For all the success the Spurs have seen over the last 16 seasons with the great combination of Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich, the Spurs winning ways run deeper than 1997 and on. The winning tradition dates all the way back to the “Iceman” George Gervin’s days. The tradition continued to David Robinson’s era and now Tim/Tony/Manu/Pop (yes I threw in Pop. He’s as much a reason for the winning as any player we’ve had.)

The Spurs were once an ABA (American Basketball Association) team located in Dallas and on the verge of extinction before new owners took over and saved the franchise in ’73. The franchise relocated to San Antonio and, along with four others, joined the NBA in ’76. You would think the Spurs needed time to adjust and prepare for such a huge leap to competing with the world’s best. Instead they wasted no time establishing their dominance; in their first seven seasons they won 59% of their games and made the playoffs every year. It took the Spurs only three years to make it to the Western Conference Finals where they took a 3-1 series lead before falling in 7 games to the Washington Bullets.

George "The Iceman" Gervin(Photo: Adam Formal)
George “The Iceman” Gervin
(Photo: Adam Formal)

David Robinson would experience similar success in the ’90s. And some guy named Tim Duncan is doing a pretty good job with the team now, I hear.

Now the truth is, for as great as the Spurs have been since ’76, the great Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich are to credit for most of the accolades and astounding win percentage.

Since drafting Tim Duncan in 1997, the Spurs have won an astounding 71% of their games. s-e-v-e-n-t-y o-n-e. Wrap your minds around that, people. Also, their playoff win percentage in that span is 61%, which is the same percent that has them as the second winningest team in all four sports for regular season games (the competition goes up in the playoffs.)

The Spurs 71% win percentage since drafting Duncan is the best 16-year win percentage in the history of professional sports.

Since 1997, the Spurs have won at least 50 games (out of 82) in all of their seasons except for 1999; this happens to be the lockout season that forced teams to play only 50 games. And by the way, the Spurs (obviously) didn’t get 50 wins, but they did win the NBA championship that year. Since then, the Spurs have won at least 50 games in an NBA record-setting 14 straight seasons. The Spurs have also made the playoffs 23 of the last 24 years.

I can talk Spurs for days and argue even longer about why I feel that they’re the most well-rounded franchise in the history of sports. All of the accomplishments go under the radar because hey, it’s the Spurs. They’re not the flashy New York Yankees or dramatic Miami Heat. But for true basketball fans, not today’s typical half-witted NBA fan, what the Spurs have done is something to marvel at.

Many people say the Spurs will have a long drought after the great Tim Duncan retires. Hey, I’m the biggest Duncan fan and there is no doubt that it will be a major transition. But the winning tradition and good karma that comes with being as humble/respectable an organization as the Spurs are, I feel good about the future in San Antonio.

An altered photo of Kobe Bryant poking fun at the Lakers subpar record. This photo mimics the original picture of Wilt chamberlain holding his sign with "100" in recognition of his 100 point game.
An altered photo of Kobe Bryant poking fun at the Lakers sub par record. This photo is a mimic of the original picture of Wilt chamberlain holding his sign with “100” for his 100-point game.

Teams like the Miami Heat will experience a huge fallout when LeBron James or Dwyane Wade leaves. The Lakers are already experiencing difficulty with an aging team as they struggle to make the playoffs and maintain a .500 record. Obviously they will have their temporary drought (easily fixed by money for them) when Kobe Bryant retires. But the Spurs don’t work the same way these teams do; they know how to set themselves up to withstand these would-be tough years. This is evidenced by their risky, but genius, big moves like acquiring the future of the organization in Kawhi Leonard; their brilliant draft work that brought in Tony Parker with the second-to-last pick of the first round and Manu Ginobili with the 57th pick.

In 2011, the Spurs traded away local favorite, and established point guard, George Hill to get Kawhi Leonard with the 15th pick in the 2011 NBA Draft. Kawhi had no NBA experience, there was no way to tell if he’d be a solid pro; George Hill was in the process of making a huge name for himself. Much to the chagrin of Spurs fans, they made the move; and now, two years later, Kawhi Leonard has San Antonio buzzing with excitement about the future of the team with Kawhi wearing silver and black.

               Kawhi Leonard shows off his athleticism on a break-away slam against the Portland Trailblazers.

I mention these management moves because it goes to show that these past 37 years have been no fluke. The Spurs are for real and will be a continued force in the NBA for many years to come.

For as many stats that I can throw out there trying to defend the Spurs, the truth is, the Yankees’ 27 championships is awesome. The Celtics’ 17 is cool; I wish I could say that the Spurs had that many championships and I wouldn’t have to write a blog explaining why they belong with the big dogs. At the end of the day, despite very fortunate circumstances, Boston and LA are head and shoulders above the rest of the league in terms of championships; I envy it.

BUT, and that’s a huge “but,” I will take my team any day over any of these powerhouses. It’s an underdog story for San Antonio. The Lakers are expected to win, the Celtics are expected to win, the Yankees… you get the point. The Spurs were four businessmen away from ceasing to exist in the early ’70s.

This makes them something like an orphan to the league; an orphan that started at the bottom of the totem pole and has worked their way into being one of the most admired franchises in all of sports. I, personally, have experienced the bottom in my own way. I like to think I took a similar approach to get where I’m at now; that approach being through honest hard work and staying true to my values and beliefs. No one expects me to be where I’m at and many damn sure doubt that I’ll continue to succeed in the years to come. Sound familiar, Spurs fans? I think many Spurs fans can relate when I say that I identify with the Spurs on so many more levels than just basketball. I love being a Spurs fan.

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