For the fifth time since 1999, the San Antonio Spurs will open the season as defending champions. The Spurs have won at least 50 games in every regular season since 1998-99, and their 37-13 record that year came in a shortened season. You have to go all the way back to the 1996-97 season to find the last time San Antonio didn’t hit the 50-win mark in a proper regular season.
Competing for the title every season for almost two decades running is a remarkable feat, almost unheard of in this age of superstars shuffling the decks and fleeing for greener pastures. But it’s also yielded one major question: Why haven’t the Spurs repeated as champions during their run?
It only took a few minutes of Gregg Popovich’s first press conference at training camp this year for the coach to be asked that very question—and whether he’ll talk to his team about the goal of repeating.
“We’ll talk about it a little bit,” Popovich responded. “You guys will write articles. It’s all the same every year. Why haven’t we repeated? Because we haven’t. If we do, it would be great. If we don’t, life will go on, everything’s cool.”
Everything may be cool, but despite their longevity, and their dominance in the 2014 Finals, it’s still difficult to see the Spurs repeating this season. And the reasons are the same as they’ve been the other four times San Antonio has failed to repeat: injuries and the unpredictable nature of the post-season—especially after a summer that saw none of their closest competitors in the West take a step back.
Recent Spurs’ history can be a source of lessons in more than just sustained dominance. In 1999-00, coming off the franchise’s first title, the Spurs finished 53-29, but Tim Duncan tore the lateral meniscus in his left knee with just a handful of games left in the regular season. Pop made the decision to shut Duncan down for the playoffs, and the Spurs promptly lost 3-1 in the first round to the Phoenix Suns.
After watching Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal ascend to the top of the West and win three straight titles under Phil Jackson, San Antonio won three more of their own in 2003, 2005 and 2007. In 2004, they were on their way to a 3-2 lead in the second round against the Lakers when Derek Fisher’s .04 shot derailed them. In 2006, they forced a Game 7 on their home court in the second round against a powerhouse Mavs team after trailing 3-1 in the series. Up three late, Manu Ginobili committed a foul on Dirk Nowitzki as the big German drove to the basket. The three-point play tied the game, and the Spurs’ season ended in overtime. In 2008, they ran into a rebuilt Lakers team with Kobe Bryant leading the way again—this time with Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom as his running mates.
Without an untimely injury, a miracle shot from Fisher and a few bad breaks against top-flight competition, the Spurs could arguably have strung together as many as six straight championships, and nine in total. But injuries and upsets affect all teams, so why should history cast doubt on San Antonio’s title chances in 2014-15?
First and foremost, because the task is even more daunting this year than in any of their prior attempts to go back-to-back. None of San Antonio’s previous titles featured a Finals appearance in the season before or after. Ray Allen’s remarkable shot in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals may have erased a Spurs’ championship, but it didn’t do the same for the minutes they played and the mental strain they endured taking Miami to seven games. In terms of pure fatigue, this year they may as well be going for a threepeat.
History has not been kind to teams going for three, and the Spurs need look no further than the team they beat in the Finals last season for the latest example. Going for their third straight title and fourth straight Finals appearance, the Heat saw their defence slip each season after their first championship—from the league’s fourth-stingiest unit in 2011-12, to its seventh in 2012-13 and 11th last season. Running into an offensive juggernaut in last year’s Spurs, they were dispatched in five games in the Finals. A similar slip could be in store for San Antonio.
There are additional concerns for this current version of the Spurs. While Pop has done a masterful job maintaining the trio of Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker—keeping their regular-season minutes around 30 per game at most—it’s no easy task to navigate through the regular season and the extremely competitive Western Conference playoff bracket year after year.
Even last season, San Antonio survived some close calls against the West. In the first round, they were down 2-1 to the eighth-seeded Mavericks and needed a Game 7 home win to advance. In the Conference Finals, they lost two straight games to Oklahoma City (after Serge Ibaka returned from injury), before ultimately winning in six.
Even with news that Kevin Durant may miss almost two months to start the season, OKC remains a competitive team—and one that has beaten the Spurs in the playoffs as recently as 2012. The Clippers have added depth, and Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan appear to have even more room to grow this season. The Warriors, Blazers and Grizzlies remain dangerous teams that return core groups further hardened from playoff appearances a year ago. While teams like the Rockets and Suns also look dangerous in a seven-game series.
Of course, the Spurs are not going to suddenly fall off a cliff. Tim Duncan—even as he nears retirement—has been remarkably consistent (his per-36 minute stats have remained relatively unchanged since he entered the league). Beyond the core three, the Spurs have great depth, and in Kawhi Leonard, they have a budding superstar coming off a Finals MVP performance potentially ready to elevate himself into a larger offensive role.
And yet, looking at the Spurs’ past failures to repeat, and considering the current squad leans on an aging core staring down their third straight deep playoff run, there is understandable doubt they’ll be able to finally repeat this season.
In fact, if they do win the title, it would arguably be their most impressive of the Duncan-Popovich era.
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