Spurs take their place among the all-time greats
Posted June 17, 2014
This was supposed to be a coronation of Pat Riley's latest "three-peat."
(I'm not really sure if I need to send Riles a check or ask permission to use his copyrighted (or trademarked) phrase here, so if I owe him something please let me know where to send the payment.)
In any case, today was to have been the parade honoring the third consecutive LeBron James-led Miami Heat title. The best player on the planet would surely elevate his very imperfect team, coax just enough out of a strong-yet-aging cast of backup singers and ultimately push Miami over the top into immortality.
Only three franchises have ever won three titles in succession: the Lakers, Celtics and Bulls, and the Heat looked very poised to add to that list after winning game two in San Antonio to even the series and wrest home-court advantage away from the Spurs.
In fact, you could have easily surmised that Miami could have – maybe even should have – been up 2-0 in the series since they were in position to win Game 1 in San Antonio until James' body shut down. Why the league agreed to play the series opener in the country's biggest sauna will be a mystery for a long time, but both teams had to deal with the conditions. However, no LeBron means no way Miami can win, and the end result was that James was unavailable for the last half of the fourth quarter and was compromised long before then.
Yet, having watched the three subsequent games of this series, it's pretty clear that even had the Spurs dropped the opening pair at home, they were going to prevail eventually. The difference between the two teams was that obvious. San Antonio took an average halftime lead of more than 15 points into the locker room over those three games, and only in Game 3 did Miami offer anything that resembled a third-quarter fight.
This was a calculated, systematic, surgical mollywhopping of an NBA Finals, and while some may disagree, the San Antonio Spurs needed this a lot more than did Miami.
They needed a fifth NBA championship – a fifth title in the last 16 years. They needed a crowning achievement on a run of sustained excellence the likes of which we've only seen from the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics. Not even the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls (for obvious reasons) were able to sustain this level of play for this length of time. For 16 seasons, the San Antonio Spurs have been the model that franchises in all sports aspire to become. A team about team. A team of great players willing to accept that what was best for the team was also best for them, even if it means leaving personal gain on the table.
There's a big difference, however, between being a great franchise and team that will go down in the annals of league history.
San Antonio achieved a lot over a decade and a half under Greg Popovich – who will surely take his place alongside Red Auerbach, Phil Jackson and Pat Riley, the best coaches in the history of professional basketball.
Great franchises are admired for many reasons, especially one like the Spurs that has managed to hold on to their best players for an extended period. Show me another team in the last three decades that managed to keep three certain Hall of Fame players like Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker and still have the ability to surround them with other difference-making players. Still, this was as much about the organization of Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford than it was about the team itself.
The only thing lacking for San Antonio was a signature moment. Some will point to the fact that from 1999-2013, San Antonio won 10 division titles, won four championships and played for another, and never once won fewer than 50 games in a season.
Well, that's not entirely true. In that first season San Antonio won "only" 37 games. Of course, that was the first of two labor-shortened seasons, and the Spurs' 37-13 record was the best in the NBA. But, in every other year Popovich's team won at least 50.
No team has ever sustained that level of success over that long of a period of time. Not without at least one hiccup. And, before you think I'm saying that this team is better than the Celtics teams that won 11 of 13 titles in the 50s and 60s, pump your brakes. That would be silly, and while you might not agree with me, I'm not about being silly.
For all of their sustained, continuous success, there was something missing from San Antonio's legacy as a legendary team. Yes, they'd won titles in 1999 (Knicks), 2003 (Nets), 2005 (Pistons) and 2007 (Cavaliers). However, other than their win over the Pistons, who were the defending champions in 2005, none of those other wins was over a team anyone thought to be great.
The Spurs needed to slay a giant.
The Knicks were the eighth seed in the East in 1999, playing the finals without injured center Patrick Ewing. Their run to the championship series was more surprising than validating, and the Spurs made easy work of them. Four years later, the Spurs took out the Nets, who were led in scoring by Jason Kidd. And, while Kidd will surely be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, any team that he led in scoring had limited firepower to say the least. Then in 2007, it was the first Finals appearance for LeBron James. And, as James said just the other night, the Cavaliers were really just happy to be there, and it showed in a series sweep.
Maybe most important in this equation of basketball brilliance – if you still don't think the Spurs needed further validation of their greatness – was that it had been seven years since their last title. We're starting to realize that the historically great teams can't go a decade without a championship and still maintain that Teflon status. With each passing year, the New England Patriots move closer to Atlanta Braves territory than to the legendary Pittsburgh Steelers teams of the 1970s or the San Francisco 49ers of the 80s and 90s.
The Spurs needed another "skin" on the wall, and that it came at the expense of the best player on earth and avenged a bitter Finals loss to Miami a year ago only adds to the weight of the accomplishment.
When we talk about the greatest teams of all time, speaking far less about individual seasons, we start with those Celtics teams that won 11 of 13 crowns, mostly at the expense of the Lakers of Baylor, West, Goodrich and eventually Chamberlain. Then you look to the Magic Johnson-Kareem Abdul-Jabbar "Showtime" Lakers who captured five crowns in nine seasons, going first through the Julius Erving 76ers and then the Boston teams with Larry Bird, Robert Parrish and Kevin McHale.
Great champions, historical greatness, is created in part by legendary opponents. For the first time in their 16-year reign of excellence, the San Antonio Spurs can say they ousted one of those teams and take their rightful place among the greatest in the history of the NBA.