As the Spurs prepare for still another trip to the NBA finals, let’s look back and see how this current team stacks up against San Antonio’s four previous championship squads.
The success of the 1999 Spurs (37-13 in the lockout-shortened regular season) primarily depended on the following players:
- Tim Duncan who, in his sophomore season as a pro, was a reliable corner jump shooter, a dreadnaught scorer in the low post, a sure-handed rebounder, a dangerous shot-blocker, and a surprisingly quick-footed runner.
- Sean Elliott was an excellent baseline point-maker.
- Avery Johnson was tough and resourceful.
- Mario Elie played ornery defense.
- Steve Kerr was a savvy and dependable catch-and-shoot guard.
- In the middle was David Robinson, beset by several injuries that signaled the beginning of the diminishing of his on-court impact. Yet, despite his sterling reputation, the Admirable was perhaps the most overrated player in NBA history. On defense he excelled at coming from the weakside to block shots, but was never more than an ordinary man-to-man defender. His offense was limited to medium-range jumpers, lefty hooks (that were available only when his defender bit on his repeated fakes), and put-backs.
Indeed, here’s what a member of the Spurs front office once told me: “David’s a terrific athlete with terrific skills, but he just doesn’t have a passion for the game that would make him a truly great player. Instead of playing basketball, he’d much rather fool around with his collection of computer gadgets. And he never won diddley-squat until TD arrived on the scene.”
Even so, the 1999 Spurs have the advantage in the frontcourt over Tiago Splitter and the current version of Duncan (who has become much more of a high-post player than a factor in the pivot). Everywhere else, though, the current edition of the Spurs has a decided advantage: Much better perimeter shooting with Danny Green, Matt Bonner, Gary Neal, Kawhi Leonard and Manu Ginobili. Better speed, quickness, and athleticism. Plus a deeper bench that gives the modern-day Spurs a clear edge in versatility.
The 2003 champs (60 regular-season wins) featured Duncan and Robinson up front, plus the powerful inside game of Malik Rose. Tony Parker played the point with incredible quickness, but with an inconsistent jump shot and a penchant for making bad decisions with the ball. Steven Smith, Stephen Jackson and Ginobili were a formidable trio of scorers, while Bruce Bowen specialized in corner-treys and lock-down defense.
Even though Smith and Jackson were liabilities on defense, and the latter’s ballhandling was suspect, because this particular team went eight-deep, and had more low-post scorers and physical players than the current Spurs can field, the 2003 squad gets the nod.
In 2005 (59 wins), Duncan, Parker (whose jumper was still shaky), Ginobili, and Bowen were augmented by Nazr Mohammed (strictly a finesse big man), Brent Barry (a dependable long-distance shooter with a questionable handle and inadequate defense) and Robert Horry, whose clutch shooting and alert defense became legendary.
On the virtue of its superior depth, versatility, and overall athleticism, the 2013 edition of the Spurs has a decided edge.
The 2007 champions showcased several holdovers: TD, TP, MG, Mr. Big Shot and Bowen, plus a pair of important newcomers. These were Michael Finley at the tail-end of his career and Fabricio Oberto. While Finley was still a dangerous shooter, he had trouble guarding his own shadow. Oberto was strong, willing, smart, and a setter of sturdy picks, but was unable to play defense without fouling, and was a subpar athlete.
The 2013 Spurs are better than San Antonio’s last championship outfit for several reasons: The increased accuracy of Parker’s pull-up jumpers more than compensates for his having lost a step. The willingness of Duncan to be mostly a role player and passer from the high-post. The smarts of Boris Diaw. The continued scrappiness of Ginobili. The part-time treys of Bonner. The dead-eye shooting and speed of the Spurs youngsters. The incredible discipline and unselfishness of every player (especially since the banishment of Jackson). And the length of the current bench.
A more subtle reason why the 2013 Spurs rank as high as they do is the evolution of Gregg Popovich’s coaching philosophy. Whereas in previous championship seasons Pop often allowed his natural stubbornness to limit his game plan, this is no longer the case. By opening up the Spurs offense, he (aided and abetted by the best front office in the NBA) has kept the team highly competitive while in the process of rebuilding. A remarkable achievement by all concerned.
Through all the changes, Pop’s ability to make in-game and between-game adjustments remains unparalleled.
Of course, all bets and all comparisons will be rendered useless should the Spurs fail to win the last game of the 2012-13 season.