The Spurs used the first pick in the 1987 NBA Draft to select David Robinson from the United States Naval Academy. Because Robinson had a two-year active-duty obligation with the Navy, his basketball career did not begin until the 1989-90 season. As an older-than-usual rookie, The Admiral averaged 24 points, 12 rebounds, and 4 blocks per game. He made the All-Star Team and the Spurs made the second round of the playoffs. They won 56 games that season, one year removed from winning only 21, marking the greatest one-year turnaround in league history, up to that point in time.
After that 56-win season, the Robinson-led Spurs went on to have season win totals of 55, 47, 49, 55, 62, and 59. In 1995, the 62-win season, Robinson won league MVP and the Spurs reached the Western Conference Finals. They lost to Hakeem Olajuwon’s Houston Rockets — the eventual champions — and parts of the foundation began to crack around Robinson.
Dennis Rodman was the league’s leading rebounder and Spurs’ second-best player. He missed a bunch of games in the ’95 season due to team suspensions and a motorcycle accident. In the playoffs, Rodman’s behavior became a terrible distraction. In the Game 3 of the semifinals versus the Lakers, Rodman was taken out of the game by Coach Bob Hill. After exchanging words with Hill, Rodman took his shoes off and sat down on the end of the sideline, yelling at Hill not to put him back in the game. In Game 4, a Spurs win to go up 3-1, Rodman didn’t play at all.
Rodman was traded to the Chicago Bulls in the offseason — he went on to win three more championships (in addition to the pair he won with the Detroit Pistons) — and the Spurs took a step back in the ’96 season. They won three fewer games than the year before, and this time only made the conference semifinals. When Robinson was hurt early the next season, Hill was fired and replaced by the self-appointed general manager, Gregg Popovich. Pop held Duncan out of all but six games to preserve him for the future and “tank” for a better draft pick.
They finished with the third-worst record in the league, and went on to win the much-anticipated draft lottery; anticipated because whoever landed the top pick would get to select Tim Duncan from Wake Forest.
Duncan, like Robinson before him, was a seven-foot tall college superstar picked first in the draft. Together in San Antonio they formed the “Twin Towers” and immediately won 56 games (surpassing the previous turnaround record set in Robinson’s rookie year by 1 game) and reached the second round of the playoffs. Like Robinson, Duncan was an All-Star rookie. Like Robinson, Duncan was great at every part of the game: scoring, defending, rebounding, passing, and blocking shots.
The Twin-Towers Spurs won championships in 1999 and 2003, bookending the Shaq & Kobe Lakers threepeat. Robinson retired after the ’03 title.
Almost 20 years after drafting Duncan, and almost 30 years after drafting Robinson, the Spurs remain dominant. They’ve gone through all of these different phases. The David Robinson phase. The Robinson & Rodman mini-phase. The Twin Towers phase (2 titles). The Parker/Ginobili/Duncan “Big 3” phase (2 more titles).
This latest phase (which already includes 1 title) is more difficult to define by a player or two — at least on the offensive side of the ball. On offense, the Spurs play the best version of team basketball that the NBA has seen in the time I have been watching it. They blend traditional NBA two-man sets, such as ball screens and post entries, into a cohesive five-man system that is absolutely dizzying to defenders being run off of screen after screen after screen. The Spurs offense repeatedly passes up adequate shots — sometimes “good” shots — in search of a great one. When they find that great shot — and it seems like they find it more often than any other team — they have the talent to convert. After scoring the two or three points, they’ve left their opponent exhausted, now ready to take its turn against the Spurs defense.
And on that side of the ball, these Spurs are even better. On the defensive end, they are more defined by one player than they are on offense. That player, of course, is Kawhi Leonard, the league’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year, who will win that award again this season, and probably a few more times after that. Leonard, despite his serious demeanor and conspicuous lack of flash in his offensive game, is a spectacular defender to watch. Fans are coming to appreciate the entertainment value provided by someone who can not only contain stars like Kevin Durant and James Harden, but who can just flatout take the ball from them like a bully on the playground.
Pop was asked about Leonard after his rookie year, and had this to say:
I think he’s going to be a star. And as time goes on, he’ll be the face of the Spurs, I think. At both ends of the court, he is really a special player. And what makes me be so confident about him is that he wants it so badly.
He wants to be a good player, I mean a great player. He comes early, he stays late, and he’s coachable, he’s just like a sponge.
The coach obviously knew his player, because this is exactly what has happened. Despite the continued presence of Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili, the current Spurs are most defined by Leonard, and the things he does on a nightly basis; particularly on defense. If the Spurs have a face right now, it is Kawhi’s. While Golden State is setting records with its 27-1 record heading into their Christmas Day matchup with the Cavs, these Spurs are their 1A in the league rankings. They have a 25-5 record, and an average scoring margin that is right with the Warriors. Basketball fans outside of a few select regions like Oklahoma and Los Angeles are hoping dearly for a Warriors-Spurs Western Conference Finals in May. So far, signs point to that being a strong possibility.
I felt like looking back at some of this Spurs history because the Spurs are what Sam Mitchell had on his mind after last night’s game. He chuckled when discussing his 20 year olds facing off against the likes of not only Leonard but of strong post players like Aldridge and David West. Mitchell said that he told his players before the game that, “this is the winningest franchise in the last — I don’t know — 15, 17, 18 years, something like that, and that’s something that we gotta aspire to be. How they play the ball, how they play the game. Professionalism. How they come out. How the ball moves. How it’s all about ‘w’ at the end of the game, and not about other things.”
It’s actually more like 26 or 27 years, dating back to that first season with David Robinson. Since that time, the Spurs only losing season is the one spent tanking for the pick that became Duncan. Since adding Duncan, their worst winning percentage was 0.610, a 50-32 record in 2010. After adding Kawhi Leonard in 2011, the Spurs have won 50, 58, 62, and 55 games each season. The 50 wins came in a lockout-shortened 66-game season. They won the 2014 title after losing the 2013 title in heartbreaking fashion. Nobody will be surprised if they win a title this year, or next year, or the year after that, or the year after that. Kawhi is only 24 years old after all, and Spurs history suggests they’ll do a marvelous job of reloading when his current teammates eventually retire.
There isn’t much to say by way of tying in the Spurs history to the current Timberwolves situation. Mitchell says that he wants his team to emulate the Spurs, which makes sense. Every team should want to do most of the things the Spurs do. Maybe Wiggins can become a Leonard-type player in a few years, or maybe Towns can become an all-around force like Duncan. Of course those would be great outcomes that would make the Timberwolves successful for some period of time.
But looking back at the last three decades of Spurs basketball is a worthwhile exercise in and of itself, as it spans such a big fraction of NBA history and they’ve been great in all but a single season. It is almost as if that continuity is the best thing that they have going for them. They develop all of this greatness (and, to be fair, they’ve drafted some of it with lottery luck), and align player-career primes just right to allow themselves perennial title contention while holding talent reserves for the future. It’s like making shots begets making shots, getting stops begets getting stops, and winning begets winning. The Spurs do things best as a front office, as a coaching staff, and as players on the floor. It’s like they’ve reached a point where they win just because they’re the Spurs.
Anyway, the Wolves match up with the Spurs again next Monday at San Antonio. Mitchell seemed to be happy about this, hoping his team learns from playing a great opponent.
A few quick Timberwolves bullets:
- Tyus Jones played his first meaningful NBA action last night, after spending 6 games in the D-League. He had 6 points, 2 assists and 2 steals in 20 minutes of action. Jones needs to get a lot stronger — we already knew this — but he held his own out there, and at times looked pretty comfortable on offense. It makes good sense to get him minutes this way, on a second unit in a game that the Wolves had no chance of winning. (The Spurs starters were kicking ass in the first quarter, and Mitchell admitted after the game he might’ve played Kevin Martin instead, if he felt the Wolves had a chance to win.)
- Zach LaVine was perhaps the only Wolves player who had a pretty decent game by his own standards. He had 17 points and 4 assists in 24 minutes of action. In a way, it makes sense that LaVine would be the one to not have his play quality lowered by the Spurs excellent defense. So much of LaVine’s upside is in his physical tools and how unstoppable his good plays are. He just needs to work hard to eliminate his self-inflicted errors; the type that could come just as easily against the Spurs as against the 76ers. His defensive awareness is improving. This I’ve noticed in a specific type of play – when he is scrambling to close out on the wing with an open corner shooter, LaVine is beginning to anticipate the quick “extra” pass that most wings make in that situation. The slide has to be timed right, lest he just leave the wing wide open with the ball, but those types of anticipatory defensive cuts are what make Ricky Rubio such a great defensive player, and it’s nice to see subtle signs of progress from LaVine in that area. On the contrary, Shabazz Muhammad is very much a tunnel-visioned defender, who would be more likely to simply run a straight line to the shooter without regard for surroundings. Bazz’s defense is lagging far behind his scoring and rebounding, and could prevent him from ever being a good starter in the NBA.
- Andrew Wiggins had a frustrating night of getting his shot blocked repeatedly when he tried to score in the lane. Some of it was the Wolves typical poor spacing that didn’t pull help defenders out of his way. Some of it was the Spurs being outstanding on defense. Some of it was Wiggins forcing shots that weren’t there. It was an off night for him.
- Gorgui Dieng made some nice jumpers last night, ending with 12 points on 5-9 shooting. As is too often the case, his downfall was in turnovers. He had 3 of them in 24 minutes of action. His headfakes are extra harmful because: 1) he’s a good shooter and should just shoot the ball when he’s open; and 2) because of how slowly he brings the ball up over his head, he’s whistled for traveling on a lot of plays where he head fakes and then dribbles. Those unforced turnovers have gotta go.
That’s about it for now. The Wolves play next at home on 12/26 versus the Indiana Pacers. Until then.
Season Record: 11-18