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The San Antonio Spurs: All-Time Great Franchise?

Where do the San Antonio Spurs rank among the NBA’s all-time great franchises? Moke Hamilton shares his thoughts.

Moke Hamilton

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Without question, the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics reign at the top of the NBA. At 1A and 1B, the general consensus among those that cover the league and those that follow it is that the two winningest franchises in NBA history sit alone.

But are we blinded by the gold sparkle of the Larry O’Brien trophy?

When it comes to anointing greatness, do we simply give that title to the Lakers and Celtics because they have won 16 and 17 NBA championships, respectively?

Is that taking the easy way out?

I think it is, and I also happen to think that a closer look could have one arguing that the San Antonio Spurs are much closer to being the greatest NBA franchise ever than many people think.

In the world of professional sports, asterisks are necessary. As time passes and rule changes are enacted, players of today undoubtedly benefit in ways that players of yesterday were unable.

Case in point: Kobe Bryant and LeBron James currently hold a multitude of records for being the youngest players in NBA history to accomplish a great many things. Both Bryant and James entered the league fresh out of high school. When Bryant played his first regular season game back on November 3, 1996, he was barely 18 years old. James, on the other hand, was much closer to his 19th birthday, but he was 18 years old, nonetheless.

As such, any player that entered the league after the 2005 collective bargaining agreement was enacted is at a disadvantage, because that 2005 CBA effectively mandates that American-born players be at least 19 years old when they enter the league.

So Kevin Durant, James Harden and Stephen Curry will have a tough time snatching any of those records from Bryant and James.

The same logic should apply to the way championships and championship history is viewed. And the proverbial fork in the road was the 1976 settlement of one the most important lawsuit involving the NBA.

Oscar Robertson, then the president of the NBA players union, filed an antitrust lawsuit against the league, seeking to end the league’s then-in-place “option clause,” which bound a player to his incumbent team for life, at the team’s option. Eventually, after unionizing, the league’s players sought an end to the rule, and the NBA balked. Robertson filed suit in 1970 on behalf of the union, and the NBA eventually settled the suit in 1976. With the settlement, NBA players scored a major victory and eventually won the right to unrestricted free agency as we know it today.

Why is that important?

Because the Celtics just so happened to win 12 of their 17 championships before 1976. That was before teams lost players like James, Harden, Dwight Howard, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul.

It was the 1976 Oscar Robertson decision that was a clear paradigm shift for the league and the teams vying for championships.

And in the years immediately proceeding the Robertson decision, the league slowly, but surely, began its expansion efforts. Beginning in 1981, the league has expanded on five different occasions, adding a total of eight teams, beginning with the Dallas Mavericks.

In 1989, the Charlotte Hornets and Miami HEAT began. In 1990, the Minnesota Timberwolves and Orlando Magic were added and in 1996, the Memphis Grizzlies (founded in Vancouver) and Toronto Raptors became teams. Most recently, in 2003, the Charlotte Bobcats (now the Hornets) were founded.

So yes, with a league of 30 teams and free agency, sustaining greatness is more difficult than in eras past. Imagine a world where there was no free agency and only 20 teams competing? Would it be easier to win if a team had one of the few dominant players like Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar?

Is that something that is ever even discussed?

In today’s NBA, with all teams having equal opportunity access to medical science and training facilities, free agency (a mechanism by which weaker teams improve) and more competition, is it more difficult for one team to stay on top?

The answer there, without question, is yes.

In particular, that is what makes Michael Jordan’s dominance of the league so unfathomable. Equally as unfathomable is the fact that Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich are set to do battle in their sixth NBA Finals, the first one having taken place 15 years ago.

Together, the greatness they have sustained, based on the obstacles they have endured and surpassed, is arguably unprecedented.

As we wrote in last Sunday’s roundtable with Eric Pincus and Nate Duncan, who one dubs the “greatest,” at almost anything, is a wholly subjective endeavor. Still, a very reasonable argument can be made that the Spurs warrant mention as one of the top franchises in the history of the sport—and perhaps even above the Celtics.

Since the Spurs began competing in the NBA in 1976, they have failed to make the playoffs just four times. They have made it as far as their Conference Finals 12 times, winning their conference five of those times and winning the NBA championship four times.

Dating back to when the franchise was founded in 1968 as the Dallas Chaparrals of the American Basketball Association, the Spurs have an all-time win percentage of .593, second in history only to the Lakers. The Celtics are third with a .590 win percentage.

Over the course of their 47-year history (including years in the ABA), the Spurs have won 20 division championships. And although they have “only” won four championships, that number is fourth-most, trailing only the aforementioned Lakers (16) and Celtics (17) and Chicago Bulls (six).

As far as championships go, however, it should be pointed out that since 1976 and the Robertson decision, the Lakers have won 10 championships. The Bulls have won six while the Celtics have won only five.

All facts considered, the Spurs winning “only” four championships seems like a bit more of an accomplishment. Certainly, as a franchise, they are not as far behind as one would think. Even aside from Duncan and Popovich, over the years, the Spurs have seen their fair share of great players.

David Robinson, Sean Elliott, Vinny Del Negro, Terry Cummings, Willie Anderson, George Gervin, Artis Gilmore, Mike Mitchell, Johnny Moore, James Silas and Lerry Kenon are just a few who helped make the Spurs a perennial contender throughout various points in their history.

And before Popovich set the all-time single-season wins record by leading the team to a 63-19 clip in 2006, a fair number of his predecessors led prior teams to at least 50 wins. The list not only includes Bob Hill—whose 62-20 record was broken by Popovich—but also John Lucas, Larry Brown, Stan Albeck and Doug Moe.

Even before Duncan and Popovich, the Spurs have had a long, proud tradition, and although it was that duo that eventually put the franchise over the top, helping them capture their first championship in 1999, the Spurs have been a model of success in the NBA for a very, very long time.

The names may not be as sexy as the likes of Russell, Bob Cousy, John Havlicek or Larry Bird, and they may not be as renowned as Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar or Magic Johnson, but these Spurs warrant mention in the same breath.

All things considered, they are certainly the NBA’s model franchise over the course of the past 15 years, but truth be told, they may have quietly been one of the league’s model franchises since a time long, long before then.

Have feedback? Want to discuss something unrelated? Drop a question in Moke Hamilton’s Weekly NBA Chat, held each Friday, or send him a Tweet, @MokeHamilton. We value your feedback!

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Miami’s Youth Supporting HEAT’s Early Season Success

While much Miami’s early success can be attributed to the team’s system and the play of superstar Jimmy Butler, much of the credit also goes to three of the HEAT’s younger players. Drew Maresca recently caught up with them to speak about how its youth has helped drive the team’s success.

Drew Maresca

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Expectations for the Miami HEAT have varied a lot since LeBron James left for the greener pastures of Cleveland in 2012. Many felt that the HEAT had finally climbed out of the basement when they swung a deal for Jimmy Butler this past off-season, but doubts about their depth and their lack of a true second option remained.

Well, the doubters obviously failed to factor in the HEAT’s rookies performing as they have.

While they do not boast one of the league’s youngest rosters (25th overall), the HEAT have succeeded through the first 20-or-so games by playing young, inexperienced players. In fact, three of the HEAT’s top seven minute-getters are essentially rookies – Duncan Robinson, Tyler Herro and Kendrick Nunn. Herro is a true rookie, Nunn went un-drafted in 2018 and played all of last season with the Santa Cruz Warriors (Golden State’s G-league affiliate) and Robison played most of 2018-19 with the Siox Falls Skyforce (the HEAT’s G-league affiliate) — but also appeared in 15 games with Miami.

Now, it’s not terribly unusual for rookies and young players to crack a team’s rotation. But when most people consider rookies playing major roles, they typically think of teams that are somewhere in the process of a rebuild – not a team in third place in the Eastern Conference. As of Dec. 9, the HEAT are the only team in the league with a .700 winning percentage or better to feature more than one rookie and/or second-year player as top-seven minute getters.

While this is a pretty impressive feat, it speaks to the HEAT’s organization and its culture. After all, the Miami system is notorious for its player development. Looking back at its past successes and reclamation projects, the HEAT’s system was responsible for reinvigorating a number of players including Dion Waiters and Chris Anderson.

And more importantly, the HEAT are lauded for providing one of the very best cultures in the entire league. The best example is head coach Erik Spoelstra himself, who has now been with the organization for 23 years, famously beginning as a video coordinator in 1995. At the top, Spoelstra preaches defense and ball movement, which leads to success for all.

The team’s youngsters have already taken note of the special vibe around the HEAT locker room. Robinson recently told Basketball Insiders that the Miami coaching staff and veterans deserve most of the credit for their early successes.

“It shows leadership,” Robinson said. “We have some guys, obviously UD (Haslem), Jimmy (Butler) and other guys that are good secondary leaders, and taking us younger guys under their wing…guys like Justise (Winslow) and Bam (Adebayo).”

Robinson elaborated on the importance of absorbing as much as possible from the team’s coaching staff and veterans prior to training camp. “Us three (rookies) were around all summer,” Robinson said. “It’s only my second year as part of this program, but I feel like I’ve learned so much and come so far in that time.”

But while team leadership deserves some of the credit, it’s also due to the rookies themselves – who have taken on whatever role they’ve been assigned. Tyler Herro spoke with Basketball Insiders recently about coming off the bench for the HEAT, which represents a very different – and some might say, reduced – role compared to the one he owned last year at Kentucky. But that’s not how Herro sees it.

“I look at it as I’m still seeing starter minutes,” Herro said. “I’m not concerned with coming off the bench. I try to come in and give no empty minutes and play my absolute best.”

It’s hard to say if the HEAT select players with strong personalities and positive attitudes, or if that’s learned from Spoelstra and the team’s veterans. But either way, players like Herro enter their rookie seasons and make the team look incredibly savvy.

“I think (coming from Kentucky) helped a lot,” Herro continued, while – again – complimenting his new team and coaching staff. “My teammates at Kentucky and Coach Cal and his staff prepared me for this. But I also think that the (HEAT) staff and my teammates here pushed me to where I’m at now, too.”

Herro and Robinson have flourished in the HEAT’s system so far. Robinson is averaging 10.9 points on 42.5 percent three-point shooting in 26 minutes per game. Herro is averaging 14.5 points, 4.0 rebounds and 2.0 assists over 29 minutes per game.

And then there’s Kendrick Nunn. Nunn is a pleasant surprise for the HEAT, scooped up immediately following last season. Despite slumping of late, Nunn is averaging 15.3 points, 3.4 assists and 2.5 rebounds in 30.0 minutes per game — good for third in scoring and second in assists, making him a major (surprise) Rookie of the Year candidate.

In addition to how well the three HEAT youngsters are playing, they are all incredibly close – especially so considering the short amount of time they’ve been teammates. And that stands to benefit Miami both this season and beyond.

“We’re best friends,” Herro said of his relationship with Nunn while sitting immediately next to Robinson in the Brooklyn Nets’ visiting locker room. “We like to see each other have good games. We don’t pay attention to the media or try to out-do one another.”

“Generally, we got a great group of guys who like each other and we enjoy each other’s success,” Herro continued. “So that makes it easier for everyone to perform at the highest level.”

But friendships aside, they play well when sharing the court.

“I feel like, as a team, we are at our best when Tyler and I are out there and aggressive,” Robinson said. “So we just want to continue to do that and translate that into wins.”

There are still improvements that need to be made in Miami, though.

For example, the HEAT are only 4-6 against teams above .500. Further, they’re lost all four games they’ve played on the tail end of back-to-backs. While you can point to fatigue as a culprit, you can also blame it on a lack of experience and stamina – and the latter two will improve over time. But the scary part is, while there is room for growth, they are already so far ahead of the curve.

Just imagine what they might look like in a year.

But let’s remain focused on this season: And in 2019-20, the HEAT are in the favorable position of having young talent supporting established stars like Butler and Dragic. While they are well-positioned for the future with Winslow, Adebayo, Herro, Robinson and Nunn, they are also built to compete now. Just don’t bother asking them about the team’s goals.

“We talk about goals, of course,” Robinson said. “But that stuff stays between us in this locker room. At the same time, we understand that the day-to-day is far more important. You want to keep the big picture in mind, but you’ve got to take care of what’s on your plate first.”

So we’ll have to wait and see how much they develop and what they ultimately do in 2019-20. But one thing’s for sure – the HEAT are on track to greatly exceed expectations.

And they just might do so in a big way.

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NBA Daily: Davis Bertans Joins Ranks Of NBA’s Elite Marksmen

Not even his most ardent supporters knew what the San Antonio Spurs were losing and Washington Wizards were gaining with Davis Bertans. Nearing two months into the season, he’s suddenly among the best shooters in basketball. Jack Winters writes.

Jack Winter

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Not even the best shooter in the world can inform his team’s effectiveness from beyond the arc alone.

The assumption otherwise was put to the test in last year’s NBA Finals, when the Golden State Warriors — with Kevin Durant watching sidelined — proved hapless offensively without both Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson on the floor. If one of the Splash Brothers can’t turn a lineup of non-shooters into a threatening attack from deep, no one can.

But watching Davis Bertans this season, it’s tempting to think just how much better the San Antonio Spurs would be if he still played in the Alamo City. It’s not a complete hypothetical, either. Gregg Popovich is on record confirming the Spurs never would have traded Bertans to free up cap space if Marcus Morris had no interest in coming aboard. Less than a week after he agreed to terms with San Antonio, though, Morris reneged on his commitment to take a one-year deal with the New York Knicks.

It’s remiss to suggest retaining Bertans would make a season-altering difference for the Spurs. But what’s absolutely clear is that San Antonio’s loss has been a bigger gain for the Washington Wizards than anyone could have realistically anticipated.

The best suggest Bertans’ value in a league-wide vacuum this summer is what Washington gave up to get him. Aaron White was the team’s second-round pick in 2015 and played the last four seasons overseas. He might have a chance of finding his way to the league going forward, but it’s telling that White has expressed interest in transitioning to the NBA on multiple occasions only to head back to Europe toward the end of each offseason.

For all intents and purposes, it seems, the only thing of value Washington used to acquire Bertans was a trade exception. Take a bow, Tommy Sheppard. But it’s safe to say that not even the Wizards general manager saw this long-range onslaught coming.

Bertans cashed five more threes on Friday night in his team’s loss to the Miami Heat, bringing his season-long total to 78 on just over eight attempts per game. Only James Harden and Devonté Graham have connected on more triples than Bertans, and neither of them sniffs his 44.8 percent shooting from beyond arc. There are 35 players with at least 50 made threes this season; just four of them are have been more accurate than Bertans, per NBA.com.

Maybe some Spurs fans aren’t shocked by Bertans’ prowess from deep. He made a mini leap as a shooter in 2018-19, adding a bit of versatility to his long ball while upping his accuracy more than five points to 42.9 percent. Bertans isn’t some seasoned veteran, either. He was drafted in 2011 but only entered the league in 2016-17, and just turned 27. Some growth was to be expected from Bertans, basically, especially as the game’s emphasis on three-point shooting continues reaching new zeniths.

But the jump Bertans has made to join the exclusive shooting club reserved for the likes of J.J. Redick and Joe Harris is stunning nonetheless. After mostly serving as a weak-side floor-spacer and pet play shooter, Bertans is hunting threes this season while exuding the confidence and conviction of a true marksman with every step he takes on the floor.

Wonder why Bertans leads the NBA in points per possession in transition? He routinely sprints to open spots when the floor changes sides, and Washington ball-handlers know to look for him.

It’s hard enough for most guards to stop on a dime and launch catch-and-shoot triples in transition, which makes Bertans’ ability to do so all the more impressive. He stands 6-foot-10, but you’d never know it by the speed and footwork he often utilizes to create enough space for himself to launch.

All players Bertans’ size not named Durant are supposed to need an extra blip before letting fly. It’s hard enough for them to set their feet and square their shoulders to the rim on the move without worrying about getting a shot off in time to avoid an effective contest. But Bertans gets to his shooting form with remarkable ease, sometimes even hopping on the catch when his air space is closing fast, and owns one of the quickest releases in basketball.

Coming into 2019-20, Bertans had connected on just 20 off-dribble triples over three full seasons. He’s over halfway to that total through 21 games, regularly using a bounce or two to find some extra breathing room between he and the defense.

Is this Durant or Bertans?

Of course, Bertans would be the talk of the league even more than he is already if the skill he exhibits as a shooter fully translated to the rest of his game.

He can drive hard close-outs or turn the corner after a dribble hand-off with two or three dribbles to get to the rim, but has little workable wiggle in his handle. More problematic is his tendency to finish like a guard, too. Bertans is far better described as a fluid athlete than an explosive one, but that doesn’t mean he should regularly opt for floaters and scoops when challenged by rim-protectors in the paint.

His ceiling is also limited by his lack of positional versatility. Bertans is surprisingly light on his feet and fights hard defensively, but is way overstretched checking smalls. He possesses natural timing as a shot-blocker, but has short arms and vertical oomph needed to compensate. Bertans is a four-man, and that’s pretty much the extent of his positional scalability.

That’s why he’s probably best suited coming off the bench for the remainder of his career, perhaps closing games not just for Washington, but a title contender. Bertans is already proving himself as a high-impact offensive player, leading the Wizards – who boast a top-five offense, remember – in offensive rating and ranking behind only Bradley Beal in terms of net offensive efficiency. Lineups featuring that tandem are scoring 120.1 points per 100 possessions, almost 16 more than when Beal is on the floor without Bertans, per NBA.com.

The bad news for Washington? Bertans is an unrestricted free agent at season’s end, and an uninspiring list of marquee free agents assures he’ll be getting major upgrade on his $7 million salary. The Wizards should have enough flexibility to bring him back, but there’s no guarantee he’ll want to remain in the nation’s capital. It bears mentioning that Bertans has made clear he still considers San Antonio home.

But his future is a concern to be addressed another time.

For now, Bertans is a problem for Washington’s opponents to deal with, and unfortunately for them, there’s no workable answer to limiting his influence – just like that of every other shooter his increasingly rarified caliber.

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NBA Daily: Horton-Tucker Making Most Of Time With South Bay Lakers

David Yapkowitz has a chat with Los Angeles Lakers rookie guard Talen Horton-Tucker about getting reps in the G League with South Bay and what he sees his role being in the NBA when that time comes.

David Yapkowitz

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When the Los Angeles Lakers drafted Talen Horton-Tucker this summer, the expectation was that he probably wouldn’t receive much playing time. On a veteran-laden team with championship expectations, there wasn’t going to be much of a role for a rookie.

That was further accentuated when Horton-Tucker suffered a stress reaction in his right foot, causing him to miss all of Summer League, which kept him limited during training camp. When he was finally cleared to return to the court, the Lakers assigned him to their G League affiliate, the South Bay Lakers.

He has suited up in only one game for the Lakers this season, but he’s played in every game with South Bay so far. In 11 games in the G League, he’s shown flashes of why the Lakers still drafted him despite suffering the foot injury during the draft combine.

His time in the G League was his first meaningful court action since leading Iowa State to the NCAA Tournament last spring.

“It feels great to be out here finally. I’m just trying to catch a rhythm with South Bay,” Horton-Tucker told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just taking it a day at a time. I feel like it’s been pretty good for my overall growth, that’s what’s important.”

Horton-Tucker has fit in well with the South Bay roster. He’s shown an ability to shoot from the perimeter at times, and he’s looked comfortable in putting the ball on the floor and making plays off the dribble.

His shot hasn’t always been on point, though. He’s shooting only 32.4 percent from the field and 24.2 percent from the three-point line, but he’s gotten good looks from the perimeter within the flow of the offense. And despite that, he’s made himself valuable on the court by contributing in other ways. He’s attacked the glass well, and he keeps the ball moving while looking to set teammates up for easy shots.

He’s managed to average double-digits in scoring with 11.8 points per game, and he’s put up 5.9 rebounds and 3.2 assists as well. Being able to be a positive on the court when his offense isn’t quite there yet is something he believes will help his career moving forward.

“I feel like if you play basketball, you’ve got to learn how to do everything. It’s just something I got to do,” Horton-Tucker told Basketball Insiders. “Whenever my shot is not falling, I know I can stay involved and rebound. I’ll still be able to contribute to a winning environment. I feel like I’ve been doing that the last few games that my shot hasn’t been falling.”

A few years ago, Horton-Tucker wouldn’t have had this opportunity to work on his game. The G League was much smaller than it is now, and most teams didn’t have affiliate they could send young players down to for development. NBA teams didn’t use the league as much, and many players viewed being sent down as punishment rather than a positive.

Without the G League, Horton-Tucker would likely have spent the majority season gathering splinters on the Lakers bench. With the growing expansion and usage of the G League, he’s able to get actual game reps in against legitimate competition to stay fresh.

He knew coming into this season that he wasn’t going to play much for the Lakers, if at all, so he’s grateful for being able to play with South Bay.

“It’s good to get your run in when you need to. I understand that I’m probably not going to get minutes with the Lakers right now,” Horton-Tucker told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just taking it one day at a time. I feel like the G League has been great. It helps us get our reps in and it helps our careers get started.”

While Horton-Tucker is still very young — he was one of the youngest players in the draft and just recently turned 19 years old last month — he has a skill set that should be able to eventually translate to regular NBA minutes. He’s a big guard who can generate his own offense, and he’s strong enough and skilled enough to be able to match up defensively against multiple positions.

He was recalled to the Lakers this weekend for their game against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He only played in two minutes of garbage time and missed his only shot, a three-pointer. He’ll likely return to South Bay sometime soon, and when he does get brought back to the Lakers, garbage time minutes will be his role. But the NBA can be unpredictable at times, and injuries and whatnot can strike at a moment’s notice forcing players into immediate action.

In the event that he is called upon for regular minutes at some point this season, Horton-Tucker is confident in what he can bring to the team.

“I feel like I can bring the same things I bring to this team right now,” Horton-Tucker told Basketball Insiders. “It’s my versatility, being able to do things like rebounding, passing, just doing whatever they need me to do, I can do that.”

The Lakers are clearly going to be in win-now mode for the duration of LeBron James’ contract, but if Horton-Tucker continues with his development, it’s going to be hard to keep him off the court. He’s going to use this year to continue to learn, with the hopes of being able to play a meaningful role next season.

“I just want to get better all around. I want to play on the Lakers next year, that’s just my goal,” Horton-Tucker told Basketball Insiders. “Not being cocky or anything, but that’s just my goal, to play with the Lakers next season. That’s something that I’m going to work hard towards.”

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