The San Antonio Spurs: All-Time Great Franchise?

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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.

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