Magic’s Bridesmaids: The 1983 San Antonio Spurs

The San Antonio Spurs have, in recent years, been awful—they are on their way to their fourth straight losing season, and their fourth time missing the playoffs in as many years.

This is a franchise that until 2021 had never missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons. One of the most successful franchises in the history of the post-merger league has become a joke.

Even before the legendary run of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker, the Spurs made it to the Western Conference Finals in back-to-back years in 1982 and ’83.

Both times, they got eaten for lunch by Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers.

We discussed the ’82 iteration of the team the other day (yeah, I know I said this was coming ‘tomorrow’ two days ago, my job ate my life, OK?)

Let’s see how the ’83 team compares…and if they would’ve had a better chance in the Finals against Philadelphia than the ’82 squad, which I said would get rinsed by the Sixers, would have.

Better Regular Season, Better Stats

George Gervin of the San Antonio Spurs

The ’82 Spurs went 48-34. The ’83 squad improved by five wins to 53-29, once again winning the Midwest Division.

And while the defense was still terrible (15th out of 23), it was actually better in raw terms than the previous season. The ’82 squad placed 13th with a 107.6 DRtg. The ’83 edition posted a 106.6 rating. But since the league as a whole played better defense, they dropped in the rankings. League-wide Defensive Rating was 106.9 in 1982. It improved to 104.7 the following year.

On offense, however, the Spurs improved from 109.9 to 110.1. Because better defense by definition means worse offense, this elevated San Antonio to second from third.

The Spurs swapped Dave Corzine to Chicago for Artis Gilmore. Corzine’s 5.2 Win Shares and .113 WS/48 were out. Gilmore’s 11.0 WS and .189 WS/48 led the team in ’83. That nearly six-win improvement explains by itself the rise in total team wins.

George Gervin was still around as well. His 9.4 WS and .159 WS/48 in his age-30 season signaled the beginning of his decline that would see him retire in 1986 and join the Hall of Fame in 1996. Gervin earned a place as one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players that same year for the league’s 50th anniversary season.

The title window closed when Magic smoked them in six games. But the team peaked in ’83.

The Series

The ’83 West finals were a prime example of how not to capitalize on an early road win. San Antonio won Game 2 to tie the series at a game apiece heading back to Texas for Game 3. They then lost Game 3 and dropped Game 4 as well.

After winning Game 5 on the road, they made it a ridiculous three home losses to close things out.

The Spurs should’ve done so much more. They should’ve made the Finals. But when you can’t handle your business at home in the playoffs, you’re toast.

Could They Have Won It All?

The ’83 Sixers were one of the best teams of all time. They went 65-17 in the regular season. They swept the Knicks in the first round, dropped just a single game against Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference Finals, then beat the snot out of the Lakers in a Finals sweep. That 12-1 playoff record speaks to just how dominant Julius Erving, Moses Malone, and Maurice Cheeks—Hall of Famers all—were that year.

Could the Spurs have beaten them? No. Could anyone at all have beaten them? Not unless we’re dragging out the time machine and bringing the likes of the 1986 Celtics, 1996 Bulls, or 2017 Warriors into the conversation. The ’83 Sixers were that good.

But San Antonio could not have done any worse than the Lakers team that snuck past them in ’83. Magic didn’t deserve the gift of a team falling apart at home in the conference finals.

As it stood, the Spurs went into decline, but at least they never missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons. It would take Gregg Popovich being allowed to coach long past the point where he should’ve been gently pushed into retirement to do that.

Look, all I’m saying is that it’s long past time for Becky Hammon to take her place as the first woman to coach a men’s NBA team. That time was three years ago.

NEXT: The 1984 Suns. Which means I get to rant about how Larry Nance isn’t in the Hall of Fame and yell at someone in print. Plan’s to get that one out on Saturday, but you know me. That might well mean 11:00 Saturday night and everyone reading it on Sunday morning.

Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!