The San Antonio Spurs have been one of the NBA’s best franchises since they entered the league after the ABA merger in 1976. In 45 years, they’ve won five titles in the Gregg Popovich/Tim Duncan era between 1999 and 2014, reached the conference finals in three out of five years between 1979 and 1983 when George Gervin was their biggest star, and until 2021, when a 33-39 season broke the streak, had never missed the playoffs in two consecutive years.
To choose a best season from all of that, especially the run as perpetual contenders in the aughts and most of the 2010s, would be a pure eye-of-the-beholder exercise.
But these eyes behold the stats, and the best combination of regular-season dominance and playoff excellence came in the franchise’s last title year in 2014. They tied what was then the franchise record for wins in a season (62, which they would break with 67 wins in 2016), then put the final nail in the coffin of the LeBron Era in Miami in five games in the NBA Finals.
Let’s break down this combination of aging veterans and young blood and see what made those 2014 Spurs special.
The On-Court Record
San Antonio won 62 games in 2014, good for the best record in the entire league. They combined the seventh-best offense and third-best defense to produce a plus-8.1 Net Rating, also tops in the NBA.
The Dallas Mavericks gave them all they wanted in the first round, part of the legendary 2014 playoffs where five first-round series went the distance in what may well have been the greatest first round of all time.
But once the Spurs emerged from that scare, they went on an absolute rampage, losing just four games the rest of the way. They beat Portland in five in the semis. They beat Oklahoma City in six in the conference finals. And then there was that gentleman’s sweep of the Heat for all the marbles, a series best known for the infamous Game 1 where the air conditioning failed in the sweltering Texas heat and created the enduring image of LeBron forced to the bench with leg cramps as the Spurs got their first of what would be four double-digit Finals wins.
Indeed, the Finals were a blowout in every sense. Miami won Game 2 by just two points. San Antonio won the other four games by an average of 18; that 15-point win in Game 1 was the closest winning margin in any of the Spurs’ victories.
Tim Duncan won his first title in 1999. He won his last title in 2014. Only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (17 years between his first title in 1971 and his last in 1988) had a longer run as part of championship-winning teams. Both men are particularly interesting to historians thanks to the titles they won in between—Duncan ended up with five rings and Kareem with six (as well as 10 total Finals appearances, two with the Bucks and eight with the Lakers.)
Curiously, that long run of success might well be the reason the Spurs have sunk as low as they have as the 2020s dawn; the Spurs were 16th in 3PAR in 2014 as the league hadn’t completely moved to the threes-and-layups model popular today, but San Antonio’s archaic offense was dead last in 3PAR in 2021 and finished 21st on offense as a result.
The Featured Players
The 2014 Spurs were an eclectic mix of old and new.
Representing the old, Duncan posted 2.9 VORP, Manu Ginobili notched 2.4, and Tony Parker put up 1.5, a far cry from their peaks in the aughts but still three of eight (Parker was eighth) Spurs to put up 1.5 VORP or better. The triumvirate totaled 19 Win Shares.
Representing the new, Kawhi Leonard, in his third year in the league, showed up and showed out in 2014. His 52.2 percent shooting from the field is to this day his career-best, and his 7.7 WS (.193 WS/48) and 3.5 VORP led the team.
Patty Mills and Danny Green formed a power backcourt, as they posted 2.3 and 2.2 VORP respectively, each topping .580 TS% and Green serving as the 3-point specialist with a .630 3PAR and 41.5 percent accuracy from out there, one of the most efficient offensive guards in the league in 2014.
Mills, for his part, took exactly as many 3-point shots as did Green (318) and actually made 42.5 percent of them, making three more shots (135 to 132) than Green did on those identical attempts.
Speaking of 3-point guys, Marco Belinelli was another; he made 43.0 percent (126-of-293) of his 3-pointers on his way to 1.7 VORP.
Boris Diaw, in the tail end of his prime at age 31, put up 1.6 VORP on just a 14.1 PER, testament to his role in the Spurs’ stifling defense.
The Spurs went nine deep, and rounding out the list of guys to hit the 1,000-minute mark in 2014 was Tiago Splitter, whose 0.8 VORP and .163 WS/48 is the kind of advanced stat line you’d expect from the ninth man only if that ninth man were on, say, a championship team that won 62 regular-season games. The Spurs were stacked beyond measure in the mid-10s—they would, after all, win 67 in 2016, Duncan’s farewell season—but 2014 was a special roster.
Gregg Popovich is one of those guys who young fans will remember as the old dude who hung around too long because nobody in the front office had the heart to force him to retire.
But before the game evolved and he was left in the fossil exhibit at the Museum of NBA History, Pop was the T-Rex of NBA coaches, the alpha of the pack, the guy who combined lockdown defense with a deliberate, open-man offensive philosophy that got the best shot for whoever got the ball on any given possession and didn’t suffer too much from the fact that many of those shots were midrange jumpers.
Indeed, you look at the 2020 and ’21 Spurs, the playoff-missing sub-.500 moribund Spurs, and what you mainly see is a team that would’ve thrived 10 years ago, with guys like LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan whose games were better-suited for an older era of the NBA, coached by a guy whose coaching style won five titles in a 15-year stretch and could’ve won a lot more if Kobe Bryant hadn’t shown up.
Yeah, dumping on Popovich is easy and necessary in the 2020s for as long as he’s still insisting on his Dark Ages approach to offensive basketball, but when everyone forgets the end after he retires, he’ll go down in history as one of the greatest coaches of all time.
The Spurs, when they came out of the ABA, took the NBA by storm, and coach Stan Albeck took them to the best of their early-existence success in 1983. Those Spurs won 53 regular-season games, won the Midwest Division, had the second-best record in the league, and only crashed out of the playoffs when they ran into Magic Johnson and Kareem in the ’83 Western Conference Finals. They’d previously gone to the penultimate playoff round in 1979 (losing to Seattle) and 1982 (the Lakers) before Gervin got old and the team declined.
But, of course, it wasn’t long before they were relevant again, thanks to David Robinson completing his Navy service and joining the squad in 1989. That ’90s Spurs team was kind of an also-ran behind the likes of Utah, Phoenix, Houston, and Seattle, but they broke through in 1995 to make the conference finals before falling to the Rockets in what would be Houston’s second title run during the Jordan Interregnum.
The rest of the franchise’s history is all about those Duncan years, first with Robinson for titles in 1999 and 2003, then with the Duncan/Ginobili/Parker core in 2005 and ’07, and finally with the blending of old and new we’ve been talking about in this piece.
Once the Spurs get a change in management and another good draft pick, they’ll be back on top. For now, the only question is how many playoffs will the miss before they make the hard choice to part company with a legend.
NEXT: Toronto Raptors. Kawhi Strikes Again! This will be his third mention in this series. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!