Are the San Antonio Spurs the Best Team in Sports?
It’s a more reasonable question than you might think.
From 1999-2014, the San Antonio Spurs have won five NBA titles and made six Finals appearances. That’s nothing to sneer at. In debating their greatness, we have to tackle how they fare against other dynasties of the past 15 years. And for the sake of my sanity, let’s keep the discussion to the Big Four in sports: NBA, NHL, NFL, and MLB.
Let’s start with dynasties in the other three sports. In the NHL, the New Jersey Devils, the Detroit Red Wings, the Chicago Blackhawks, and the Los Angeles Kings have all won two titles, but nothing approaching the Spurs five. To be clear, if you’re not even half way there in the rings column, I’m going to take it for granted that you weren’t as good as the Spurs. In the NFL, the New England Patriots won three Super Bowls, and the New York Giants have two, along with the Baltimore Ravens. Out of this bunch, the only one in the argument is the Patriots, who made it to two Super Bowls in addition to their three victories. One of those seasons, they nearly became the first team in NFL history to go 19-0, the 1972 Miami Dolphins the only team to be perfect before that at 17-0. But, they didn’t. They lost to the Giants, and so their record setting season sits at 18-1. Similarly, though they almost challenge this Spurs dynasty, they don’t – five is five, and three is three. The MLB offers weak candidates as well, with only the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox having won three since 1999.
Moving on to the NBA. This is where it gets interesting. The obvious choice – no one else is close – is the Los Angeles Lakers, who won five titles and made it to the Finals a total of seven times. Impressively, they accomplished this in just 10 years. In the early 2000s, the combination of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant overwhelmed opponents, and the Lakers won three in a row. But who stopped a four-peat? The Spurs, of course. Suddenly, the unbeatable duo of Shaq and Kobe were beatable, and they went their separate ways. But Kobe and the Lakers struggled on, making it back to the Finals, only to be thumped by the Detroit Pistons’ dominating defense, 4-1.
Wouldn’t you know it, the Spurs clogged the Pistons’ well oiled machine the very next year, edging them 4-3 in a hard fought Finals. Two years later, they crushed LeBron and the upstart Cavaliers, 4-0 in the Finals. Meanwhile, Kobe and the Lakers spent time reloading a team that hadn’t been the same since Shaq’s departure, building a formidable bench and adding a dangerous Spaniard big-man, Pau Gasol. With Gasol’s help, the Lakers returned to dominance, making the Finals three years in a row and winning two of them. Still, the Spurs persevered, quietly winning 50 or more games every single year. After 2010, the Lakers were deemed broken once again, and the rebuilding has been taking place ever since.
The Spurs, on the other hand, resisted media pressure to blow up the team and trade Tony Parker after a 2010 playoff sweep at the hands of the Phoenix Suns. Instead, they’ve kept the nucleus of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili together, and stocked the bench with foreign players and other NBA teams’ castoffs. The strategy worked, and after coming as close to winning the Finals as you can possibly get in 2013 against the Miami Heat, the Spurs got their revenge this year, winning the series 4-1 in impressive fashion.
There’s no question both of these dynasties are remarkable–they’re two of the best ever; deciding between the two requires nitpicking in the extreme. But in comparing a team that reaches the highest of highs, only to crumble into rubble, and a team that reaches the pinnacle and then takes only a small step down, I can’t help but be more impressed by the team that remains a contender every year. What’s more, the Spurs could add to their dynasty next year. There’s no reason to think they’re slowing down, regardless of whether or not Tim Duncan retires. With Kawhi Leonard there to pick up the slack, there’s still a Big Three in San Antonio.
But go ahead, doubt them, discount them–they’re used to it. Just don’t be surprised when they win again.