The San Antonio Spurs have won the Western Conference. A surreal development to consider seeing as how their last championship run was in 2007, when a young LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers were swept away before the a Spurs team hitting on all cylinders with Tony Parker named Finals MVP.
In the years to follow, though enviable by other franchises' standards, would be seen as flameouts by those who expected nothing but complete excellence from San Antonio's dynasty. Here's a detailed look at each of those seasons which, while not ending with the hoisting of the Larry O'Brien trophy, were each compelling in their own way.
2007-08 Spurs season
Key subtractions: Luis Scola (traded before he ever suited up in Silver and Black, to Houston for Vassilis Spanoulis and a pick that would become Nando de Colo), Beno Udrih (traded to Minnesota in a salary dump), Francisco Elson (traded with Barry in the Thomas deal).
Draft: Tiago Splitter (28th pick), Marcus Williams (33rd pick), Georgios Printezis (traded to Toronto for a pick that would become Goran Dragic)
Offensive Rating: 107.2 (15th of 30) Defensive Rating: 101.8 (3rd of 30) Pace: 88.8 (28th of 30) SRS: 5.10 (7th of 30)
The post-championship Spurs, for the most part, brought back their core, with the only rotation player let go being Elson (and this was arguable, since the Spurs had a revolving door of bigs back then) with their main problem being that they were one year older. Manu Ginobili had one of his three best seasons in the NBA, culminating in a Sixth Man of the Year award, yet the roster was in flux. 21 players suited up for the Silver and Black that season, with many on 10 day contracts like the infamous Jeremy Richardson (who?). The age and uncertainty of the roster reflected itself in the decline of the Spurs' offense (down from 5th in 2007 to 15th in 2008) and a similar slip in SRS. Although they handled their first round opponent, the Steve Nash and Shaq led Phoenix Suns, in 5 games, they would play a grind-it-out, home-team-dominated, 7 game series against the Hornets with the only road victory coming in game 7 by the Spurs in New Orleans (although Spurs purists will point to Duncan's flu that hampered him in the first two games on the Hornets' court.) But airplane issues and full hotels forced the team to sleep on the tarmac right after that concluding game (and just before the Western Conference Finals.) Facing MVP Kobe Bryant and a revitalized Lakers frontcourt featuring newest addition Pau Gasol, the Lakers would win in 5 games as a hobbled Ginobili couldn't finish out the season healthy. [Editor's Note: this would become a trend. -jrw]
2008-09 Spurs season
Key subtractions: Robert Horry (retirement), Brent Barry (free agency)
Offensive Rating: 108.5 (13th of 30), Defensive Rating: 104.3 (5th of 30), Pace: 88.4 (26th of 30), SRS: 3.36 (7th of 30
The theme from the previous season continued: the Spurs were not getting any younger. Bruce Bowen was 39 and Pop did not trust him as before; in fact, he only started 10 games. Tim Duncan's knee started to act up, and although Tony Parker had a break-out year, averaging 22 points a game, Manu Ginobili's season was cut short by an ankle injury (not the same one that ended the previous year.) Without their Argentine, the Spurs lost in 5 games to their rival the Dallas Mavericks despite holding home court advantage. While Parker did average 28.6 ppg in that series, he had no help outside of Tim Duncan as the rest of the rotation players' PER were in the single digits. The window looked like it was closing, and PATFO may have overreacted.
2009-10 Spurs season
Draft: DeJuan Blair (37th pick), Jack McClinton (51st pick), Nando de Colo (53rd pick)
Offensive Rating: 110.0 (9th of 30), Defensive Rating: 104.5 (8th of 30), Pace: 91.7 (20th of 30), SRS: 5.07 (4th of 30)
Although not readily apparent, the Spurs began their rebuild at the start of the season. Trading the retiring Bruce Bowen along with Fabricio Oberto and Kurt Thomas for Richard Jefferson, who just concluded a career year in Milwaukee, seemed to be the answer for much-needed athleticism at the 3 spot. The draft would also be a success at large for San Antonio, with DeJuan Blair falling into the second round after concerns about his AWOL ACLs. The improvement of George Hill was also a positive sign. Manu Ginobili was healthier this season, appearing in 75 games as opposed to 44 the previous season. Their offense surged, moving back into the top 10.
But not everything went smoothly. Tony Parker was sidelined by injuries, limiting him to 56 games, and he came off the bench at the end of the season and into the playoffs. Age seemed to be taking its toll on Tim Duncan, who for the first (and only) time in his career would be named to the All-NBA Third Team. Jefferson struggled in his first year in San Antonio, despite posting decent stats. Despite the resurgence of the offense, the defense began to sag. The year peaked in a revenge upset of the Mavericks, then endied with a sweep at the hands of the Phoenix Suns, with Game 3 being the infamous Goran Dragic Game.
2010-11 Spurs season
Key subtractions: Roger Mason, Jr., Ian Mahinmi (free agency)
Offensive Rating: 111.8 (2nd of 30), Defensive Rating 105.6 (11th of 30), Pace 92.3 (14th of 30), SRS 5.86 (4th of 30)
The Spurs, having been swept by the Suns, sought answers on a different side of the ball than previously. PATFO began the season with an "if you can't beat them, join them" attitude. The pace picked up, the offense was an entirely different motion-based near-heresy, and Manu Ginobili made his second All-Star appearance as he became a full-time starter for only the second time in his career. The Spurs got off to an 11-1 start, were 35-6 midway through the season, and later had a 51-11 record after a 30 point thrashing of the Miami Heat at home. It seemed that they were back in title contention.
Yet issues remained. Late in the season, Pop would made a move to start McDyess in place of Blair, not trusting the young big man in the postseason. Tiago Splitter, brought over from Europe after he won a Spanish League MVP, would only play 12.3 minutes a game. James Anderson, the highest draft pick of the Spurs since Tim Duncan, had his rookie season derailed by a stress fracture in his foot. The Spurs' uptempo attack wasdenied by the Memphis Grizzlies. The three-pointers did not fall. Tony Parker could not adjust to playing without any outside threat, and with a limited Ginobili, who had played 80 games yet suffered a broken bone in his right arm in the last game of the regular season). Richard Jefferson was enough of a liability that Pop went to a 3 guard lineup for most of Game 6, benching the 6'7" forward.
The reinvention of San Antonio produced some positive results, but they weren't there yet, and they neglected one of their previous strengths: defense.
2011-12 Spurs season
Key additions: Stephen Jackson (acquired from Golden State for Richard Jefferson), Boris Diaw (signed as a free agent after being waived by Charlotte), Patty Mills (signed as a free agent after he played in China)
Key subtractions: Richard Jefferson (traded to Golden State for Stephen Jackson and a pick that would become Festus Ezeli), George Hill (traded to Indiana for Kawhi Leonard, Erazem Lorbek, and Davis Bertans).
Draft: Kawhi Leonard (15th pick, acquired from Indiana for George Hill), Cory Joseph (29th pick), Davis Bertans (42nd pick, acquired from Indiana), Adam Hanga (59th pick)
Offensive Rating: 110.9 (1st of 30), Defensive Rating: 103.2 (11th of 30), Pace: 92.9 (7th of 30), SRS: 7.28 (2nd of 30)
The Spurs continued where they left off in the 2010-11 season, as an offensive juggernaut. Although they struggled with a 12-9 start due to yet another Manu Ginobili injury, they finished the lockout-shortened season on a 38-7 run, allowing them to finish with their 13th 50 win season in a row. Along the way they compiled a streak of 20 straight wins heading into, and including the playoffs. The streak unsurprisingly coincided with Stephen Jackson returning to San Antonio via trade (allowing the Spurs to unload Richard Jefferson) and the arrival of Parker's countryman Boris Diaw. Both men bolstered a second unit that simply dismantled opponents on offense, with Manu Ginobili acting as a ball-handler. Tiago Splitter was promoted to Tim's full-time backup and became an elite the roll man. Neal, Bonner, and Jackson served as outside threats to spread the floor. Danny Green won the starting shooting guard job after he also proved to be a competent 3-and-D man.
After destroying the Jazz and the Clippers by sweeping the first two rounds, the Spurs went up 2-0 on the Oklahoma City Thunder, where the Spurs won Game 2 120-111, a game in which they never trailed. And then, the dam burst. The Spurs' defense, while improved from the last season, was not enough to handle the Thunder's athleticism, and the inability of anyone not named Kawhi Leonard or Stephen Jackson to hit a 3 pointer blunted their Spurs' offense. The San Antonio Big 3 were forced to carry the team against a younger, more athletic team, and the difference in that series was that the Thunder role players hit their shots while the Spurs' didn't.
2012-13 Spurs season
Key subtractions: James Anderson (free agency, briefly re-signed early in the season to provide wing depth), Stephen Jackson (waived right near the end of the season)
Draft: Marcus Denmon (59th pick)
Offensive Rating: 108.3 (7th of 30), Defensive Rating: 101.6 (3rd of 30), Pace: 94.2 (6th of 30), SRS: 6.67 (3rd of 30)
Defense was Pop's emphasis heading into training camp. Although it wasn't readily apparent, the Spurs would be greatly improved on defense. The keys were Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green coming into their own as defensive stalwarts on the wing, which allowed the Spurs to play more a more aggressive-styled defense, especially on closeouts on the 3 point line. Most of all, Tiago Splitter was inserted into the starting five. This meant a trade-off on offense, with the second unit losing his superb pick and roll skills, and Manu Ginobili declined in terms of shot-making. This mean the bulk of the offensive load would be shouldered by Tony Parker, who simply took over the team, and Tim Duncan who had a resurgent year (to the point of making the All-NBA First Team after snubs the previous two years). Kawhi Leonard blossomed into the two-way player PATFO had envisioned him (although he has still to hit his ceiling). Although the Spurs seemed to be derailed by injuries, resulting in a 16-12 record after the All-Star break, Gregg Popovich got his full rotation back as the playoffs began, tearing through the headless Lakers in a brutal sweep, taking the Warriors' best punch before handing them the haymaker in Games 5 and 6, and out-executing the Grizzlies in a closer-than-it-looked sweep.
And that, Pounders, is why the San Antonio Spurs are playing for a fifth Larry O'Brien.