2002-03 was an absolutely magical year for basketball. I could (and probably will, someday) write a column about why it is one of the most significant seasons for modern-era basketball and had a greater collection of meaningful events/moments than any year before or since.
- It was Michael Jordan’s final season and most permanent retirement
- Yao Ming was drafted first overall, marking the NBA as a global entity
- New Orleans got a basketball team
- Instant replay was introduced
- The red light at the buzzer was instated
- Modern "best-of-seven" 1st round was started
- NBA on NBC came to an end
A few historic Spurs moments also occurred that year: The Spurs won a 2nd championship, David Robinson played his final season, Manu Ginobili arrived to the NBA from Italy, Tony Parker played his first full season as THE Spurs point guard, Bruce Bowen became a corner-3 specialist (leading the league at 41%), the Spurs left the Alamodome for the SBC Center, and the Rodeo Road Trip began.
Those final two are related.
One stipulation of building the new SBC Center (rebranded as the AT&T Center in 2006) was that the Spurs would need to share their home with another tenant, the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo. Out of this, one of professional sports’ most well-known scheduling quirks was born: the Rodeo Road Trip.
In the 13 years since, the Spurs have gone 75-34, outscoring the opposition by 423 points (or nearly 4 ppg). That's a combined 5,364 minutes spent in opposing arenas.
Infographic by @spurs_network
This year's road trip (mapped!) was the first completed with a losing record, but myth and ESPN tropes aside, the struggles of the trip are not entirely unprecedented. (We've all agreed to forget the SEGABABA against the Blazers on the 2012 RRT, right?) In terms of point differential, which was admittedly inflated by the Spurs 27 point victory over the Suns on Saturday, the +12 was actually better than three previous seasons (05-06, 09-10, and 13-14). This trip was also only tied for the fewest wins, with four coming in both the 2006-07 and 2009-10 seasons (on 8 game trips).
So where does this RRT fall in context? What are the major takeaways?
The point differential before the consecutive wins over the Kings and the Phoenix Suns was -26. And this was only after the 2nd unit and the mercy of opposing coaches limited the Golden State loss to 11. That was easily more like a 25-30 point game, but that's not what shows up on the box score. But what kind of indicator is point differential anyways? The Spurs had their worst ever last season, and we all know how that turned out (Finals aside, it was also the Spurs 2nd most wins in a regular season). I don't think anyone would hesitate to trade the position the Spurs are in now for where they were after those 9 games last year.
But what about the 4-win RRT seasons?
The best year to point to for evidence of the Spurs coming together after the trip came In 2006-07, when the Spurs ultimately swept the Cleveland Cavaliers. After going .500 on the RRT, the Spurs ripped through their next 27 games 23-4 (before resting the starters for the final two and letting Jackie Butler and James White soak up 40+ minutes a game) and the playoffs 16-4. That's an .830 winning percentage (in games that mattered). Like this year, they had a very mediocre trip, punctuated with huge wins against bad teams, and won the final two games...and the next 11. That is the absolute, unwavering, faith-like-a-preacher best case scenario.
The Spurs could, if momentum and winning ways are harnessed, do something like 7-2 in the next 9 games (with losses to 2 of the" Raptors, Cavs, Bucks, and/or reanimated corpse of the Bulls). But then it gets brutal (Mavs, OKC, Memphis, Houston, etc).
The other 4-win example was 2009-10, in which the Spurs lost the final 2 games, but then went on a solid 19-9 run down the stretch. All of this effort netted them the #7 seed and a matchup with a dangerous Dallas Mavericks team. The Spurs ultimately upset the Mavs, but looked exhausted and were swept by the fast-running Phoenix Suns in the 2nd round.
Spurs fans have gone from melting down after a historically bad stretch, to being quietly optimistic after a couple of games' worth of "Spurs basketball" -- for what seems like the first time this season. I don't know if perspective will change either emotion, but it can't hurt to have some additional data to consider (right Charles Barkley?).
One last stat: The Spurs are 10-2 in the home game immediately following the RRT.