The Spurs, as you're no doubt aware, are in the midst of a fantastic season so far, playing far above expectations in just about every respect. They're 37-6 after trouncing the depleted, dysfunctional Phoenix Suns and have equaled the all-time franchise best record through 43 games. Another win Friday against the even worse Los Angeles Lakers would be would break the tie, since the previous record-holding San Antonio club lost Game 44 (and rather lopsidedly).
What's fascinating, to me at least, is that our previous standard-bearer for the best start in Spurs history was the 2010-11 edition, a team whose highs and lows become more perplexing the more we see them in retrospect. Five years really doesn't seem like that long ago, and it's not in most respects, but it's a lifetime in professional sports and the 2010-11 Spurs seem almost like a fairy-tale in the rear view, with all that we know now that we didn't back then.
Consider all that was going on with the roster:
Manu Ginobili was far and away their most valuable player that year, and he started 79 games and averaged over 30 minutes per.
Richard Jefferson was prominently involved, starting 81 games and second only to Tony Parker in minutes played.
DeJuan Blair started 65 games.
Tiago Splitter was on the squad as a rookie, but couldn't play important minutes due to the presence of Antonio McDyess, who was visibly decomposing before our very eyes.
Matt Bonner played a lot, and was pretty awesome.
Steve Novak, and his "discount double-check" three-point celebrations, signed on halfway through the season.
Ime Udoka was still a player, sort of.
Chris Quinn saw 41 games worth of action.
Garrett Temple and Alonzo Gee, both journeymen who are playing prominent roles with their current clubs, got cups of coffee with that Spurs team.
Then consider the season they had, and the odd parallels it has with the current Spurs. In 2009-10 they dealt with injuries and a bad supporting cast for "The Big Three" and struggled to a 50-32 record, the worst of the Duncan-Popovich Era. They had to settle for a seventh seed and while they upset the Dallas Mavericks in the first round, they were swept by the Suns in the Conference Semi-Finals. The following training camp, the team made it clear that getting off to a faster start, both in terms of win-loss record and their play on the floor, would be a priority. Throwing it into Duncan in the post would be de-emphasized in favor a motion offense revolving around Parker and Ginobili.
The 2015-16 Spurs also made it plain that they wanted to start the season better, so that they won't have to put themselves in a position where they had to kill themselves in April trying to secure home-court advantage in the first round, which they failed to do a season prior, losing at New Orleans in Game 82 and finishing as the sixth seed. They've also undergone a radical off-season upheaval, with the offense now catered around Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge, with Duncan, Parker and Ginobili all having lesser roles.
In 2010-11, the Spurs' first loss came at the hands of David West and Marco Belinelli, because of course it did. Just two games in and already they suffered a defeat at home whereas the current Spurs are 24-0 at the AT&T Center. They won the next dozen in a row after that though to get to 13-1, with several close calls in there, including a go-ahead Jefferson three-pointer with 1:38 to go at Phoenix, a game-tying jumper by Ginobili with nine seconds to go followed by Parker heroics in overtime a couple nights later against the Rockets, and then another narrow win two nights later at Charlotte. They came back from 21 down the day before Thanksgiving at Minnesota, with Neal hitting all three free-throws down three with 16 seconds to go to get the game to overtime, where again the Spurs prevailed. They had three overtime wins by Dec. 18 while the current Spurs haven't even gone to overtime once.
The close wins came in clumps. Ginobili was the hero on consecutive nights, with the walk-off jumper vs. Milwaukee
and then the ultimate Manu finish at Denver in a TNT game.
and they were followed by another overtime win at Memphis.
The 2010-11 Spurs dropped just six of their first 44 despite losing two in a row, at New York and Boston in early January, breaking their mini "losing streak" with a 90-87 win at Indiana, closing the game with a 7-0 run in the final 1:07 and followed that up a 94-91 win vs. Minnesota, with the T-Pups coming up empty on three separate possessions with a chance to tie. The current Spurs have had at least three wins in between all of their losses.
Those Spurs had more in common with the current Warriors than the 2015-16 Spurs. They won almost all the close ones, but when they lost, they lost decisively, by 84 points combined in their first seven setbacks. Even after New Orleans handed them a drubbing in Game 44, there were no indications that trouble was afoot, even though their relatively meager 7.3-point scoring differential was only third in the league, behind Boston and Miami. Little did we know at the time that the roller coaster had already crested and was now starting it's slow, agonizing plunge into the depths of hell.
There were still bright spots here and there, such as McDyess' game-winning tip at the buzzer that even inspired a joyous clap out of Pop (probably because it came against Phil Jackson).
Seriously, the nerve of Derek Fisher, complaining that it shouldn't have counted, against the Spurs of all teams... I just don't like that guy very much and I don't care if that's not a popular opinion around here.
But those Spurs never again let us get too comfortable the rest of the year, never winning more than four in a row from that point on. They opened their annual "Rodeo Road Trip" with a bad loss at Portland, with some guy scoring 40 for the Blazers. Derrick Rose, on the way to the MVP award, buried them with 42 at Chicago two weeks later. Who could've predicted back then what awful luck would befall his career? Still, 6-3 for the RRT wasn't too shabby and they finished February in style, with Ginobili putting up a 35-6-8 line in a win over the Grizzles. They were still 49-10.
The final time they looked like champions, really, was Mar. 4 against the Heat. Back then it was LeBron James' first season in Miami and ESPN had "The Heat Index" and they were the villains of the league. The Spurs destroyed them, with a Warriors-esque performance, canning eight threes in the first quarter alone and 17-of-28 for the game.
It was a franchise record for most makes from downtown at the time (they'd break it a couple of times the following season, with nailing 20 on Dec. 23, 2012 against Dallas) and I remember feeling so optimistic and proud. "Screw the naysayers" I kept telling anyone crazy enough to listen or read my manic ramblings. I was so sure they'd win it all.
Naturally, they followed the euphoric win over Miami with a 16-point home loss to the Lakers. A week after that, the Heat returned the favor in Miami, tit-for-tat, with a 30-point blowout of their own, with their "Big Three" equaling the Spurs' 80 points all by themselves.
Disaster struck against, of all teams, the Warriors, on March 21st, when Duncan sprained his left ankle just four minutes in. The Spurs would go on to beat the lowly Dubs behind stellar play from Parker and Ginobili, but wouldn't win again for a fortnight.
That's correct. The same Spurs squad that started 37-6 suffered the only six-game losing streak of Duncan's career, with the caveat that he only played in the final two of those, a home loss to Boston and then an overtime defeat at Houston. Still, the damage had been done. San Antonio was leaking oil, Duncan wouldn't be himself the rest of the way, and they lost 8 of their last 12, finishing a mere 61-21, not even good enough to get home court against the Bulls in the Finals, should both number one seeds get through. Even worse, the rest of the contenders were circling the waters and smelling blood. The Grizzlies specifically tanked to the eighth spot to draw the Spurs in the first round as opposed to the Lakers.
In Game 82, at Phoenix, Ginobili, who had been healthy all season, made them look awfully smart.
Spoiler Alert: It wasn't his funny bone. It turned out he broke his right arm.
Against Memphis in the playoffs, the Spurs should've won Game 1, with Bonner as the hero. Rocket hit two huge threes near the end, only for the Spurs to blow a four-point lead in the final minute, with Shane Battier twisting the knife with the game-winning three.
Ginobili returned in Game 2 and led the Spurs with 17 points and four steals in a close win, but then San Antonio dropped both Games 3 and 4 at Memphis, the first one close, unable to overcome shooting 2-of-15 from deep, and the latter one decisively. Jefferson gave them nothing, shooting a combined 1-of-8 and scoring four points in 63 minutes.
There was one last hurrah at home in Game 5, with Ginobili and Neal briefly staving off elimination in one of the wildest, craziest finishes ever...
but their season ended meekly two nights later at Memphis. The greatest first-half start in franchise history, the number one seed in the ultra-competitive Western Conference, and the Spurs didn't even make it into May. I missed Game 6, I was at San Francisco 49ers headquarters covering the NFL draft, and I remember thinking, "This is it, this is how the Spurs as I know them will end."
It was the most depressed I've ever been about the end of any season, including 2013 and 1995. I was absolutely convinced that Duncan, moving like Frankenstein against Zach Randolph, was finished, and that the long-term deal they signed Jefferson to would doom them for years.
And then, a couple of months later, they swung this draft day trade for a kid from my alma mater and everything changed.
Let the 2010-11 Spurs serve as a valuable lesson. No matter how good or bad things look at different points along the way, we can't ever know for sure how a season will end. A promising year can go splat in the blink of an eye, and a franchise can be resuscitated when things look their most bleak. We should take care to enjoy the ride every step of the way and never take anything for granted, not even 117-89 wins against the skeleton crew Suns where the five Spurs bound for Springfield combined for 44 minutes and 28 points.
Duncan and Ginobili survived this one with their ankles and elbows intact, as far as I know, and I'm guessing these Spurs won't lose tonight by 24 points or mind so much if West goes off.