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A look at how long it takes to build a champion

If recent history is any indication, Spurs fans need to be patient for a few more years.

San Antonio Spurs v Denver Nuggets Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

How long does it take to win a championship? For some teams, never. As of last year, the Denver Nuggets became the 21st franchise to win the NBA championship. Eleven have still never won, and even those that have won it all had to go through all the challenges teams face to simply grow from bad to good, let alone turn into a champion.

Let’s look at recent history for some perspective — specifically, the last five champions — and see how long before they won the championship did they have a losing season. In other words we are looking for when they went from bad to good to champions, beginning with the 2023 Nuggets. They had strung together four losing seasons from 2013-2017. Then, for the next five years, they were in the 500-600+ winning percentage before they went supernova and won it all. Not bad.

In 2022, it was the Warriors for the fourth time since 2015, but their transition to a good with their current core began in 2012. Before that, with a couple of exceptions they were bad pretty much throughout the 2000’s and back into the 90’s, so I think they were really resting up for this run they have had.

Next, the Bucks, who were at or below .500 from 2010-2016. Then five years later, bam, they won it all in 2021!

In 2020, we find the Lakers and what every bad team hopes for, an outlier with a terrible under .500 record for six years, and then lo and behold they are the last ones standing without the slow purgatory of early playoff exits.

Finally, the 2019 Raptors. To find their five years of under .500 ball you have to go back to 2008-2013. Six years of improvement plus a certain trade that we won’t discuss here, and they shock the world!

So beyond an outlier, recent data suggests it takes at least five years to build from a bad team to a champion, but where are the SPURS in this statistical wonderland? The Spurs had four losing seasons from 1986-1989. Then one losing season in ‘97. And the last four up to today, with the three before last year only barely losing seasons in with .400% range. In fact the Spurs have only finished under .400 5 times in 50 years.

I post all this historical context to help Spurs fans and detractors as well see what is obvious. Teams coalesce over time into the best version they can be. This is because of several things: experience and chemistry, the roster, age, and the money side that is increasingly becoming a factor. In other words, it takes a while to figure it out, you have to wait your turn, and you have to withstand the pressure.

But, the Spurs fans are wondering, they just they drafted Victor Wembanyama: dubbed the greatest prospect in 20 years, so it shouldn’t take that long, right? However, while the jubilation of this summer made it easy to assume the next ring would come soon, it’s worth noting even some of the greatest players of all time took a while to get their first ring. It took the GOAT (fight me!) Michael Jordan seven years to win a championship with the Bulls. He was 28 years old. LeBron James had labored in the league for nine years before winning his first in 2012 at the age of 27.

Wemby is still just 19 years old, and, unlike when Tim Duncan arrived, the Spurs are still rebuilding. In other words, the 1999 Spurs are the true outliers, not the current team. Players have to get better day-by-day, play-by-play, and the fans just need to enjoy the ride.

*On a separate note, if anyone remembers that losing streak the Missions had, please let me know if you somehow heard and remember the broadcast of the game I caught on AM radio when the announcer was trying to find positives about another blowout game. He was talking about birds he saw flying above the stadium and anything else he could think of and was one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard. If anyone can magically source that play by play we could use a laugh!

Anyhow, tonight is the night! Go Spurs Go!