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Why the 2017-18 Spurs were the toughest team in franchise history

It’s not a fondly-remembered season, but that team doesn’t get enough credit for what they accomplished considering the circumstances.

Golden State Warriors v San Antonio Spurs - Game Four Photos by Mark Sobhani/NBAE via Getty Images

The 2017-18 season will always be one of the most infamous in Spurs history. After a thrilling playoff run that came to a disappointing end, with both Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard lost to injury, there was still optimism heading into the new season of what a healthy team could do to challenge the growing Warriors dynasty. However, no one knew the thrill of beating the James Harden and Rockets in round 2 of the 2017 playoffs, highlighted by an epic Manu Ginobili block, would end up being the franchise’s highest moment for years to come, and everything would start going downhill from there.

Every one knows what happened by now, and if you really want to relive all the behind-the-scenes drama centered around Leonard from 2017-18 season, you can click here, but we’re not doing that today. While it’s relevant to the story, what we’re really here to do is honor the Spurs from that roster who did play, and discuss why, especially in hindsight, they might have been the toughest Spurs team in franchise history.

For starters, there was the mentality. They thought they were entering a new season of championship contention with their MVP candidate recovered, plus a rejuvenated LaMarcus Aldridge after he had a bit of drama of his own the prior offseason. The preseason began, but there was no Leonard. Weeks turned into months with him conspicuously absent, but the team still plowed on despite also missing their starting point guard of 17 years for the first 19 games. They got out to a somewhat surprising 19-8 start before Leonard finally returned on December 12, it seemed like had weathered the storm, and things would only go up from there.

However, Leonard only appeared in 9 of 17 games before shutting himself down again. The undermanned Spurs kept fighting despite never getting a straight answer from him on when/if he would return amidst conflicting reports. They maintained a comfortable winning record throughout the season and finished 47-35, which normally would be pretty good, but this was one of THOSE years in the Western Conference. 10 teams finished with winning records (reminder, the play-in tournament wasn’t a thing yet) and teams 3-9 all ended up just three games apart from each other. The Spurs finished in the 7th seed, but it wasn’t until the second-to-last game of the season that they secured their playoff berth and kept the streak alive.

The team’s mental fortitude to overcome all the Kawhi drama and make the playoffs in an extremely tough conference was impressive enough, but there’s also credit to several individuals to go around. Aldridge returned to his old form and had his best season with the Spurs, averaging 23.1 points and 8.5 rebounds while carrying the club, especially down low as Pau Gasol’s play took a dive, and there was no other depth at center behind them with Joffrey Lauvergne dislocating his finger and never being the same. (Although to his credit, he tried to fight through it, and he’s certainly tougher than Gregg Popovich.)

Parker put in a ton of work to return in 8 months from the torn hamstring he suffered in the playoffs the season before — almost unheard of for an injury that usually takes at least a year to recover from — only to have to accept a bench role for the first time in his career after it was clear he just wasn’t the same player anymore. To that point, Dejounte Murray did an admirable job in just his second season, earning the starting point guard job and making the All Defensive 2nd Team. (And there may or may not have been some drama between those two, depending if you choose to believe Murray these days, but if there was, they kept it behind closed doors and kept playing.)

Off the bench, no one will ever question Manu Ginobili’s toughness, mental or physical, but even at 40 years he gave his all every moment he was on the court. Rudy Gay, who felt like “the missing piece” behind Leonard when he was signed in the offseason, suffered a heal injury but fought through the pain after taking two weeks off to recover. Patty Mills and Bryn Forbes did their best despite being paired together in those dreaded “munchkin” lineups.

After all the behind the scenes drama and going from championship contender to having to fight like the season was on the line every game, they were then thrust into another playoff series against the Warriors, and probably even they knew they stood no chance. To make matters even worse, Gregg Popovich was lost for the series after his wife, Erin, passed away after Game 2. Despite the impossible circumstances and it looking like another sweep was on the line, the Spurs still resolved to win one more game for Manu. They gave everything they had left in the tank for a Game 4 win at home, which amusingly made Klay Thompson cry for some reason. (Seriously, who has ever cried over “settling” for the gentleman’s sweep of a playoff series?)

The 2017-18 season will never be fondly remembered. It marked the end of an extended era of success, including the official end of the Spurs’ streak of 50-win seasons and the Big Three with Manu retiring and Parker moving on afterwards, and the Spurs’ attempt to remain relevant on the back of DeMar DeRozan didn’t pan out. But when truly looking back, that roster deserves all the credit in the world and holds a strong case for the most mentally tough Spurs team of all time.

Sure, you have to have a strong mentality to win five championships and stay as relevant as the Spurs did for so long, and that 2013-14 squad has a case of its own since probably no team has ever shown as much determination to win it all as they did. But when all is said and done, none of the more successful Spurs teams ever faced as much adversity both on and off the court as 2017-18 did, and they still succeed to best the could when, looking back, they just as easily could have caved.

In hindsight, seeing where the Spurs have gone since then has given me a whole new appreciation for this squad. We haven’t seen a group that tough or determined since then (although last season was by design). The good news is with the acquisition of Victor Wembanyama, things are looking up for the first time since, and the Spurs seem to have the right personalities to return to being a tough-minded team.

In the meantime, we should always remember the 2017-18 group not as the end of an era, but as a club today’s team should look back on and try to emulate for their mental fortitude, determination and toughness. If they can do that, a whole new era will begin.