The most consistently successful franchise in pro sports today is located in a city where they beseech you to remember the Alamo—not to mention George Gervin, Larry Kenon and Artis Gilmore.
It’s in a town where there isn’t any other major pro sports team. It’s the Green Bay of the NBA.
The San Antonio Spurs started playing seriously for the NBA championship in the late-1990s, and they haven’t stopped since.
Other NBA franchises, some steeped in history, have been made over—sometimes several times—in the past 20 years.
The Boston Celtics, who in the 1960s were as reliable every spring as the first robin and who won several more titles in the ‘70s and ‘80s, fell on hard times in the late-1990s, early-2000s before regrouping and becoming champions again in 2008.
The Los Angeles Lakers, by the mid-1990s, had become impostors wearing purple, like a bunch of department store Barneys. Then Phil Jackson arrived from Chicago and got the Lakers wearing championship belts again.
The Chicago Bulls sank like a stone after Michael Jordan “retired”, their six championships in the 1990s becoming distant memories almost overnight.
The Detroit Pistons…well, you get the idea.
But the Spurs? They’ve never dipped, really, since center David Robinson finally joined them in 1989 after serving two years in the Naval Academy following his drafting in 1987.
The Spurs’ won/lost records over the past 20 years have been as consistent as a working clock.
The Spurs win 50+ games every year, make the playoffs, and they’re typically one of the last few teams standing in June. Four times since 1999, they’ve been the only team standing.
Their coach, Gregg Popovich, has a career winning percentage of near .700 in over 1400 games. Popovich could win 50 games every season in his sleep.
The blossoming of the Spurs under Popovich came in 1996.
The Spurs had Robinson but hadn’t been able to put the right parts around him. Much of that was on Popovich, who became the team’s GM in 1994.
You have to be lucky to be good, and that was certainly true of the Spurs in 1996. The team got off to a 3-15 start, and Popovich fired coach Bob Hill and replaced him with…Gregg Popovich. I know—it doesn’t sound lucky so far. Give me a moment.
Popovich had been an assistant with the Spurs under Larry Brown for a few years starting in the late-1980s and he figured, what the heck—I’ll coach the team myself.
Robinson broke his foot during that 3-15 start of 1996 and missed all but six games of the ’96-97 season. Other key Spurs players missed significant time with injuries, and it all ended with a 20-62 record.
Popovich didn’t fire himself as coach. He kept wearing the dual hats of coach and GM.
Here’s where the good luck kicked in.
Because of all the injuries, not the least of which was suffered by future Hall of Famer Robinson, the Spurs ended up with the no. 1 overall pick in the 1997 NBA Draft and drafted a big man from Wake Forest named Tim Duncan.
Duncan’s insertion into the lineup and Robinson’s return from injury put the Spurs back in familiar territory with 56 wins in 1997-98.
One year later, with the Spurs’ version of the Twin Towers manning the paint, the Spurs won their first NBA title in 1999, beating the New York Knicks in five games.
Popovich shed the GM label in 2002 to concentrate on coaching, which was like Frank Sinatra quitting acting to focus on singing.
It worked, though, as the Spurs won their second championship in 2003, overcoming the New Jersey Nets in six games. It was Robinson’s swan song as a player.
David Robinson retired, but the Spurs kept winning, which is their—and Popovich’s—genius. Players have come and gone, including Hall of Famers, yet the Spurs have never bottomed out.
The Miami Heat won the championship in 2006, and two years later, despite having Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O’Neal, and a Hall of Fame coach in Pat Riley, Miami won 15 games.
Of course, the Heat rebuilt themselves in a hurry, but they had to occupy the outhouse before getting back to the penthouse.
The Spurs don’t do that collapse-before-you-can-get-better thing.
Another NBA crown was won in 2005, and again in 2007. The Spurs’ key trio then, as it is now, was Duncan, point guard Tony Parker and shooting guard Manu Ginobili. The latter two are fine players, but probably not Hall of Famers.
That’s another thing. The Spurs rosters haven’t been filled with iconic names, like the Celtics, Lakers, Pistons and Bulls’ championship teams have been.
The Spurs win about 70 percent of the time under Popovich, but there have been no Bird, McHale, Parish or Kareem, Magic, Worthy-like combinations that Popovich has coached.
The Spurs draft well, trade cunningly and they have Popovich, 65 years old, a two-time Coach of the Year winner (2003, 2012) and four-time world champion.
The Spurs have been relevant for 15 years in a league where literally no other team of the NBA’s 30 franchises can say that.
OK, that’s the NBA, but what about other sports, you might ask.
Let’s look at other sports.
In baseball, even the mighty New York Yankees haven’t won as many World Series as the Spurs have won NBA championships since 1999. The Yanks have won three WS (1999, 2000, 2009) to the Spurs’ four NBA crowns.
In hockey, the Detroit Red Wings, perhaps the Spurs’ stiffest competition when it comes to consistent excellence in pro sports, have won two Stanley Cups (2002, 2008) since 1999.
In football, the New England Patriots have won three Super Bowls (2001, 2003, 2004) during the Spurs’ reign of terror.
Yet the Spurs are rarely mentioned when it comes to which franchises are the best in pro sports today.
Well, now they are, right here.
The beat goes on this season. At this writing, Popovich and the Spurs are 56-16. Another 60-win season, which would be Popovich’s fourth, beckons.
Duncan, Parker and Ginobili aren’t getting any younger, but it doesn’t appear that it will matter going forward, as Popovich has a deft ability of adding key players from the draft or free agency that is unmatched by any basketball man in the NBA—including execs like Pat Riley.
Popovich won with David Robinson and he won without David Robinson. It’s likely that in the near future he’ll win without Tim Duncan, who is going to turn 38 during the playoffs in April.
On second thought, forget the Alamo. Remember Gregg Popovich, the best coach in pro sports who has been hiding in plain sight for 15 years.