For two decades, the San Antonio Spurs were one of the most impressive franchises in sports. Thanks to supreme talent, terrific choices in late stages of the draft, and Gregg Popovich’s excellent coaching, the Spurs won five championships, get to the Finals six times, and never had a losing season after 1997.
San Antonio’s run of consistency gives NBA fans the privilege of debating which title team was the best one. Let’s rank them here.
5. 1999 Championship team
They say the first time is the most special. While Spurs fans will always have fond memories of the 1998-99 season, their surprising victory was the punctuation to a particularly strange NBA season. The main headlines centered around what was lost more than what was there.
The reign of Michael Jordan’s Bulls was over. The simmering tensions that divided the players and front office — and make The Last Dance such an entertaining watch — finally broke up the team. Jordan retired, Scottie Pippen moved to the Rockets, and Dennis Rodman played for the Lakers. A lockout-shortened the regular season to a mere 50 games.
The Spurs were no one’s idea of a champion. They started the year 6-8 before reeling off a 31-5 record for the rest of the season that earned them the best record in the league. They weren’t favored in playoff series against the Lakers or the Portland Trailblazers, but they beat both squads to face the New York Knicks in the Finals.
The Knicks offered little competition. They are the only team to make it to the Finals as the eighth seed, and Patrick Ewing missed the first two games due to injury. Tim Duncan took advantage of the lack of size inside by averaging 27 points and 14 rebounds for the series. The Spurs won in five games.
4. 2007 Spurs team
San Antonio excelled in the 2006-07 season, winning 58 games and finishing third in the Western Conference. But their title run, and eventual victory, was mired in controversy.
They beat the Denver Nuggets with ease in the first round before facing the Phoenix Suns. The teams played in contrasting ways. The Spurs stuck to a more methodical pace emphasizing defense. Phoenix was at the peak of their high-flying powers.
Their “Seven Seconds or Less” offense led by Mike D’Antoni as coach and Steve Nash as conductor was as effective as it was entertaining. To many fans and analysts, they were the best team in the league. But the tenor of their playoff series changed after an incident near the end of Game 4.
Robert Horry hip-checked Nash into the scorer’s table and caused a minor scuffle. With the series tied at 2-2, the league suspended Amar’e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw for a game for stepping onto the floor from the bench during the fracas. The Spurs had to be good enough to take advantage of the situation. But it remains true that the Suns were not quite themselves afterward.
San Antonio won the final two games to move to the Conference Finals, where they beat the Utah Jazz in five games. Once again, the Finals were a cakewalk. LeBron James produced landmark performances to get the Cavaliers to the big dance. But he didn’t have nearly enough support. The Spurs swept the Cavs, and Tony Parker was named Finals MVP.
Much like in 1999, the Spurs’ historic consistency gave them the ability to take advantage when the rest of the league was in transition. Shaq forced a trade to the Miami Heat, and the Indiana Pacers contended with the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference.
The Pacers were one of the best teams. But they lost their momentum after the “Malice at the Palace” brawl and four of their players got suspended for most of the year, or in Ron Artest’s case, the entire season.
San Antonio still went through a lot to earn this championship. They lost in devastating fashion to the Lakers the year before, and contended with Steve Nash’s Phoenix Suns for the first time. Mid-season trades for Brent Barry and Nazr Mohammed gave them the depth they needed in the postseason.
After defeating the Nuggets and Seattle Supersonics, the Spurs defeated the Phoenix Suns in five games in the Western Conference Finals to return to the NBA Championship to face the defending champion Detroit Pistons. It was a weird Finals.
The first four games were all blowouts for the home team. This changed in a back-and-forth Game 5 decided by Robert Horry’s incredible performance. He scored 21 points in the fourth quarter and overtime, including a game-winning three with six seconds left. The Pistons forced a Game 7. But San Antonio eventually came out on top. Tim Duncan won his third Finals MVP in six years.
A healthy sense of defiance makes every championship taste a little sweeter. The Spurs’ title win in ’99 was deemed a fluke by most of the basketball world, and in fairness, San Antonio provided plenty of evidence that this was the case. In the three years following that success, they lost in the first round, got swept by the Lakers in the conference finals, and lost to them in five games in 2002.
In the summer of 2002, David Robinson announced that he would retire after the season. The dominance of Kobe, Shaq, and Phil Jackson didn’t appear to be ending any time soon. A fourth straight title was expected. But while the Spurs struggled to repeat their success, they still had Duncan and Popovich. Duncan was spectacular in 2003. He won his second straight regular season MVP after averaging 23 points, 13 rebounds, four assists and three blocks a game.
What made this year different was the quality of the supporting cast. The Spurs had a maturing Tony Parker to run the point, plus Malik Rose, Speedy Claxton, and a rookie Manu Ginobli providing a lift from the bench.
They finished the regular season with the best record in the NBA. But it was still shocking when they beat the Lakers in the second round of the playoffs in six games. San Antonio won every series in six games, including the Finals. There, they closed out the Nets at home thanks to a 37-point, 16-rebound showing from Duncan.
Losing in the Finals is tough. But few losses are more heartbreaking than the way San Antonio did in 2013. The trophy was waiting as the Spurs looked set to beat the Miami Heat in six games. Then, Ray Allen hit one of the biggest shots in NBA history. It’d be understandable if the Spurs lost their nerve after having the championship ripped away. But this squad was built with much sterner stuff.
The Spurs needed seven games just to get through the first round against the Dallas Mavericks. But they eventually worked their way back to the Finals after overcoming the Blazers and the Oklahoma City Thunder in the latter rounds. The Finals was a rematch against the same Heat team that outlasted them the year before.
After splitting the first two games, San Antonio took charge with a stunning offensive showing in Game 3, scoring 41 points in the first quarter alone. This roster was slightly ahead of the curve in terms of the number of knockdown shooters — Danny Green, Patty Mills, and Marco Belinelli — who provided meaningful minutes and made their offense nearly impossible to stop.
But this game, and this series in general, was Kawhi Leonard’s coming out party. Duncan, Parker, and Ginobli were still seen as the faces of the team, but Leonard’s performance, averaging 18 points on 61% shooting while making James work on the other end, earned him his first Finals MVP.
The Spurs won each game by an average of 14 points and won the series in five games, erasing the heartbreak of the preceding year.