It’s looking more and more like this might be the year the San Antonio Spurs finally win one for the thumb.
Owners of four NBA championships, the Spurs have been chasing a fifth title ever since sweeping LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2007 NBA Finals. As fate would have it, the Spurs appear on target to again face James again — this time with the Miami Heat — in what could be a memorable Finals.
Those four championships the Spurs won during a nine-year span rank as the fourth-most in NBA history. The Boston Celtics lead the pack with 17, followed by the Los Angeles Lakers (16) and Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls (six).
The Bulls (6-0) and Spurs (4-0) are the only franchises with multiple titles who have never lost in the Finals.
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The Spurs have won more NBA titles than the combined total of Texas’ other two NBA entrants — the Dallas Mavericks (1) and Houston Rockets (2).
Those within the industry applaud the Spurs for being able to win, and win with class. Rarely do you hear controversy attached to their organization.
“It’s very impressive the way they put together their teams, the way they win and compete for championships every year,” Mavericks free-agent center Elton Brand said. “And they happen to do it in a small market, which people say can’t be done.
“They’re the epitome of the great organizations of the last 15 or so years, for sure.”
A strong case can be made that the basketball world in Texas runs through San Antonio, where a second-round best-of-seven playoff series begins Monday against the Golden State Warriors.
Since joining the NBA in 1976, the Spurs own 19 divisional titles, have been in the playoffs 22 of the past 23 seasons, have won an NBA record 50-plus games during the past 14 years, and have made the playoffs all 16 seasons since they drafted Tim Duncan No. 1 overall in 1997.
Even more astonishing is that, outside of Duncan, the Spurs have been winning with players who are not high draft picks.
Kawhi Leonard, Gary Neal, Tiago Splitter and Matt Bonner are not exactly household names, but they have worked their way into the Spurs’ rotation. Even Manu Ginobili — a vital part of three Spurs’ championship runs — was the 57th player taken in the 1999 NBA Draft.
“They develop their young guys and they just mesh,” Brand said. “They’ve got players that mesh and work in their system well.
“Year after year they get guys that fit into their system and they make it work. They’re a great organization.”
With all the savvy player acquisitions R.C. Buford has made since becoming the Spurs’ general manager in 2002, it’s a travesty that he has never won the NBA’s Executive of the Year award. Buford, who played college basketball at Oklahoma State and Texas A&M, has masterfully laid a foundation for success that’s centered on beating the bushes to find talent around the world.
But Buford doesn’t necessarily center the team’s success on its ability to acquire big-name talent.
“I think he’s never won [Executive of the Year] because the voting comes from that splashy move and the splashy trades,” Brand said. “But [the Spurs] were smart with the draft and they were smart with the salary cap.
“All the away around, they do good business.”
At the center of the Spurs’ success is Gregg Popovich, who has been the team’s head coach since midway through the 1996-97 season and is the longest tenured coach with one franchise in any of the four major sports. Popovich, who served five years of active duty in the Air Force, has helped the Spurs take flight with an in-your-face coaching style.
But make no mistake about it, the man can flat-out coach. Brand believes if Popovich were coaching in New York and had won four titles in a nine-year span, he would own Madison Avenue.
And rightfully so.
“He might not want it,” Brand said. “But they would definitely have a statue of him in front of New York City if he won that many titles with one of the New York teams.”
In a few short weeks, Popovich may be adding another NBA title to the Spurs’ trophy case. One for the thumb.
One they’ve been chasing since beating King James in 2007.