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Jun 15

2013-14 Spurs: Deepest NBA Champion Ever?

SpursLooking at the history and development of this San Antonio Spurs team, it should come as no surprise that they won the franchise’s fifth NBA championship. However, considerable surprise came with the ease in which the 2013-14 Spurs claimed the title. In the league’s first Finals rematch since the Chicago Bulls played the Utah Jazz in the 1997 NBA Finals and 1998 NBA Finals, the Spurs-Heat series looked like one that would be an epic and close battle to the finish. Instead, the Spurs put together one of the most dominant series victories, setting a new Finals record in average point differential (+14.0 per game) and Shot Clock Era field-goal shooting (52.8 percent).

The dominance by this team is simply amazing on its surface, as it wasn’t just limited to dismantling the four-time defending Eastern Conference Champions in the Miami Heat. It started in Game 7 of the Western Conference First Round, with a 119-96 victory over the Dallas Mavericks. This was the first of 12 playoff wins by 15+ points — all of which came within the span of 17 games. San Antonio went 13-4 in those games, and the only exception of a win came in the series-clinching and Western Conference-clinching Game 6 overtime win against the Oklahoma City Thunder. In any given game, the Spurs could blow out a championship-caliber team. By that token, we can argue that the 2013-14 Spurs had one of the best postseason runs in league history.

However, the dominance gets much more amazing when we look deeper. That’s because the Spurs dominated without having the typical standout play from the team’s best players. Get this: the Spurs’ leading scorer in the Finals was Tony Parker (17.4 points per game), and he scored less than any champion’s leading scorer in the shot clock era. That shows us just the tip of the iceberg.

Instead of looking at just points per game, let’s look at a stat that can put some numeric marker on the overall value of a player. In spite of its shortcomings, the best stat to do that is a gross metric in Win Shares. This should at least give us a ballpark for the value. Also, to account for the players who missed time due to rest or injury, we will also the rate metric in Win Shares per 48 Minutes. Including both metrics will give us the best picture for individual value as it relates to team success.

Below, we see the value for each Spurs player in the regular season. The table below ranks the 15 postseason players by each stat.

Table 1: Win Shares and Win Shares per 48 Minutes, San Antonio Spurs

Player Win Shares Player WS/48
Kawhi Leonard (22) 7.7 (33rd) Kawhi Leonard .193 (14th)
Tim Duncan (37) 7.4 (38th) Manu Ginobili .176 (22nd)
Marco Belinelli (27) 5.9 (59th) Patty Mills .175 (25th)
Tony Parker (31) 5.9 (63rd) Tim Duncan .164 (32nd)
Manu Ginobili (36) 5.7 (69th) Tiago Splitter .163 (33rd)
Patty Mills (25) 5.6 (72nd) Cory Joseph .148
Boris Diaw (31) 4.9 (92nd) Tony Parker .141 (63rd)
Tiago Splitter (29) 4.3 Marco Belinelli .140 (65th)
Danny Green (26) 4.2 Matt Bonner .123
Cory Joseph (22) 2.9 Danny Green .122 (96th)
Jeff Ayres (26) 2.4 Jeff Ayres .121
Matt Bonner (33) 1.8 Boris Diaw .120
Aron Baynes (27) 0.6 Austin Daye .080
Austin Daye (25) 0.2 Aron Baynes .055
Damion James (26) 0.0 Damion James .010

NOTE: Win Shares and WS/48 are determined by Basketball Reference.
NOTE: Age of each player and ranks among the Top 100 (among qualifying players) are in parentheses.
NOTE: Includes only the 15 players on the team’s Finals roster.

As the ranks show, this Spurs didn’t have any one player to put on a dominant gross performance, but several players put up dominance on a minute-to-minute basis. Kawhi Leonard ranked in the same league spot in Win Shares that Tiago Splitter did in Win Shares per 48 Minutes. Leonard was the best player on the team in that respective category, while Splitter was fifth in the other respective category. Note that with Splitter’s rate for WS/48, he would produce nearly 8.4 Win Shares if he played 30 minutes in each of the team’s 82 games. This gives us a nice picture of the balance and depth this Spurs team enjoyed in the regular season.

Note that Leonard’s 7.7 Win Shares amounts to fewer than 0.1 Win Shares per team game. We will discuss that later. However, it’s fair to note that in the postseason, three players surpassed that average. Those players were Duncan (3.2 WS in 23 games), Leonard (2.9) and Splitter (2.6). Meanwhile, the Spurs maintained their regular season standard of having five players with at least .160 Win Shares per 48 Minutes (which calculates to 0.1 Win Shares for every 30 minutes).

As these numbers apply to the NBA’s history of champions, the 2013-14 San Antonio Spurs won in unprecedented fashion due to their depth in the roster. Normally, champions need at least two dominant forces. While the franchise has the big names, primarily Tim Duncan, the regular season numbers don’t seem to share the idea that this team had any true dominant force. It’s true, Duncan dominated in the postseason, but he put regular season numbers that put him as a true #1 option (38th ranked in Win Shares). That simply DOESN’T follow the consistent trend of past NBA champions.

In fact, this Spurs team became the first NBA champion to have no players with at least 0.1 Win Shares per team game — in the league’s history. No ABA champion did it either. Why did a player like Duncan, who could arguably go down as one of the 20 best basketball players ever, fail to turn up his efficiency until the postseason? Perhaps it’s because he and his genius head coach, Gregg Popovich, knew what this team had as a unit. Popovich and the Spurs front office built a strong team of shooters from all around of world over the past half decade or so. From the United States (Leonard) to Brazil (Splitter) to Australia (Patty Mills), the Spurs quietly put together an offense that could efficiently bludgeon an opponent from any spot on the floor. They didn’t need a “go-to guy” to rack up Win Shares.

Just look at the NBA champions with fewer than two players to account for 0.1+ Win Shares per team game:

  • 2013-14 San Antonio Spurs (62-20): None
  • 2005-06 Miami Heat (52-30): Dwyane Wade (14.4)
  • 2002-03 San Antonio Spurs (60-22): Tim Duncan (16.5)
  • 1997-98 Chicago Bulls (62-20): Michael Jordan (15.8)
  • 1988-89 Detroit Pistons (63-19): Bill Laimbeer (9.0)
  • 1977-78 Washington Bullets (44-38): Elvin Hayes (8.3)
  • 1975-76 Boston Celtics (54-28): Dave Cowens (10.7)
  • 1974-75 Golden State Warriors (48-34): Rick Barry (12.7)
  • 1972-73 New York Knicks (57-25): Walt Frazier (13.0)
  • 1954-55 Syracuse Nationals (43-29): Dolph Schayes (12.0)
  • 1953-54 Minneapolis Lakers (46-26): George Mikan (12.7)
  • 1946-47 Philadelphia Warriors (35-25): Joe Fulks (16.3)

Most of these other 12 teams still had other great players on the team. In fact, only one NBA champion since the ABA-NBA merger in 1976 failed to have at least two players with either 0.1 Win Shares per Team Game or .160 Win Shares per 48 Minutes, and that was the 1977-78 Bullets team that had two “star” players who just didn’t dominate like other years: Bob Dandridge (five seasons with 8.2+ WS) and Wes Unseld (nine seasons with 8.2+ WS and six seasons with .160+ WS/48).

Remember, players are more likely to accumulate win shares when the team is winning. Then again, teams are more likely to win when players are performing well. The 1977-78 Bullets are the rare exception of a star-laden team that didn’t really look like it in the regular season, but still went on to win the NBA championship. We’ll discuss the NBA’s “Mathletics” playoff history later this week.

The San Antonio Spurs celebrate their fifth NBA championship. (photo rights to USA Today)

The San Antonio Spurs celebrate their fifth NBA championship. (photo rights to USA Today)

Now, let’s look at the distribution of power for the Spurs. This will truly show what this team does to thrive. Under the masterful coaching of Gregg Popovich, the Spurs changed their image over the years. They went from the perception of being a “boring” and “defensive-first” team to a masterful “offensive-first” team. Looking at the 2004-05 Spurs, who beat the Detroit Pistons in what cynics considered to the “most boring” series, they finished eighth in Offensive Rating and first in Defensive Rating. The 2013-14 Spurs finished seventh in Offensive Rating and third in Defensive Rating. Nothing much really changed there. Instead, what changed was the team’s pace, going from 23rd to 10th in those eight years. Also, the league itself changed to a bit more offensive, with the elimination of the hand check making a notable impact. The team’s 40 percent three-point shooting this year may make further impact in the NBA soon.

What teams should truly try to mimic, though, is the Spurs team building of depth. They picked up the likes of Danny Green (Cleveland) and Patty Mills (Portland) from other teams — then developed them. They picked up well-traveled reliable veterans like Marco Bellinelli (four teams in his first six seasons) and Bros Diaw (now with his fourth team). Finally, they acquired smart guys on draft day who where committed to becoming the next cornerstones of the franchise, like Kawhi Leonard (San Diego State) and Tiago Splitter (Brazil), even if they had to wait for an international asset like Splitter.

The construction culminated into a masterpiece this year. The 2013-14 Spurs tied an NBA record by having five qualifying players to total at least .160 Win Shares per 48 Minutes, joining the 1995-96 Bulls and 1971-72 Lakers. The other two teams won a combined 141 games, and they are two of the three most winningest teams in NBA history (along with the 1996-97 Bulls). As you’ll see below, this select and truly special company truly solidifies the Spurs’ place in history.

  • 2013-14 Spurs (62-20): Kawhi Leonard (.193), Manu Ginobili (.176), Patty Mills (.175), Tim Duncan (.164), Tiago Splitter (.163)… Tony Parker (.141), Marco Belinelli (.140), Danny Green (.122), Boris Diaw (.120)
  • 1995-96 Bulls (72-10): Michael Jordan (.317), Toni Kukoc (.231), Scottie Pippen (.209), Steve Kerr (.208), Ron Harper (.161)… Dennis Rodman (.143), Bill Wennington (.125), Luc Longley (.101)
  • 1971-72 Lakers (69-13): Wilt Chamberlain (.219), Jerry West (.216), Gail Goodrich (.194), Flynn Robinson (.174), Happy Hairston (.161)… Jim McMillian (.123)

Frankly, it should be expected that the two winningest teams put up those huge numbers. However, the Spurs doing this comes as a surprise. They did so without the sheer dominance of Jordan, or the dynamic 1-2 punch of Chamberlain and West. Instead, they did so by being effective all around the court. We should note that the difference in wins can be reflected by the lack of a top player.

Does this mean the 2013-14 Spurs are the deepest champion in NBA history? The answer lies in their other significant contributors. This Spurs team used nine players for at least 15 minutes per game. Each one of them put up at least 4.1 Win Shares. Each one of them also put up at least .120 Win Shares per 48 Minutes. For that, I would say the 2013-14 are THE DEEPEST champion in NBA history. What they did may never be seen again, or it could become the dawn of a new era in the National Basketball Association.

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