by Corey Kollbocker & Spencer Suk
Earlier this month, the San Antonio Spurs shocked the world by beating the two-time champion Miami Heat to take home the 2013-14 NBA title. The result was not entirely surprising—all anticipated a closely contested series—but few predicted the way the Spurs would manhandle the Heat, wrestling them down in five games with three road wins, all while shooting a torrid 52.8% and posting an average point differential of 14.0 (both Finals records in the shot-clock era).
Tim Duncan-led teams have been perennial contenders, so few eyebrows were raised when San Antonio was still playing in June.
But they should have been.
Not only did these Spurs put on the most dominant Finals display in modern NBA history, they made it to those Finals by completely rewriting the rules for what makes a championship team.
It has long been maintained that to win an NBA championship, a team must field an elite superstar and/or a combination of all-stars. This also means that to win a championship, a franchise (preferably in a big market) must be willing to shell out a lot of money.
The Spurs don’t care much for these rules.
Rule 1: A team must possess one of the league’s preeminent superstars to contend for a championship.
Determining who qualifies as a superstar is no simple matter, and it is impossible to do so in an entirely objective manner. However, by looking at win shares accumulated throughout the season, it is possible to approximate the value each player actually produces on the court. Win share is a metric that compiles players offensive and defensive production throughout a season to create a single net rating equivalent to the number of wins that player provided his team (for a more in-depth description of win shares, read here). A reasonable cutoff for superstar production is 12.0 win shares, which this past season would only include seven players, the least of whom was Chris Paul with 12.2 win shares: good company and rarefied air.
Of the last 24 NBA championship teams, 18 of them were lead by a player who accumulated at least 12.0 win shares during the season, and no team ever won a championship without a player who earned at least 10 win shares.
Until this year.
Kawhi Leonard led the Spurs this season with 7.7 win shares, a full 3 win shares less than Hakeem Olajuwon’s 10.7 in 1994-95, the previous low mark for a champion’s leading player.
Of course, looking back at the Spurs previous four championships, its clear that those teams were indeed led by superstar production from Tim Duncan. But while this year’s Spurs still enjoyed Duncan’s formidable presence on the court and in the locker room, his 12 win share seasons are behind him. Duncan still grabbed 7.4 win shares in fewer minutes this season, and went off for 3.2 win shares in the postseason, but he also recorded the lowest WS/48 (win shares per 48 minutes) of his career.
There is no denying Tim Duncan’s reputation as not just a superstar but also as an all-time great. Even if he were bound to a wheelchair, Duncan’s intangibles would mark him as the worthy leader of a championship team. However, due to his age and marginally reduced production, Duncan just no longer qualifies as a statistical superstar—a player who can singlehandedly carry a team through both the long season and a playoff run by their on-court production alone.
There are other players on the Spurs worthy of superstar consideration—Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and the emerging Leonard all possess elite talent—but only Ginobili has topped 10 win shares in a season, and he hasn’t done so in the past six seasons. The reality is if Duncan doesn’t qualify as a current statistical superstar, none of the others do either.
Rule 2: A team must have a big three, or a combination of featured stars, to contend for an NBA championship (especially if the team is lacking a preeminent superstar).
Since Bird, McHale, and Parish first brought the term into NBA use in the 80s, acquiring a “big three” has been an accepted formula for creating a winning team. Since 1990, 18 of 24 championship teams have had a “big three” combine for at least 30 win shares. Some of those trios were more realistically big twos and a third wheel, but the fact remains they had star power delivering an excess of 30 win shares a season. Of the remaining six teams, no big three registered as few as the 21.0 win shares Kawhi Leonard, Tim Duncan, and Tony Parker combined for in 2013-14. To put that into perspective, this year’s Spurs big three barely outproduced Michael Jordan in 95-96, when he produced 20.4 win shares on his own.
The Spurs, admittedly, have done much of their winning as a franchise with a big three. Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili have long been considered the driving forces of Spurs teams, and a look at their win shares in previous championship seasons reflects that. However, age has dismantled that big three, and while each of those players remains a serious contributor, that trio is no longer capable of carrying a team through a winning season and the playoffs by itself.
Understanding the current limitations of these long-time stars, it becomes clear that the Spurs won the 13-14 championship with a record dearth of star power. No other team has ever won an NBA title without featuring eye-popping production from elite players. So how did they do it? The answer is balance, ball-movement, and a heavy hand of Gregg Popovich genius.
The Spurs’ big three may not have matched the dominance of past champions, but the rest of the roster more than made up for it. When measuring the win shares of each champion’s complementary players, the 13-14 Spurs reveal a massive advantage.
The rest of the Spurs roster totaled 37.7 win shares, shattering the previous high mark of 32.5 accumulated by the Bulls in the 1995-96 season (and that team had an extra 15 win shares to go around, having finished the season with a record 72 wins). Productive complementary players are nothing new for the Spurs; each of their previous championship teams topped 25 win shares from “other” players. Even when Tim Duncan was in his prime, Popovich’s system provided substantial contributions from supporting players. However, this season the Spurs took it to another level.
Most championship teams rely upon lopsided production and the dominance of their stars, but this year’s Spurs team did just the opposite. By ranking each champion’s players by salary and averaging their win share production, the uniqueness of these Spurs becomes clear. In the graph below, the blue line represents the win share production of the average NBA champion, the red dots represent the Spurs players this past season. The balance in win share production across their roster is astounding.
Only seven championship teams since 1990 have had seven players record at least 4 win shares. No championship team has had 8 players record at least 4 win shares. This year’s Spurs had 9 players record at least 4 win shares. The 13-14 Spurs are also one of only three championship teams since 1990 with every roster member recording positive win shares.
All the credit here should go to Gregg Popovich. Yes, role players and journeymen tend to play their best basketball for the Spurs, but that’s because Popovich creates opportunities for them to succeed. No other coach in the NBA puts his entire roster to such good use. No five-man Spurs lineup logged even 9 mpg this season, something 100 lineups representing all 29 other NBA teams did. In the playoffs, the Spurs starting lineup averaged 9.6 mpg, less than any other playoff team and well less than half of the 22.2 minutes averaged by Portland’s starters. Most winning teams depend on one or two dominant fivesomes; for Popovich to produce such success while putting so many different players on the floor is simply revolutionary.
This is balanced production beyond anything seen before in the NBA, and the Spurs used it to accrue the league’s most wins and to trump the league’s biggest big threes—the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Miami Heat—in back-to-back series.
Rule 3: A team must be willing and able to spend big money to win a championship.
No team since the 1990-91 Chicago Bulls has won an NBA Championship with a payroll under the league’s salary cap. Team owners have taken this trend to heart, and, in the 2013-2014 season, while only 6 teams finished in the luxury tax, 23 teams found themselves above the league cap of $58,679,000.
The Spurs were among this group; their payroll of $63,150,935 put them well above the league cap. However, it also put them well below the league median, as they had only the 20th highest payroll this past season. It’s remarkable to think one of the league’s cheapest teams could win a title so convincingly.
But these Spurs weren't just cheap by the standards of today’s NBA, with its bloated contracts and billionaire owners. The 13-14 Spurs, when looking at team payrolls as a percentage of the league cap, are one of the cheapest championship squads in the last quarter of a century.
This isn’t exactly an anomaly. San Antonio has long been a franchise praised for its thriftiness and ability to do more with less. With the new, stricter salary cap rules, and the Spurs small market, it should be no surprise they try to do their winning on a budget. When looking at the eight franchises that have shared the last 24 NBA titles, only Houston won its championships with a cheaper team on average.
So how have the Spurs managed to maintain a league powerhouse with such limited spending? The answer is drafting well, capitalizing on rookie contracts, and cultivating a tradition of excellence that free agents find attractive.
The balanced production described above might not be all that surprising for a team like San Antonio, rich in aging stars and solid role players. But this isn’t the case of a team paying extra for extra depth and extra talent (a la the Brooklyn Nets). It’s true that Duncan accepted a pay cut two seasons ago to allow the Spurs room to sign other players. It’s also true that Duncan could have instead pushed for a much larger contract. But his generosity of spirit is not alone responsible for the franchise’s efficient allocation of money.
Looking at the win share production of each Spurs roster member next to his respective salary, it is amazing how little is wasted. Every player made a positive impact on the team’s season, and no player looks distinctly overpaid. It is also worth mentioning that this year was only the sixth time since 1990 and the first time since the 03-04 Pistons that no single player on a championship team has made at least 20% of his team’s total salary.
Coach Gregg Popovich allows for no useless appendages on his roster. He uses every last player and manages to maximize their respective skills. For this reason he has developed a reputation as the NBA’s best head coach. And it is partially this reputation that has allowed San Antonio to collect such an efficient bunch of role players. Players flock to San Antonio because they know they will see use, and they know they will be part of a successful and balanced system. This has allowed the Spurs to sign players like Boris Diaw and Marco Belinelli to favorable deals.
San Antonio has also been one of the very best franchises at developing and maximizing young talent. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili were all Spurs draft picks. They are also all champions with multiple all-star appearances. Tiago Splitter was drafted late in the first round by the Spurs in 07 and has become a very solid starter. Patty Mills has found his way back into the NBA because of the renaissance he has experienced in Gregg Popovich’s system. And of course there’s Kawhi Leonard, who the Spurs traded for on draft night three years ago, and who won the Final’s MVP this season.
The solid contribution of young players has consistently been the edge that has pushed the Spurs to championship heights. A player on a rookie contract has cracked the team’s win share big three in four of San Antonio’s five championship seasons.
There are a few other examples of players on rookie contracts making considerable impacts on championship teams. Dwayne Wade (05-06) is the only player besides Leonard to lead a title team in win shares while on a rookie contract, but Rajon Rondo also added 7.2 win shares to the 07-08 Celtics. However, no other franchise has consistently had rookie contract players produce so significantly in their hunt for a championship. This pattern reveals San Antonio’s mastery of quickly and effectively developing young players, and helps explain how they've won so many championships while spending so little money.
Despite their glut of aging stars, this year’s Spurs team didn't care much for convention. Perhaps they outlined a new formula for championship success, and fans will soon find themselves watching a league driven by ball movement and smart basketball instead of athleticism and star power. Perhaps they represent a singular deviation, doubtful to repeat itself, driven by the sheer determination of the aging Duncan and masterful Popovich. It’s more likely a bit of both.
These Spurs have set a standard of top-to-bottom excellence that many coaches from here on out will try to emulate. But this team was unique. The core of veterans who led San Antonio have played together for many seasons. The role players were unusually effective, and felt the benefit of gracious stars, who understood their limitations and deferred at the right times. And all of this was masterminded and overseen by one of the NBA’s greatest coaches. Therefore, it is doubtful that any group of players will ever contribute so equally on a championship team in the near future.
Unless of course, San Antonio does it all again next season.