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San Antonio Spurs would be the most-balanced NBA champion of all time

Jun 15, 2014, 7:00 PM EDT

San Antonio Spurs v Miami Heat - Game One Getty Images

When the Detroit Pistons won the 2004 NBA title, they were hailed as the first superstar-less champions since the 1979 Seattle SuperSonics. It was a decent attempt honor the Pistons, an ode to their teamwork and balance.

But now that we’re on the verge of the most-balance NBA champion of all time, there’s hardly a peep.

Yes, the 2014 San Antonio Spurs have no superstars. (I’d argue the 2004 Pistons had one.) San Antonio has overcome its lack of elite singular production through depth and Gregg Popovich’s masterful coaching. The Spurs’ ball movement and spacing are second to none, and their defense is among the NBA’s most-versatile. On both sides of the ball, their success is a tribute to their balance.

San Antonio being only team in NBA history without a player who averaged 30 minutes per game was a telling stat entering the playoffs. Now that the Spurs, up 3-1 on the Miami Heat entering Game 5 of the NBA Finals tonight, are on the verge of an NBA title, their place in history due their balance deserves closer inspection.

Most NBA champions – by nearly a 3-to-1 margin – have an All-NBA first teamer. The Spurs did not, though Tony Parker made the All-NBA second team.

Parker is the closest player the Spurs have to a superstar.

Tim Duncan, with his continued late-career brilliance, has solidified his place as the best power forward of all-time. But he’s no longer one of the NBA’s top players based on current ability. He didn’t even make the All-Star game this year, and he’s missed all the All-NBA teams three of the last four years, including this one.

Manu Ginobili had the lowest peak level of the famed trio, and that occurred years ago. Like Duncan, he’s still a very valuable piece. But superstar, even by the most liberal of definitions? No way.

Kawhi Leonard could get there some day – again by the term’s widest scope – and his recent scoring binge suggests he’s closer than most think. But he’s not there yet. Though he led San Antonio in win shares, his total (7.7) would be the lowest to ever lead an NBA champion – and that includes lockout-shortened seasons and other years with few than 82 games, when there were fewer wins to divvy up.

No, the only contender is Parker, who, in addition to representing the Spurs on the All-NBA teams, was their only All-Star this season. But that’s just the bare minimum. Every NBA champion in a season with an All-Star Game had a player in it.

To better judge balance, I created a stat called Balance Rating.

Balance Rating is the standard deviation of the win shares of the top 10 players plus standard deviation of the win shares of the top nine players plus standard deviation of the win shares of the top eight players… all the way to top two. As opposed to just using standard deviation, this method emphasizes the place of teams’ top players.

The LOWER the Balance Rating, the more balanced a team is.

Here are the Balance Ratings for every NBA champion plus the 2014 Spurs:

image

Year Team Balance Rating
2014 SAS 8.8
1989 DET 12.8
1978 WSB 16
1990 DET 16.6
1979 SEA 17
1974 BOS 17.2
1968 BOS 18.1
1977 POR 19.5
1948 BLB 19.9
1999 SAS 21
1951 ROC 21.4
2005 SAS 21.6
2010 LAL 21.6
1988 LAL 22.1
1969 BOS 22.3
1957 BOS 22.4
2004 DET 22.8
1976 BOS 23.1
1981 BOS 24
1966 BOS 24.3
2011 DAL 24.5
1995 HOU 24.5
2008 BOS 25
1973 NYK 26.8
2007 SAS 27.4
1961 BOS 28
1985 LAL 28.2
1958 STL 29.1
1963 BOS 29.2
1959 BOS 29.4
1955 SYR 29.8
1982 LAL 30.4
1975 GSW 30.4
1954 MNL 30.7
1984 BOS 31
1960 BOS 31.4
2002 LAL 31.9
2009 LAL 32.7
1983 PHI 35
1962 BOS 35
1994 HOU 35.5
1972 LAL 35.6
1986 BOS 35.7
1980 LAL 36.2
2006 MIA 36.5
1987 LAL 37.1
1953 MNL 37.7
1970 NYK 38
2012 MIA 38.1
1998 CHI 38.9
1956 PHW 38.9
1952 MNL 40.5
2001 LAL 40.6
1964 BOS 42.6
1965 BOS 43.1
2003 SAS 43.5
1997 CHI 45.2
1993 CHI 45.3
1992 CHI 46.5
2000 LAL 48.3
1947 PHW 49.4
1996 CHI 50
2013 MIA 51.5
1991 CHI 55.1
1971 MIL 59.8
1967 PHI 62.6
1950 MNL 62.7
1949 MNL 66.3

The Bad Boys deserve more credit for their teamwork. Between their 1989 and 1990 championships, the Pistons had only one All-NBA team player – Joe Dumars, who made the 1990 third team. That means the 1989 Pistons were the only champion since the NBA added an all-league third team with no All-NBA players. (The 1978 Washington Bullets and 1979 Sonics did it, but there were just two All-NBA teams then.)

By the time he won those titles, Isiah Thomas had suppressed some of his individual skills to empower his teammates. That made the Pistons better, even if he was not quite as efficient in the regular season.

But Thomas elevated his game in the playoffs, which differentiates those Pistons from these Spurs.

The Spurs are who they are. They share the ball, defend on a string and take turns doing it. Stylistically and strategically, this is the same team that finished with the NBA’s best regular-season record. San Antonio no longer turns to Duncan, Parker or Ginobili to carry the team in pressure situations as the Pistons did with Thomas. The Spurs just keep playing their beautiful balanced game and watch where it takes them.

If it wins the championship, San Antonio will not be remember as a superstar-less champion, because Duncan, Parker and Ginobili were so excellent in their primes. Those peak years, which have already come and gone, would get conflated with this title.

But, in 2014, the Spurs are a team without a superstar.

They should get credit for it.

  1. captainwisdom8888 - Jun 15, 2014 at 7:18 PM

    Every championship team needs a couple of stars at least, and San Antonio has 3(with an emerging 4th in Leonard). But what contributes equally as much to their success is the fact that players who are perceived to be “mediocre” come to San Antonio and after they learn how to play the Spurs brand of basketball they always seem to realize their full potential there. Guys who struggle to even make rosters elsewhere manage to flourish on the Spurs, and it goes to show that talent alone isn’t enough to win a championship…you need a good TEAM approach to win games consistently.

    You saw it in the first championship appearance for the Heat in the big 3 era. Miami by all accounts had more talent than the Dallas Mavericks, but Dallas proved to have a better team…and good teams will almost always beat good talent.

    • antistratfordian - Jun 15, 2014 at 7:32 PM

      Relying on a superstar or two has been the more consistent approach in the NBA – that’s absolutely proven. The Spurs balance can be a weakness at times because there are so many moving parts, hence more things that can go wrong – if everyone isn’t on the same page then it just doesn’t work. If you have a megastar you don’t always have to worry about everyone being on the same page and you can still win 2-3 rings in a row.

      • sportsfan18 - Jun 15, 2014 at 7:34 PM

        Or the Spurs could win 5 titles in 11 seasons…

        And they were just 30 seconds from winning last season or it would be back to back and 6 titles in 11 seasons…

      • antistratfordian - Jun 15, 2014 at 7:45 PM

        If they won last season they probably wouldn’t have been driven as much to go again this season.

        4 titles in 11 seasons… with a 3 year gap between their 1st and 2nd… and a 6 year gap between their last… is not nearly as reliable.

      • Wesley Clark - Jun 15, 2014 at 8:04 PM

        I would say that 5 titles in 11 seasons would be pretty freaking dominant…..and pretty reliable. That is basically winning a title for a decade just under 50% of the time. At this point, if San Antonio closes out Miami, Lebron might need a bit of luck to win the same # of rings as Tim Duncan.

      • antistratfordian - Jun 15, 2014 at 9:39 PM

        It’s neither dominant or reliable when you’re losing in the first round in multiple seasons.

  2. antistratfordian - Jun 15, 2014 at 7:22 PM

    That’s why teams aren’t going to try to copy this formula. It’s not as consistently reliable in the playoffs as a team that is less balanced.

  3. chicagosports2014 - Jun 15, 2014 at 7:24 PM

    This is not a real story because every body in Spurs rotation can mainly get THEIR own shot. Wouldn’t call it balanced. HAVE TO BE SOME BODY LIKE THE 2013 – 2014 BULLS TO CONSIDER IT BALANCE

    👤

    • sportsfan18 - Jun 15, 2014 at 7:44 PM

      Depends by what you are calling and mean by “balanced”.

      The Spurs top 8 leading scorers this past season look like this:

      16.7
      15.1
      12.8
      12.3
      11.4
      10.2
      9.1
      9.1 not typo, two at 9.1 points per game

      Then a player at 8.2 points a game

      Here are the best Spurs players this past season by PER, top to bottom for top half of their team

      21.4
      20.1
      19.4
      19.0
      18.8
      16.6
      15.1

      AND, as the author said, NO player averaged more than 30 min’s a game. here is how tightly their min’s were to each other.

      29.4
      29.2
      29.1
      25.2
      25.0
      24.3
      22.8
      21.5

      EIGHT players that averaged OVER 20 min’s.

      The Spurs TOP player by min’s per game only played 7 something min’s more a game than the man with the 8th highest min’s per game did.

      BALANCED scoring

      BALANCED PER

      BALANCED min’s per game

      The Spurs had 13 players average at least 10 min’s a game or more that played in 50 or more games this past season.

      DEEP and balanced…

      13 men average double digits min’s played this season.

  4. sportsfan18 - Jun 15, 2014 at 7:27 PM

    Good article.

    Nice points and reasoning.

    Nice stats.

    If I’m not mistaken, the Spur with the highest PER this season was Duncan and he only had the 21st highest PER in the league this yr so no Spurs were in the top 20 for PER.

    Salary is meaningless as a player may play great and get a huge payday and then no longer be worth it.

    But, in the for what it’s worth dept, the highest paid Spur this season was only the 37th highest paid player in the NBA and that was Tony Parker.

    The Heat had the 8th, 9th & 10th highest paid players in the league this year.

    Duncan had the 54th highest salary in the league this year (and the 21st best PER… a bargain).

    So, the Spurs only had 1 of the top 50 salaries in the league while the Heat have 3 of the top 10 salaries on their team…

    Again, doesn’t mean anything, just interesting is all.

    • kavika6 - Jun 16, 2014 at 3:01 AM

      It means that because the Spurs stars are so selfless and humble the team can afford a great bench, while greedy Heat stars have a trashy bench.

  5. themagicfanguy - Jun 15, 2014 at 10:23 PM

    It’s both dominant and reliable when you win nearly 50% of the titles in a given decade, just stop making yourself look foolish.

  6. loungefly74 - Jun 15, 2014 at 10:34 PM

    This team is well balanced…but I think the 2004 pistons were more so….just an opinion.

  7. davincizsp - Jun 15, 2014 at 10:45 PM

    I’m gonna vote Kawhi Leonard for finals MVP! New version of Paul George who is more reliable both offensively and defensively!

  8. csiegert4 - Jun 16, 2014 at 12:10 AM

    Not arguing your “balanced” point, b/c honestly who in the world cares? But to call Ben Wallace a superstar and to say that this Spurs team has none is absolutely laughable. While I’m not pretending PER isn’t without it’s flaws, it’s obviously hands down the best single stat there is in today’s NBA. And yes, it doesn’t measure defensive brilliance (in your case Ben Wallace) or inadequacy (such as Blake Griffin)…but it’s not THAT far off. With that, the best player on the Pistons that year was Rasheed Wallace (18.8 PER) and Chauncey Billups (18.6) (negligible difference). The Spurs had 4 players above the 18.8 mark including two with 20+ PER’s. If anything, the Spurs were loaded with stars. Kawhi Leonard has been praised all season, Tim Duncan is one of the games 5 greatest players, Tony Parker (while underrated) is a top 5 PG in the league easily, and everyone knows of Manu’s brilliance. You even had a bench player (Patrick Mills) who had an 18.7 PER this season.

    The Pistons played better in the playoffs, in terms of efficiency, than they did regular season…but to pretend the Pistons had better players, or stars, or whatever your arbitrary definition is, is asinine. The Spurs are hands down the better team, definitely, and they’re also hands down the most loaded team name wise in comparison to the Pistons with Chauncey Billups as their best player (no offense to Chauncey).

    • fanofthegame79 - Jun 16, 2014 at 12:54 AM

      Well said. And I’m glad you mentioned that the Spurs were a little more loaded than people make out.

  9. hackatomjones - Jun 16, 2014 at 9:29 AM

    Well, to be honest, as good as Parker is, I’ve always thought that Ginobili is better. In fact, I’ve always thought that Ginobili has been the Spurs’ best player overall during this championship tenure of the Spurs. When he’s at the top of his game, he’s as good as anyone. You might have noticed that the last game was turning into a rout until Ginobili entered the game. What did do, score 6 straight points and set up another 3, and within less than a minute, the score that had been 22-6, was suddenly 22-15.

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