For more than two decades, Gregg Popovich — head coach of the San Antonio Spurs — has been teaching a course which could be titled: “How an NBA team can win basketball games without high draft picks.” This course has defied the conventional wisdom that without many high-draft picks an NBA team can’t succeed. The fact that it has continued for 21 years suggests that conventional wisdom is wrong.
The story of this course begins in December of 1996. At that time the Spurs were 3-15 and the team’s general manager — Gregg Popovich — decided to fire the team’s head coach (Bob Hill). The coach the Spurs decided to hire was Popovich. Prior to taking this position, Popovich had never been a head coach in the NBA. In fact, his only head coaching experience was at Pomona-Pitzer, a college team that played Division III basketball. And initially, it didn’t look like the decision to go with Popovich was likely to work out. Across the last 64 games of the 1996-97 season, Popovich and the Spurs only won 17 more times. So, it’s fair to say that Popovich and the Spurs didn’t get off to a great start.
The next season, though, the fortunes of the team change. In 1997 the Spurs drafted Tim Duncan with the first pick in the NBA draft. In addition, David Robinson — a former number one pick — returned from injury. Behind Duncan and Robinson, the Spurs won 56 games in 1997-98. And the next season the Spurs won 74% of their regular season games and their first NBA title.
The Spurs continued to win with Duncan and Robinson from 1999-00 to 2002-03; even winning another NBA title in 2003. But then Robinson retired. Despite this departure, the winning continued. In 2005 and 2007 the Spurs again won NBA titles. And although the Spurs have only managed to win one more title since 2007 (in 2014), one constant has remained. In every regular season — beginning in 1997-98 — the Spurs have finished the regular season with a winning record.
For 21 consecutive seasons, the Spurs have won more games than they lost. Such a streak has never happened before in NBA history. Here are the five longest streaks after the Spurs:
- Utah Jazz: 19 seasons (1985-86 to 2003-04)
- Los Angeles Lakers: 16 seasons (1976-77 to 1991-92)
- Boston Celtics: 14 seasons (1955-56 to 1968-69 & 1979-80 to 1992-93)
- Portland Trail Blazers: 14 seasons (1989-90 to 2002-03)
The majority of these streaks occurred in the 20th century. No team in the 21st century has really come close to what Popovich and the Spurs have accomplished.
Of course, one might argue that it really isn’t Popovich. In fact, it isn’t even about winning without lottery picks. Again, in 1997 the Spurs added Duncan and suddenly the winning started. So, maybe this is just a story about the Spurs winning the lottery in 1997.
There is no doubt Duncan was an immensely good NBA player. When we transform Duncan’s box score statistics into a measure of Duncan’s Wins Produced we see that across his 19-year career he produced 213.3 regular season wins. Yes, this is impressive. But across the last 21 seasons, the Spurs won 1,180 regular season games. So, Duncan — by himself — only produced 18.1% of the Spurs wins. And the last two years the Spurs have posted winning records without Duncan on the roster.
All that suggests — as the following list reveals — Duncan had quite a bit of help. Here are the top 15 players in Wins Produced during the Spurs amazing run. These players combined for the production of 817.6 wins (or nearly 70% of all regular season wins across the last 21 years).
- Tim Duncan: 213.3 Wins Produced, 18.1% of total
- Manu Ginobili: 125.9 Wins Produced, 10.7% of total
- Tony Parker: 87.8 Wins Produced, 7.4% of total
- Kawhi Leonard: 72.3 Wins Produced, 6.1% of total
- David Robinson: 68.3 Wins Produced, 5.8% of total
- Danny Green: 47.4 Wins Produced, 4.0% of total
- Bruce Bowen: 34.9 Wins Produced, 3.0% of total
- Matt Bonner: 24.5 Wins Produced, 2.1% of total
- Brent Barry: 24.1 Wins Produced, 2.0% of total
- Malik Rose: 22.7 Wins Produced, 1.9% of total
- Kyle Anderson: 20.7 Wins Produced, 1.8% of total
- Tiago Splitter: 20.7 Wins Produced, 1.8% of total
- Avery Johnson: 19.2 Wins Produced, 1.6% of total
- Terry Porter: 18.4 Wins Produced, 1.6% of total
- DeJuan Blair: 17.3 Wins Produced, 1.5% of total
We generally think an NBA team needs to select lottery picks (i.e. players taken at the top of the draft by non-playoff teams) to succeed in the NBA. But the Spurs amazing run hasn’t been led by many lottery picks. Yes, Duncan and Robinson were number one draft picks. But none of the other players on this list were lottery picks. And Ginobili, Green, Bowen, Bonner, Rose, Johnson, and Blair weren’t even taken in the first round.
Yes, Popovich has won with players that every other team passed on. That suggests that Popovich is a big part of this story. An academic study of NBA coaching also suggests Popovich has been key.
A few years ago I was part of a team of researchers investigating the impact NBA head coaches had on the performance of NBA players. The primary lesson from this research is that the vast majority of head coaches had no statistical impact on player productivity. There were, though, a few exceptions to this lesson. One of these exceptions was Popovich. Unlike most NBA head coaches, it does appear that players tend to get better when they come to the Popovich and the Spurs.
Why this happens is unclear. But the data does indicate that when players come to the Spurs they start producing more wins. A recent example (not part of the original study) highlights this story. For most of his career, Rudy Gay was simply not as productive as his scoring totals and pay suggested. Last season, though, Gay came to the Spurs. Suddenly at 31 years of age — an age where performance tends to decline – Gay offered the best per-minute performance in his career. One reason for this change is that with the Spurs, Gay was above average with respect to both rebounds and shooting efficiency.
Gay’s improvement is consistent with what we have seen from Popovich for more than two decades. But can he keep the winning streak alive in 2018-19?
Not only does Popovich go into this season without Duncan, Ginobili, or Parker (the three most productive players in the Popovich era), he also doesn’t have any of the aforementioned fifteen players who produced nearly 70% of the wins seen during the Popovich era.
Although the players on the 2018-19 team haven’t produced much for the Spurs in the past, the list of players who — like Rudy Gay (a small forward) — were above average last year would include point guard Dejounte Murray, shooting guard DeMar DeRozan, power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, and centers Pau Gasol and Jakob Poeltl. In sum, the Spurs can field an entire starting five of players who have been above-average performers in the past. Once again, Popovich tends to make players better. So, it’s possible these players will do even more and others will also get better.
DeRozan, Gay, Aldridge, Gasol, and Poeltl were lottery picks. None of these, though, were selected by the Spurs. So, if San Antonio does continue the streak it would mean the class Popovich has been teaching has changed a bit. For 21 years Popovich has demonstrated that he can win with many players who were not lottery picks. If the Spurs win in 2018-19 it will demonstrate that Popovich can win with a few lottery-picks other teams allowed to depart. Even if this does happen, though, the Spurs success will continue to show that you don’t necessarily need to select players at the top of the draft to win consistently in the NBA.
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