In Perspective: Fifty Wins, Thirteen Seasons.
About 20 games ago, our very own Andrew McNeill brought up the remote possibility that the Spurs could win out the string and keep the 50 win streak alive. I didn’t say it then, but I thought he was a bit nuts. At the time he mentioned it (if I remember the timing right), the Spurs had just beaten Indiana at home, making them 34-14 on the season. In order to keep the streak alive, the Spurs were going to need to win 16 of their last 18 games. Six of those 18 were against teams that would be playoff teams, with two more against a team that wouldn’t make it (either the Suns or the Jazz). There were seven back-to-back games left in the season, including a back-to-back-to-back. Given Pop’s promise to sit Tim and Manu on back to backs and the patterns he’d grown into with his rotations and playoff rest, it was hard to imagine the Spurs winning that many even if all the chips fell in their favor. When the Spurs lost two in a row — one a “let’s sit everyone” loss and the other an embarrassing blemish to the Los Angeles Lakers at home, I felt pretty confident that Andrew’s hopes were dashed. The Spurs weren’t going to end the season with 10 straight wins, were they?
And now, well. I look like a right fool, don’t I?
• • •
One of the more impressive things about this particular 50-win season isn’t simply how few games they accomplished it in (which is obviously impressive and must be mentioned in any discussion of how improbable this regular season was), but also how few lucky breaks the Spurs actually got this season. A few of the things that went wrong for the Spurs, all of which probably should have led to the streak’s untimely demise:
- As you may remember, the Spurs started the year 2-8 on the road. After that inauspicious start, they finished the year 20-3 on the road, making their final road record (22-11) the second best road record in the league. Not only that, their road winning percentage (66%) marks the 2nd best in franchise history, behind only 1995’s 29-12 road record. Suffice to say, Robinson’s 1995 team didn’t start the season 2-8 on the road. (They did start 2-4, though. Methinks we’re not allowed to overreact to bad road starts anymore.)
- Despite winning 50 of 66 games, the Spurs had significantly worse regular season star-participation than they’ve had the last two seasons. In 2010 and 2011 combined, the Spurs’ star trio missed 49 out of a possible 246 games among the three of them. In 2012, they missed 46 out of a possible 198 games. Three fewer games missed, forty eight fewer games they could’ve missed. Part of this, of course, was by design — Pop intentionally sat the big three far more often than they sat for injury (and, we may remind, essentially tanked four games this season and went 2-2 in contests without any of the big 3 on the court).
- The Spurs started the season 12-9. That means, for those keeping track, that this year’s team took 21 games to get their first nine losses. The 2011 Spurs started the season 44-9 — meaning that they took 53 games to record their ninth loss. It was one of the 10 best starts to a season in NBA history. But, despite the obvious disparity in how they started, the 2012 Spurs still ended up with a better regular season win percentage than the 2011 edition. That’s… downright eldritch.
In terms of what the streak means on a full-on historical basis, the Spurs now have sole possession of the longest 50-win season streak in NBA history. The Mavericks’ streak (ongoing until this year) was snapped at 11 seasons straight, and the team they used to be tied with (the 1979-1991 Los Angeles Lakers) only had 12 seasons straight. If you switch the streak to a win percentage of 60% to account for the fact that the NBA season was shorter during the 1960s Celtics run, the Spurs move ahead of both the aforementioned Lakers and the 1956-1968 Boston Celtics — though their streak is also extended to a 15 year run in that parametrization, as they won over 60% of their games in 1998 and 1999. No matter how you slice it, the Spurs’ 13 years of 50-win excellence is essentially unparalleled in NBA history. The number of teams that even came close to the Spurs’ accomplishment can be counted on one hand — the Russell Celtics, the Showtime Lakers, and the Nowitzki-Cuban Mavericks. Pretty nice company. (Wait, the Mavs? What are you guys doing here? Jeez, guys.)
• • •
So, in short, an interesting thing happened on the way to the playoffs this year. The Spurs bench, their starters, their scrubs — the whole team, really — simply forgot how to lose. The 50 win streak goes on to live another year. And Andrew — whose prognostication I’d written off as soon as it fell from his lips — gets the last laugh.
Honestly, I don’t ever remember being this happy to be wrong.