The San Antonio Spurs franchise embodies professionalism and consistent excellence. The team has won at least 60 percent of its games every year since the 1997-98 season and has also compiled five NBA championships.
Naturally, some amazing players have contributed to that success.
But along with some special talents from the team’s recent run of success, the Spurs have had a long history of great players before them. From George Gervin to James Silas, from Alvin Robertson to Larry “Special K” Kenon, the Spurs have trotted out plenty of stars since the team joined the ABA as the Dallas Chaparrals in 1967.
Thanks to Shaquille O’Neal and the endless debates he’s started, there’s no better time than the present to determine which group of Spurs would make the best five-man lineup.
Deciding the criteria for this endeavor gets super tricky — do players have to play their primary positions? Are the selections based on how good a player was during his prime with the Spurs or is it based on his overall body of work with the team? And are we trying to create a squad with good on-court chemistry or just pick the best player at each position?
Since this is my list, and since it’s more fun to think about how players from different eras will mesh, I’m going to look at a combination of the player’s accomplishments in the Silver and Black and how good his prime with the Spurs was. I’ll also take positions and how players will fit heavily into account.
THE MOST HONORABLE MENTION: Manu Ginobili
Spurs fans, before you bring out the hatchets, just hear me out.
Manu Ginobili is undoubtedly a top five player in franchise history. He’s won four championships in San Antonio and is a surefire Hall of Famer, based on an excellent NBA career as well as some great accomplishments in international play.
My fondest memories of the Argentinian shooting guard came during the 2005 NBA Finals. The floppy-haired Ginobili was a tough matchup even for the Detroit Pistons’ stingy defense:
But Gregg Popovich has used Ginobili as his playmaker and scorer extraordinaire off the bench most of the Argentinian guard’s career. Why shouldn’t I?
As you peruse through my lineup, hopefully you’ll begin to realize why Ginobili retains his spot as sixth man extraordinaire of the Spurs’ all-time team. His skill set is better suited to running the second unit’s offense than blending in with other ball-dominant players.
Point guard: Tony Parker (2001-present)
Career stats with Spurs: 16.9 points, 2.9 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.1 blocks, 18.9 PER, 0.147 win shares per 48 minutes
Parker is the easy choice here.
Avery Johnson and James Silas are worthy of mention, but Tony has more championship rings (four) and All-Star appearances (six) than Johnson and Silas combined (one and two, respectively).
Not only is the Frenchman’s career resume pretty darn impressive, his great prime makes him even more of a no-brainer. Parker at his best has prompted bold proclamations like this:
Hate it or love it…Parker IS the 3rd best player in the ENTIRE NBA. Period. Behind only LBJ & KD.
— Jalen Rose (@JalenRose) May 28, 2013
The Frenchman has been the ideal floor general of Gregg Popovich’s nuanced offensive system with his patience and all-around skills on that end of the court. His quickness has been on the decline for several seasons now, but he’s been able to maintain a high level of play with an improved jump shot and better timing on his darts to the rim.
His 2014-15 campaign, however, was injury-filled and disappointing. Let’s hope he can get back on track this fall with some more progression in his old-man game.
Shooting guard: George Gervin (1974-1985)
Career stats with Spurs: 27.3 points, 5.6 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.3 steals, 1.1 blocks, 21.8 PER, 0.166 win shares per 48 minutes
Unfortunately, my lack of experience on Earth has prevented me from ever watching George Gervin play basketball live.
Thankfully, YouTube has plenty of footage of him in action, and Basketball-Reference has us covered in terms of statistics.
Below is my favorite compilation of Gervin’s career highlights. His game is certainly different than what we see from players now:
Nicknamed “Iceman” for his calm demeanor on the court, Gervin had impeccable touch on his shot and a tireless attacking mentality that helped him average 26.2 points during his NBA career (and 21.9 during his ABA career). That mark ranks him ninth in league history.
He did struggle on the defensive end of the court, and he could never lead the offensive-minded Spurs to a title, but he’s a legend nonetheless.
Small forward: Kawhi Leonard (2011-present)
Career stats with Spurs: 12.3 points, 6.1 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.6 blocks, 18.8 PER, 0.185 win shares per 48 minutes
This is a bold choice here. Some of you may call it downright dumb. I totally get it — Kawhi’s a young blood with only four years of NBA experience.
But in terms of fit, who’s a better selection here?
You could move Manu Ginobili to the 2 and push Gervin to the 3, but that’s not the Iceman’s natural position. He was 6’7″ and only 180 pounds and could be overwhelmed by bigger small forwards. That’s also a mediocre defensive trio and would be a lot of offensive mouths to feed on the perimeter.
Mike Mitchell was a nice scorer, but his talents and mindset are also redundant with the offensive-minded games of Parker and Gervin.
Sean Elliott was an excellent all-around player — but is he the ideal option to shut down the opponent’s best perimeter defender? He’s solid on that end, but definitely not a stud of Kawhi’s magnitude.
Bruce Bowen is a really good fit here. He made eight All-Defensive Teams for the Spurs and is a low-maintenance offensive player.
However, Leonard is pretty much Bowen’s equal on defense with a bunch of extra talent on the other end. The Claw can fade into the background on offense when needed, but you also can’t hide a defender on him, or he’ll make the opposition pay.
For you sentimentalists, this may feel like a dis to the great small forwards of San Antonio’s past who possess more experience in the Silver and Black. But this is more of a testament to what Leonard has already accomplished in just four years: a Finals MVP and a Defensive Player of the Year award, most notably.
The 24-year-old’s prime is yet to come, but you can already make his case as a top 10 player in the league. That’s nuts.
Power forward: Malik Rose (1997-2005)
Career stats with Spurs: 7.5 points, 4.8 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.5 blocks, 15.2 PER, 0.130 win shares per 48 minutes
Malik Rose was the heart and soul of two Spurs championship runs. There’s really no other option here.
Power forward: Tim Duncan (1997-present)
Career stats with Spurs: 19.5 points, 11.0 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 0.7 steals, 2.2 blocks, 24.5 PER, 0.211 win shares per 48 minutes
The Big Fundamental is a guy you can play with any lineup. In his prime, he was a reliable No. 1 scoring option for the Spurs with deadly face-up and back-to-the-basket games. He developed a respectable mid-range jumper as his physical gifts declined, and he’s remained an All-Star caliber player even at 39 years old.
And don’t get me started about his underrated defense:
His name probably won’t come up as one of the best stoppers in NBA history, but Timmy leads all players with 15 All-Defensive Team selections (seven of those First-Team nominations) in his career, three more than anyone else has achieved. Somehow, he’s never won the Defensive Player of the Year award, despite his impeccable timing and positioning on that end.
Let’s just say San Antonio’s all-time squad will be in good hands with No. 21 starting at power forward.
Center: David Robinson (1989-2003)
Career stats with Spurs: 21.1 points, 10.6 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.4 steals, 3.0 blocks, 26.2 PER, 0.250 win shares per 48 minutes
David Robinson is the icing on the cake for the Spurs’ “impenetrable wall” frontcourt.
Leonard, Duncan and Big Dave have compiled 25 All-Defensive Team selections between them, a number that’ll climb even higher by the end of Leonard and Duncan’s careers.
Robinson was, statistically, maybe the best center in NBA history. His career win shares per 48 minutes rank him second among all players, behind only Michael Jordan. His player efficiency rating put him behind only three other guys. At 7’1″ and 235 pounds, he ran like a gazelle, jumped with explosiveness and grace and was just a monster near the rim on both ends of the court:
The knock on “The Admiral” always was his lack of killer instinct in the playoffs, but he still ended up winning two rings once Duncan came along.
Man, can you imagine how good those Twin Towers would’ve been if both were in their MVP-level primes? That’s a scary thought.
Note: All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com
Previous all-time starting fives: Bulls, Pistons, Thunder-Sonics, Magic, Mavericks, Heat, Lakers, Wizards, Pacers, Raptors, Knicks, Bucks, Nuggets, Celtics, Grizzlies, Rockets, Pelicans-Hornets-Jazz, Clippers, Jazz