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Spurs face toughest challenge yet in quest for back-to-back titles

The Spurs are 0-for-4 in repeat tries in the Popovich Era, will this season buck the trend?

The Spurs' narrow loss to the rejuvenated Pistons on Tuesday highlighted the gap between the two franchises. It was a high point for the once-lowly Pistons, while the Spurs, who are less focused on winning games and more concerned with winning championships, more or less shrugged off the loss.

Even with the organization’s larger focus on the postseason year in and year out, there is one accomplishment that has always eluded the defending champion Spurs -- they’ve never won back-to-back NBA Finals.

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In fact, last year’s Spurs-Heat rematch was the first time in San Antonio history the team reached the Finals in two consecutive years. Making it to three in a row is not an impossible task, something we’ve seen the Celtics, Pistons, Bulls, Lakers and Heat pull off since the 1980s.

Winning two in a row however, especially for this current iteration of the Spurs -- who are currently tied for third in title odds with the Cavaliers, per Bovada — could prove too difficult. 

It’s a tricky process assessing the Spurs. Gregg Popovich’s deep rotations and frequent rests for star players means the regular season isn’t a complete picture of what San Antonio will look like come playoff time. But this year’s Spurs team has proven to be quite different -- statistically and situationally -- than their past teams which failed to repeat.

First and foremost, the Spurs’ record is not indicative of postseason success. At 21-15, San Antonio’s .583 win percentage would be the team’s lowest since 1997, the year they won the Tim Duncan lottery. Obviously injuries have played a factor, but no team with a winning percentage under .600 has won a championship since the 1995 Rockets.

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The Spurs have also seen a decline in both their offense and defense.

Their net rating of 4.4, currently No. 7 in the league, would be their lowest finish in a post-championship season. Their next-lowest finish was sixth, in 2008. The three other times the Spurs won a title, they followed up with a top-three net rating season the next year, including No. 1 twice. The last team to win the Finals with a sub-4 net rating was the 2001 Lakers, who had Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, two dominant forces in a playoff series.

Kawhi Leonard, the reigning Finals MVP, has been injured for much of this season, a large contributing factor to the Spurs’ relative struggles. Leonard is an obvious key to the team’s success. He led San Antonio in Win Shares last year, becoming the first Spur not named Duncan, Parker or Ginobili to pull off the feat since David Robinson.

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Leonard has played in only 22 games this season, and will reportedly miss another two weeks with a torn ligament in his hand. If he returns on Jan. 20, he will have missed six more games, giving him at most a potential 62 games played this season. If Leonard does play all 62 and the Spurs win the title, it would be the fewest games played by a defending Finals MVP in a repeat season since 1980.

Past San Antonio repeat attempts were also routinely sunk by seismic shifts in the league, typically involving Los Angeles.

In 2000, the Lakers hired Phil Jackson to coach Kobe and Shaq. In 2004, the Lakers added Gary Payton and Karl Malone en route to winning the West. In 2008, the Lakers traded for PauGasolmidseason before reaching the Finals. The 2006 Spurs had a great chance to repeat, but a late foul by Ginobili in Game 7 of the West semifinals on Dirk Nowitzki swung the series in the other way.

Only one of the six teams currently ahead of San Antonio in this year’s West race has dramatically altered their roster — Dallas, who added Rajon Rondo and Chandler Parsons to create an offensive juggernaut. The other five teams have largely the same rosters, although the Warriors have benefited greatly from the addition of head coach Steve Kerr.

If any team is prepared to buck these historical trends, it’s the Spurs, who’ve earned the benefit of the doubt with an all-time great coach and the best player of his generation. The factors to keep an eye on moving forward will be Leonard’s health and a potential uptick in net rating.

The Spurs have made fools of skeptics counting them out, but this year's squad certainly has the franchise's toughest climb to a repeat title.