As good as the Spurs have been during the last 16 years, there is an inevitable point each season when gloomy forecasts surface. We had one here recently.
At times, doubts are legitimate. The Spurs have won five titles, but 11 other times, they had problems that kept them from winning, although some of those can be traced to the excellence of opponents.
When a team like the Lakers had Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant in their primes, losing to them was not a weakness.
At other times, however, the concerns about the Spurs seem forced. A few days ago I did a Google search for the Spurs and problems, and up popped a story from January 2014 that pointed out the Spurs’ 33-11 record at the time was deceiving. Of the 11 losses, 10 had been from teams with records that would have placed them in the playoffs. Against superior competition, the Spurs were not that good.
They went on to win the championship.
Compared to last year, however, the Spurs are indeed struggling – at least for them. They currently have only the seventh-best record in the Western Conference and the teams ahead of them show no signs of fading.
They also have behind them in the standings an Oklahoma City team that has played 23 games without Kevin Durant and 14 without Russell Westbrook. The Thunder will be making some noise going forward and certainly the New Orleans Pelicans are also looming close to the playoffs.
In years past, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has wanted his team to play well enough to get a top four seed and home court advantage in the first round. But he never has feared the road, saying if a team is going to win a title, it has to win away from home.
That changed, in part, after Game 6 of the 2013 Finals when the Spurs lost a five-point lead in the last 28 seconds – leading the series 3-2 at the time – and went on to lose the game and the series to the Heat in Miami.
Although Popovich did his usual masterful job managing minutes – no player averaged as many as 30 minutes a game – the Spurs were on more of a mission last season, motivated by the frustration of losing in the Finals for the first time as a franchise. They wanted to get home court advantage throughout the playoffs. They did and used it to their full advantage, defeating the Heat in five games and celebrating the deciding victory on their home court.
They were so much better than anyone else at playoff time that it seemed likely they would carry the momentum into this season. With LeBron James leaving for Cleveland and breaking up the super team in Miami, who would challenge a Spurs team that played some of the most beautiful basketball in NBA Finals history last year?
For years, the Spurs have been characterized as too old. That had always been silly criticism but obviously each year, they get closer to that observation finally being accurate.
Oddly, however, this season the problem has been youth – specifically Kawhi Leonard, who has missed 12 of the last 14 games because of a right hand injury that Popovich says will heal later than sooner.
With the 23-year-old Leonard in street clothes, the Spurs give up 10 additional points per 100 possessions. That’s about an average number of possessions per game, so the problem is obvious.
Since the Spurs have no one to replace Leonard – the MVP of the Finals and a second team All-Defensive team selection last season – the only way to combat the loss of defense is more offense, which means more minutes for Tim Duncan, 38, and Manu Ginobili, 37. And Popovich enjoys playing them big minutes about as much as he does giving third quarter interviews.
While Popovich has never obsessed about positioning, positioning has been important.
In the Spurs’ five championship seasons, they have been the top seed in the conference three times and the third seed twice. But in each of those Finals, they had the home court advantage. The only time they did not was 2012-13, and they lost to the Heat.
In the 16 years of excellence for the Spurs, there has only been one season when they did not have the home court advantage in the first playoff round. That was in 2009-10 when they upset the second-seeded Mavericks in the first round and lost to the Suns in the conference semifinals.
The one small piece of the Spurs’ legacy that is missing is winning consecutive titles. It is more a matter of pride than a negative, but it is something that would be a significant accomplishment.
But history suggests that to win another title, the Spurs must at least have the home court advantage in the first round. The last team to win a championship with four series starting on the road was the 1994-95 Rockets, who were the sixth seed in the West. The Knicks made the Finals as an eighth seed in 1998-99, but that was a season shortened to 50 games because of a labor dispute.
December was a difficult month for the Spurs – their 8-10 record was the worst of the Duncan era. But they also had 18 games in the month, including two stretches of five games in seven nights and seven back-to-back games.
Popovich rested Duncan in four of those games, but when the Spurs had consecutive three-overtime games against Memphis and Portland, Duncan played 48 and 43 minutes, respectively.
If March and April arrive and Duncan is having to play those kind of minutes, it doesn’t bode well for having him fresh for four playoff series.
Last spring, the Spurs made winning the title look so easy, but right now the outlook is, well, a little gloomy. If they are able to win another one, it is going to look and be a lot harder.
Jan Hubbard has written about basketball since 1976 and worked in the NBA league office for eight years between media stints. Follow him on Twitter at @whyhub.
CELEBRATING NAISMITH ON BASKETBALL’S 123RD ANNIVERSARY
MAGIC, LIKE MICHAEL, HAS A COMPETITION PROBLEM
TANKING USED TO BE SO MUCH MORE FUN
LAKERS ARE ALL KOBE, ALL THE TIME
DIRK NOWITZKI-LARRY BIRD: STILL NOT A VALID COMPARISON
MICHELE ROBERTS’ POSTURING REMINISCENT OF STERN
KYRIE WILL FIND OUT THAT LeBRON IS GOOD AT SHARING
SHOULD HARDEN TRADE STILL BE CURSED FOR THUNDER?
LAKERS ARE WORTHY OF, AHEM, PRIME TIME
A 44-MINUTE GAME? WHAT WOULD WILT SAY?
SMART MONEY IS ON THE SPURS