Unfamiliar territory for one of the NBA’s elite teams.
It’s been two decades since the Spurs have found themselves in this position. Right now, a slim three-game lead on the ninth-place Denver Nuggets in the chaotic Western Conference is the only thing keeping the team from missing the playoffs for the first time since the ‘96-‘97 season.
While the Spurs recently reeled off a six-game winning streak, that stretch feels triggered by desperation. In past years, the team’s well-oiled machine could have rattled off four or five or six straight wins in its sleep.
Optimistic fans can attribute the Spurs’ struggles to the absence of their leading man, Kawhi Leonard. The fiasco surrounding his potential return to the court has been well-chronicled, and the Spurs have shown a new level of vulnerability in his absence this season. They’re in the bottom half of the league offensively, which is a far cry from years past; they’ve been a consistent top-10 offensive team since the ‘09-‘10 season.
Outside of LaMarcus Aldridge, the Spurs have zero players scoring 12 or more points per game. Basketball savants can attribute some of that to the Spurs’ signature share-the-ball style, but it’s more than that. They rank 28th in points per game (102.4). This is one of Pop’s least-talented rosters. Mainstays like Manu Ginóbili and Tony Parker are way beyond their prime, and Aldridge lacks the consistency, defensive ability,and overall dominance that Tim Duncan provided during his time. Dejounte Murray is a good, young prospect, but he’s not ready to step into a truly significant role for this team (7.7 PPG, 2.8 APG).
Overall, the Spurs are simply missing their edge. They lack the spark and scoring prowess that they’ve traditionally had. The Spurs used to be the cookie-cutter example of a team that was never overly reliant on talent, but this season’s scoring struggles prove that even the most unselfish of teams need their playmakers. The 25.5 PPG and all-world defense that Leonard provided last season would obviously be of great help right now, but the fact that the superstar continues to ride the bench with what Spurs doctors are calling a phantom leg injury is an indictment on their previously impeccable culture.
They’ve always had the reputation of a team that’s overly cautious with its talent. How many times have we seen Popovich sit his stars out for much-anticipated games? If the Spurs have cleared you to play, it means they think you are 100% ready to go. This makes Kawhi’s trepidation perplexing, but only he can truly know his health, and the reported players-only meeting to address his refusal to return to the court will prove to only exasperate the situation.
Spurs fans have dreams of seeing that Kawhi-led team again this season, the one that was running roughshod with a 25-point lead over the eventual NBA champion Warriors before Zaza Pachulia struck another victim with his well-documented antics. However, like Ginóbili told reporters in San Antonio, it’s best that the Spurs assume “he’s not coming back, because it’s not helping (to hope that he will).”
Assuming the Spurs can hang on and make the playoffs for the 21st consecutive time, they need to take the level of play that they’ve displayed over their recent winning streak and find a way to consistently duplicate it. Despite their struggles to score for most of the season, they are an elite defensive team, holding their opponents to a league-best 99.1 PPG. They also rank second in overall defensive rating (104.1), and they’ve held four of their last six opponents to fewer than 95 points.
However, the difference over the streak has been their ability to turn it on offensively. When they’ve needed to score, they’ve responded, scoring 124 and 117 points to beat the Jazz and Timberwolves, respectively. In each of those games, the Spurs got 39 or more points from Aldridge to go along with 40 or more bench points and a combined 30+ points from the other four starters. While it’s hard to expect that kind of output from Aldridge consistently in a playoff atmosphere, it’s safe to say that the Spurs will at least need Aldridge’s A-game and a similar combined effort from the rest of the roster to score enough points to win playoff games.
In addition, San Antonio can use a bigger lineup that is +30.7 against opponents by playing Parker and Green in the backcourt, with Anderson, Pau Gasol, and Aldridge up front. However, Parker’s days of playing extended minutes are over and if they were to use bigger lineups like this for a series against a team like Oklahoma City, Mills or Murray would be more heavily used.
Overall, the Spurs have to make the most of what’s available to them. Anything can happen in the NBA playoffs, but they’re guaranteed to be bounced out in the first round if they don’t make Kawhi an afterthought, at least for the remainder of this season. They have enough experience, leadership, and discipline to be a tough matchup for any team in the West. They won’t beat themselves (fifth in turnovers per game) — at least, not on the court — but distracting themselves by focusing on Kawhi will get them beat before the opening tip.
If “The Claw” makes his way back onto the court, NBA fans will rejoice, but it can’t be any of the Spurs’ players concern until it actually happens. Otherwise, they’ll be wondering what happened to this season by the middle of May.
Edited by Emily Berman.
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