It’s kind of unusual for people to be talking about the San Antonio Spurs at this time of year. Under normal circumstances, Gregg Popovich’s outfit would be doing its thing, coasting to a high seed in the NBA’s rugged Western Conference, as it has year after year, for the past couple of decades.
This season things are a little different though. The Spurs are currently fifth in the West with a record of 37-27. But with both Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge out injured, they’ve won just three of their last ten games and are at risk of slipping out of playoff contention all together.
The mere prospect is mind-boggling. Not least because the Spurs are a postseason mainstay, especially in the modern era. In fact, since the franchise became a part of the NBA in 1976, it’s missed out on the postseason on just four occasions. The most recent example of this bizarre phenomenon occurred in 1997, when San Antonio won just 20 regular season games. Of course, that was the year they “tanked for Timmy”. And it was worth it, as drafting a player widely regarded as the greatest power forward of all time sparked a postseason run that’s still intact today. It also helped deliver five NBA Championships and set a new benchmark for greatness in the league.
That said, the Tim Duncan era ended a couple of years ago. Even without him, the Spurs maintained their high standards last season, notching 61 regular season wins, before making it to the Western Conference Finals. There, they were swept by the Golden State Warriors. But not before Zaza Pachulia stepped under Kawhi Leonard as he took a jump shot, injuring his ankle while the Spurs led in Game 1. The now infamous incident sparked something of a “what if” scenario, as many still believe that with Leonard on the floor, San Antonio may have got the better of Golden State in that series.
Instead, Leonard’s injury woes mean he’s made just nine appearances this season, a factor that’s made it really difficult for the Spurs to be the Spurs that we’ve come to expect. Still, news broke this week suggesting that he may return in time for the postseason, and boy do they need him. They, after all, have just 18 games to secure a postseason berth, with the Timberwolves, Thunder, Clippers, Nuggets and Jazz all closing in fast.
The real problem is as much the rest of San Antonio’s roster as it is Leonard. Without him, they’re reliant on a bunch of aging stars and role players who’ve, quite frankly, seen better days. Aldridge, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobli, Pau Gasol, Danny Green and Rudy Gay are all great players in their own right, but all are past their prime. Dejounte Murray, Kyle Anderson, Bryn Forbes and Davis Bertans add a little spunk, but not a great deal of offense to a team that does, at times, lack scoring.
Realistically, it’s hard to see the Spurs causing much of a stir with this group come the postseason, especially as the Rockets and Warriors are already looking like Conference finalists, not to mention likely champions. But if Leonard does return in time to build some sort of momentum, that could change quickly. It is, after all, fair to assume that neither Houston or Golden State would want to face San Antonio in the first round, were they to slip to the 7th or 8th seed. While it’s also hard to predict how Portland, New Orleans, Minnesota, OKC etc. would fare in a 7-game series against the battle-hardened Spurs.
It’s important to get some perspective here. Remember, Popovich is one of the best and most successful coaches in the NBA and shouldn’t be counted out, especially when he has a healthy superstar at his disposal. Even without one, his team still has the second-best defense in the NBA and the third-best point differential in the West. If Leonard was fit and health, they’d likely be the third seed in the conference right now, busy bolstering their underdog status. But they’re not, and if they are to have a shot at postseason success, they need to get Leonard back into the fray as soon as possible.
As it’s hard to gauge when exactly that might happen, the immediate present looks uncertain. The future looks a little brighter for the team now though, as earlier this week Leonard told Tom Orsborn of San Antonio Express-News that he would like to finish his career in San Antonio.
Unfortunately the team’s pay roll is pretty jammed up for the next couple of years (thanks to the extensions they gave Aldridge and Gasol) and they’ll be reliant on convincing Green and Gay to turn down sizeable player options to free up space. If they’re able to do this and attract a couple of impactful free agents the summer after next, who knows how they might fare further down the line.
Right now the Spurs may be down, but it’s way too early to count them out.
Featured photo by Raj Mehta / USA TODAY Sports