Everyone is talking about the fact that no one is talking about the San Antonio Spurs. Gregg Popovich's perennial contenders are the NBA's worst-kept secret, and one season after winning 61 games, the Spurs are once again turning heads in the Western Conference.
Some will say the games after the All-Star break are the only games that matter, but taking stock of the season thus far sure beats pure guesswork. Based on the evidence, here are five things we've learned about the San Antonio Spurs so far.
Tony Parker was selected for his fourth All-Star appearance this year, and he has perhaps never been more deserving.
With Manu Ginobili sidelined for most of the season, Parker has stepped in as San Antonio's first option and looked like a premier superstar in the process. In his last 10 games going into the All-Star break, Parker's averaged 25.5 points and 8.2 assists while making 48 percent of his field-goal attempts.
His 3.14 assist to turnover ratio ranks fourth in the NBA, just ahead of some guy named Steve Nash.
Beyond the numbers, Parker's individual performances of late have been spectacular and seemingly scripted into the season's most clutch and defining moments. He scored a season-high 42 points and dished nine assists in an 11-point statement against Russell Westbrook and the conference-leading Thunder.
Two games later, Parker cooled off the impressive young 76ers with 37 points and another eight assists, dealing Philadelphia a rare home loss almost single-handedly. When faced with Chris Paul and the ever-hyped Los Angeles Clippers, Tony answered the bell with 30 and 10 in an overtime classic.
On the season, Parker's 22.5 player efficiency rating ranks sixth among point guards and 20th overall in the league (among players with enough playing time to qualify).
Named the MVP of the 2007 NBA Finals, Parker's talent and capability have never been in question. His ability to lead the Spurs when they needed him most is another story.
This season has gone a long way in putting those doubts to rest, and another Finals MVP might just be in sight.
If we've learned anything from Tim Duncan's remarkable career, it's that the lion's share of his contributions to the San Antonio Spurs don't show up in a box score.
The consummate team-first superstar, Duncan has continued to play first-rate defense while rebounding, passing, setting picks and doing all the other unheralded essentials that differentiate contenders from all the rest. While he's relinquished most of his scoring duties to Parker and a younger supporting cast, Duncan contributes points in key situations, along with countless pinpoint passes to the Spurs' marksmen from the post.
Though the numbers often hide his real value, Duncan still produces when needed. He's averaging 16.2 points, 10.9 rebounds and 1.9 blocks over his last 10 games, a compelling sample given the consistent 30-plus minutes he's played over that stretch.
His 21.4 player efficiency rating ranks seventh among centers in the NBA, and anyone watching the Spurs knows Duncan can still play when he actually gets minutes. His 11 double-doubles on the season won't drop any jaws, but it's telling that Duncan had six of those 11 double-doubles in his last seven games. The increased playing time Timmy amassed over the rodeo road trip has revealed flashes of the Big Fundamental's exceptional heyday.
In a season where most of the accolades have justifiably passed to a new generation of big men (like Kevin Love and Blake Griffin), Duncan is quietly reminding the NBA that he's still got game. San Antonio has proven it can compete without Manu Ginobili in the lineup. There's little doubt this team sans Duncan would not be so lucky.
Don't let San Antonio's 23-10 record fool you. This team's margin for error remains dangerously thin.
The Spurs' unraveling in last season's first round against the Memphis Grizzlies was a painful reminder that regular season standings only count for so much. With a thin front line and an offense that flounders when the three-pointers aren't falling, the Spurs are yearly favorites to take a "step back."
With Popovich at the helm, however, this team always finds a way to remain relevant.
Recently deemed the best coach "ever" by the Mavericks' Rick Carlisle, Popovich rallied his team to an 11-game winning streak in February and a 7-1 record in the first eight games of the Spurs' extended road trip. That one loss (which ended the streak) came in a blowout, as Pop rested both Duncan and Parker against Portland, a move that probably says more about his coaching acuity than the 11 wins do.
The last loss that preceded the impressive win streak came on the heels of a similar decision. Then, Popovich left his bench late into the game to come from 20 behind against Dallas and force overtime. Where mere mortals would have summoned Parker and Duncan to finish the job, Popovich left the same unit in.
While San Antonio lost that battle, Popovich's loyalty to his players eventually paid off. The team held its opposition under 100 points in each of the next eight contests, finally playing the kind of defense Pop preaches to the end.
Barring a collapse, Popovich has all but guaranteed his team a prized top-four seed in the Western Conference. And, he's done so with minimal contributions from the twice-injured Manu Ginobili.
Instead, Popovich has used the likes of un-drafted Gary Neal, Danny Green (a second-round pick) and rookie Kawhi Leonard to replace Manu's production. Whether or not he's the best coach in NBA history, he's almost certainly been its best this season.
When San Antonio acquired Kawhi Leonard on draft night in a trade that sent Popovich favorite George Hill to the Indiana Pacers, the Spurs added a young talent capable of becoming a legitimate star in this league.
When given the opportunity to play, Leonard has proven he can already contribute. In 43 minutes of action against the Trail Blazers this week, he racked up 24 points, 10 rebounds, five steals and a block. Known for his length, hustle and defense, Leonard has also shown the ability to shoot the three (35 percent on the season) and push the ball up the court. In short, he could be very good.
Perhaps more importantly, though, Gary Neal has continued to turn heads in his sophomore season with San Antonio, averaging 9.5 points off the bench and showing exceptional range. He hit a three-pointer to send the Spurs' match with the Clippers into overtime and then another to put San Antonio ahead for good.
Another 27-year-old in only his second NBA season hasn't been bad either. Tiago Splitter has bounced back from an injury-plagued rookie campaign to score 9.4 points off the bench while grabbing over five rebounds a game. His decision-making and aggressiveness are vastly improved, and his post play has benefited from years of polish in Europe.
Other youngsters (Danny Green, DeJuan Blair) have made important contributions as well. This isn't your typical Spurs roster. Gone are Robert Horry, Bruce Bowen, Antonio McDyess and the long list of aged veterans San Antonio brought into the fold for so many years. Popovich's team got a lot younger last season, and it continues to see the dividends, as this supporting cast has filled in admirably for the oft-injured Manu Ginobili.
Writing off the San Antonio Spurs appears to be something of a yearly ritual. The logic makes sense. Duncan is almost 36. Ginobili is a 34-year-old magnet for pain. And, with multiple rings already, the "Big Three" may just not have the fire and urgency to make it through another postseason.
Don't be so sure.
Tony Parker is playing arguably the best basketball of his career, and when Tim Duncan's minutes spike in the playoffs, he just might surprise a few people as well. It should go without saying that it's never a great idea to count Gregg Popovich's team out.
Yes, the front-line depth is thin. DeJuan Blair is undersized. Tiago Splitter is untested. Matt Bonner isn't going to block many shots.
That said, this team has beaten anyone and everyone that matters in the Western Conference in spite of conventional wisdom. The Thunder? Check. Mavericks? Check. Clippers? Check and check. Grizzlies? Three checks.
It's unlikely San Antonio will make it through the Finals having lost only two games in the postseason (as it did in 1999 when the season was similarly shortened by a lockout). The Spurs will have to contend with the Lakers' seven-footers. They will have to slow down the Thunder's explosive scoring output. And, should they make it that far, the Miami Heat have "Goliath" written all over them.
It won't be easy, but nor has it ever been. San Antonio has found a way to gut it out more often than not.
Until injuries derailed this team late last season, it was the most successful in the Western Conference. This season's team, despite a slightly inferior record, is almost certainly better.
Last year, the Spurs inflated their win column largely on the backs of wins against sub-.500 teams. This season has been another story entirely. The marquee matchups have gone San Antonio's way with rare exception, and mostly without Ginobili.
Manu should be able to return in ample time to find his rhythm before the playoffs, and when he does, don't be surprised if this team has another run in them. As of the All-Star break, the Western Conference has learned that it just might.