Another year, another San Antonio Spurs team sitting comfortably in the thick of the Western Conference playoff picture.
As always, Tony Parker is slicing up opposing defenses, Manu Ginobili is making absurd shots off the dribble, Tim Duncan is providing all the fundamentals on both ends and Gregg Popovich is managing minutes like a madman.
But something feels slightly different this year.
It could just be the inevitable hangover from being one rebound away from winning the 2013 title, but the Spurs have looked lackluster against the league’s top teams despite their strong overall record.
They’re 5-0 against the Golden State Warriors, Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks, but there is no way they can expect to make it back to the NBA Finals without beating at least one of those top five teams.
Obviously, losing to the league’s top teams is nothing to be ashamed of, but the Spurs’ inability to win against the elite is a troubling trend and could signal that this San Antonio team, as currently constructed, does not have what it takes to win a championship.
Duncan, Parker and Ginobili aren’t getting any better, and Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green have not taken the steps forward that many expected after their strong finals performances.
That leaves a trade as the most obvious way for the Spurs to improve, and while San Antonio is not a wheeling-and-dealing team, it has been known to make midseason moves in the past, including acquiring Stephen Jackson from the Golden State Warriors in 2012.
A trade is far from a guarantee, and it’s not as if the Spurs are clinging to an eighth seed. But let’s explore some of the possible types of deals San Antonio could make and whether it would be a good idea for the historically dominant franchise to shake things up a little.
Eliminating Roster Redundancy
The Spurs pride themselves on having a deep rotation and getting their aging stars plenty of rest during the regular season, but San Antonio’s roster may actually have too many similar pieces for its own good.
Twelve Spurs have played in 21 or more games, and all but three San Antonio players are averaging double-digit minutes on the season.
Part of that is due to injuries, but even when the Spurs are healthy, they have been trotting out a surprisingly deep unit. They are often giving both Cory Joseph and Patty Mills minutes in addition to Parker, while Tiago Splitter, Boris Diaw and Jeff Ayres are all splitting frontcourt minutes with Duncan.
Not all of these players are going to see minutes in the playoffs, and it may make sense for the Spurs to try to package up a few of these players in deals to bring in a productive, guaranteed contributor.
Because the Spurs are such a system-oriented team, it is easy for them to just plug players into spots and have them produce, as evidenced by their success turning Mills and Green into rotation players, but that does not mean running 12 guys on the court every game is the right decision.
In the 2013 playoffs, the Spurs effectively cut down to a nine-man rotation, with Joseph receiving some spot minutes, and it could pay dividends to swing a deal for an athletic combo forward to play behind or alongside Leonard.
Additionally, the excellent play of Marco Belinelli off the bench has made Green into somewhat of an afterthought, and he has since been moved out of the starting lineup.
San Antonio owns its first-round pick in 2014, and while it will likely be near the end of the draft, many teams are so bullish on the upcoming class that they could still see it as a very attractive chip.
There are much worse things than having too many quality players, but the Spurs have enough positional overlap that packaging up a few of their rotation pieces and maybe a pick for a starting-caliber player could be the difference between an early playoff exit and another finals berth.
For all the criticism there has been about the Spurs’ weak performance against top teams, they are still beating all of the opponents they are supposed to beat, and this may just be a statistical aberration that will be righted later in the year.
All that they need to break the trend could be one veteran who has worn out his welcome with his current squad.
The Spurs found great success by adding Diaw and the aforementioned Jackson midseason, and there is certainly something to be said for adding a player who can contribute without having to shake up the rotation too much or give up key pieces.
If the Spurs could swing a deal like Matt Bonner, Nando de Colo and a second-rounder for Andre Miller, they would be foolish not to consider it.
The same goes for a deal for someone like Brandon Rush, who is just 28 years old and has been a reliable three-and-D player for the Pacers and Warriors in the past.
He has barely played for the Utah Jazz this season, and they could certainly be intrigued by the offer of a young player like Joseph or a draft selection.
Despite their struggles, the Spurs did return the vast majority of a team that was as close as anyone has ever been to winning a championship, and all they need might be a new face they can plug into the rotation for 18-20 minutes per game.
The trade market for these sorts of players often becomes clearer as the deadline approaches, and with the treasure trove of assets and affordable contracts the Spurs have, they could be in play for any number of smaller February deals.
San Antonio also has the option of shaking things up and pursuing a headline-grabbing trade, something the franchise has rarely done but is well positioned for.
The Spurs made a significant financial commitment to Tiago Splitter, giving him a four-year, $36 million deal, but the Brazilian big man has averaged just 7.9 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.1 assists in 21 minutes per game.
Those disappointing numbers are partially due to a calf injury, but Splitter has also been losing minutes to a resurgent Diaw even when healthy.
It’s easy to forget that Splitter is already 28 years old and may have reached his NBA ceiling, and he was dreadful on the court against the Miami Heat in June.
Still, Splitter’s yearly salary is not crippling, and some team in desperate need of a starting-caliber big could be willing to swing a trade for him.
A deal involving Splitter and Mills for Jamal Crawford and Matt Barnes, for example, could give the Spurs a more consistent shot creator and another versatile wing defender while clearing up some of the logjam at the 4 position.
It’s somewhat blasphemous, but exploring a Ginobili deal would not be wholly unreasonable. The 36-year-old sixth man is playing well, averaging 12 points and 4.4 assists, but he always manages to have some nagging injuries heading into the playoffs.
Ginobili is owed $14.5 million over the next two seasons but could be attractive for a team like Indiana that could use one more shot creator and playmaker in its rotation.
Again, it’s unlikely a Ginobili deal would ever happen given the relationship he has with Popovich, Duncan and the people of San Antonio, but the point is that the Spurs are not hamstrung by cumbersome deals the way many contenders are.
They have the flexibility to swing a high-profile trade if they want to, and given how action-packed this trade deadline could be, that is an envious position to be in.
While the Spurs have plenty of options, it is unlikely they end up making a big deal, and the reality is they probably shouldn’t.
Their record against top teams will improve, and while they could probably use one more defender to cover the James Hardens and Russell Westbrooks of the world, this is a team with a point differential of plus-7.2, which places it above every team in the league but Miami, Indiana and Oklahoma City.
If a manageable deal materializes that can help the Spurs reduce some roster redundancy and make their playoff rotation clearer, they should absolutely jump on it. But the Spurs don’t need to be aggressive buyers on the trade market like the Clippers might.
They’re the Spurs, and they always figure this stuff out by April.