In their typically low-key fashion, the San Antonio Spurs are leading the NBA Western Conference with a record of 30-8 (.789). Can they reach 60 wins this season? It’s definitely doable, but it’s not a given.
In Hollinger’s 2013-14 Playoff Odds on ESPN.com, the Spurs are given a projected 61 wins and 21 losses with a best win scenario of 72-10 and a projected worst scenario of 47-35.
As coldly efficient as the Spurs are, their position atop the Western Conference has been burnished by wins against some of the league’s lesser teams—they’re 19-1 against opponents with losing records. Nonetheless, the Spurs are tied for the lead with the Miami Heat and the Oklahoma City Thunder at 11 wins against teams with over .500 records.
Regardless, the Spurs will face some challenges along the way to 60 wins. The most recent problem has been the injury bug. Tiago Splitter sprained his right shoulder on January 4 against the Los Angeles Clippers and is expected to miss between three to five weeks. This past Sunday, another Spur went down, as Danny Green broke his left hand. He is expected to miss four weeks.
Rob Mahoney for Sports Illustrated’s Point Forward examines the dilemma at the shooting guard position:
Swapping out Green for Belinelli hasn’t quite done the trick, though San Antonio is notably four points better per 100 possessions with Belinelli assuming Green’s spot in the standard starting five. Both variations have notably failed to live up to the Spurs’ offensive standards, though, and with that Popovich and his team continue to search for answers.
Gregg Popovich has always been more than willing to rest his star players. He’s already done it once this season against the Golden State Warriors during a nationally televised game, and he’ll no doubt do it again. Tony Parker has played the most minutes of anyone on the roster this season at a very economical 31 minutes per game. Tim Duncan is averaging just over 29 minutes, while Manu Ginobili is averaging slightly over 24.
Age will usually creep into these discussions at some point—Duncan is now 37 years old and in his 17th NBA season. He may have lost a step but is still putting up solid numbers at 14.7 points, 9.7 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.9 blocks per game.
Will resting key players affect the 60-win scenario? It definitely could. Popovich probably doesn’t care about hitting that particular mark. What he does care about is having his players healthy and primed for the playoffs and avoiding the trap of peaking too soon.
During the 2010-11 season, the Spurs went 61-21 but were stunned in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs by the upstart Memphis Grizzlies, who won the series 4-2.
After Game 6, Popovich said this about numerical records, per The Associated Press (via Sports Illustrated):
It doesn’t matter what your seeding is in the West. As has been evidenced year after year, we all know that everybody’s basically as good as everybody else.
After losing to the Miami Heat in a heartbreaking seven-game NBA Finals last season, the usual question were asked—would the aging Spurs go for a major rebuild or keep their core group?
Management elected to stick with what’s been working for the past several years with a couple of tweaks. Gary Neal left and perimeter specialist Marco Belinelli arrived, both via free agency. The Spurs also shored up their frontcourt to some extent by signing backup power forward Jeff Ayres.
As for the more familiar faces, they’re basically doing what they were last season.
Small forward Kawhi Leonard’s numbers are virtually unchanged across the board. Parker’s scoring and assists are down just a tick, but his three-point average has skyrocketed to .444, which is way beyond last season’s .353 average. The Spurs gambled by bringing Ginobili back, but despite his chronic injuries, the Argentinian is basically matching his stats from last year with a slight uptick on his scoring average. Conversely, Splitter is scoring slightly less than last year but still right at his career averages. And as mentioned earlier, Duncan, though older than Methuselah, is still getting it done.
So what’s working and what’s not this year?
It sounds like a broken record, but it’s basically a case of not much changing, at least not to the detriment of the team. The Spurs’ average points per game is 104.6, which is good for sixth in the league this season, compared to 103 last time around. They’re holding their opponents to 96.4 this season, which makes them the fourth-best overall defense out of 30 teams this season, virtually unchanged from 96.6 last season.
The Spurs are simply the epitome of “old reliable,” and when they get lazy and stop getting back on defense, Popovich will launch into one of his tried-and-true diatribes.
Most of the time, physical, aggressive teams are going to win in the NBA. That’s just the way it is. I thought we were very poor in that area. We should be embarrassed about how soft we played tonight.
As for the schedule and opponents’ win-loss records, here’s a few tidbits.
Of the remaining 44 games, the Spurs have 21 at home and 23 on the road. So far this season, they’ve faced 18 winning teams and 20 losing teams. For the rest of the way, they’ll play 20 winning teams and 24 losing teams. The combined winning percentage of their opponents so far this season is 50.5, and the combined winning percentage of opponents for the balance of the season is 50.5.
Does all this mean that they’ll stay right on task at .789 for the rest of the season and wind up with 65 wins? It’s doubtful—legs grow wearier, and there’s some daunting road trips ahead. Let’s take a look at what’s in store.
The Spurs won on the road Monday night against the New Orleans Pelicans and now face the rest of the month with five games at home and only three away. They’ll host the Portland Trail Blazers and Oklahoma City Thunder before visiting the Heat and the Houston Rockets. Miami is 16-3 at home, while the Rockets are 16-5 at home.
The good news is that the Spurs also face the Utah Jazz, the Milwaukee Bucks, the Atlanta Hawks and the Chicago Bulls in January, none of whom have winning records against teams that are over .500. In addition, the Jazz and the Bucks are the two worst teams in basketball.
If San Antonio can find a 6-2 combination, they’ll head into February with a 36-10 record.
February is always a big test for the Spurs. The AT&T Center will be hosting the annual Stock Show & Rodeo, sending the Spurs out on the road for nine games in a row with stops in New Orleans, Washington D.C., Brooklyn, Charlotte, Detroit, Boston, Los Angeles, Portland and Phoenix. The good news is that they’ll face only three teams with winning records—the Clippers, Trail Blazers and Suns.
Once past the rodeo road trip, San Antonio heads into the busiest month of the season. It’ll play 16 games in 31 nights in March, including tough teams like the Dallas Mavericks, the Trail Blazers and the Golden State Warriors. The Spurs close out the month on the road against the Indiana Pacers, currently the top team in the league.
March could potentially be the downfall of a 60-win season given that there won’t be much room for error by this point. The math could go awry through any combination of factors, such as age, injuries or losses to teams that may not be high in the rankings but can still pose problems, especially at home. Potential trap road games include the Chicago Bulls, Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets.
Even so, if the Spurs lose six out of 19 games in March, they’ll still end up at 55-19 (.743).
April is the last month of the regular season with just eight games on the Spurs’ schedule. Half will be on the road and five will be against teams that are currently in the top eight slots in the West—the Warriors, Thunder, Mavericks, Suns and Rockets.
The Spurs may be atop the leaderboard right now, but the Blazers and OKC are right on their heels at 28-9 and 28-10, respectively. What will it take to win the Western Conference? Given the level of competition, 60 wins seems like a solid number, but it could certainly go a notch or two higher.
Assuming the Spurs are relatively healthy and on a roll heading toward the playoffs, it’s reasonable to expect that they could close out April with a decent 5-3 run, which would get them to the magic number—60 wins!
This is all speculative, of course—we can never know what the future holds. What we can do, however, is make the best guesses possible based on the information on hand.
Now in his 18th season as the Spurs’ head coach, Gregg Popovich knows how to balance winning and preserving the legs of his players. There’s also the reality that in a loaded conference, home-court advantage will come with a lot of wins. Hitting the 60-mark allows for a slight drop in production based on the Spurs’ current .789 win percentage. It looks like a winning bet.