The San Antonio Spurs have been no strangers to winning this season, but in the process they've proven that not all wins are equal. Before embarking upon their first losing streak of the year, they came into Tuesday's night's game against the Houston Rockets showing all the wrong signs against the league's best.
Make that 1-11.
The Rockets handed San Antonio their first consecutive loss of the season. An injury to Manu Ginobili's hamstring handed the battered and bruised roster another excuse.
But excuses won't help the Spurs solve their biggest problem. Of the team's 13 losses, 11 have come against elite teams. That's an ominous sign, even if not especially so for a squad that's been so dominant against the rest of their competition—the competition that, by and large, won't be around for the postseason.
Right now, San Antonio doesn't seem like a team that could make it past the second round of the playoffs. They have been outgunned by the likes of the Thunder, Rockets and Trail Blazers, all while looking like a completely different—and inferior—defensive team.
The futility of excuses aside, there are a few possible explanations. The most obvious is also the one that hurts the most—maybe the Spurs just aren't as good this year. They didn't have this problem last season.
Could this be the season naysayers have been waiting for? The one where Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili are finally too old to keep San Antonio in contention? The one where Tony Parker falls short of an MVP-caliber leader?
Don't be so sure. We've made this mistake before, counting out the tried-and-true system, the machine Gregg Popovich has built through years of rock-pounding. And we've misread the tea leaves before too—when Duncan's numbers went south, when San Antonio lost to the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round, any time one of the Big Three went down to injury.
It's easy to overestimate the value of championship experience in a league owned by young talent, but there's little doubt San Antonio has taken up residence at the top of the standing, thanks in large part to its ability to cope with adversity.
Impressive record aside, the 2013-14 campaign hasn't been a cakewalk.
Ginobili got off to a slow start, averaging just 10.3 points per contest in December, before putting up a much-improved 15.3 points per game in January—just in time for the first of San Antonio's recent injuries to strike. Losing Tiago Splitter won't qualify as a disaster in the eyes of many, but it's the kind of headache that can disrupt a unit so thoroughly built on rhythm and chemistry.
It also has something to do with one of the league's best defenses looking increasingly mortal.
An increasingly decimated wing hasn't helped either.
Skeptics of the injury explanation will maintain that the loss of three starters notwithstanding, the Spurs haven't spent significant time without Ginobili, Duncan or Parker. Moreover, Danny Green didn't go down until January 12. Kawhi Leonard was available until halfway through San Antonio's game against the Oklahoma City Thunder on January 22.
The most damning problem with placing the blame on injury is that the Spurs lost several important contests long before anyone went down. They lost by 10 to Portland in November, before falling to the Thunder and Rockets at month's end. December included double-digit losses to the Pacers, Clippers, Thunder and Rockets.
If you're keeping count, that's seven "signature" losses at full strength.
And if you're an optimist, those seven losses ultimately say very little about how competitive San Antonio will be when it counts. Which of course raises the question: is there, in fact, any merit to this whole optimism thing? If injuries aren't fully to blame and this is still a contender, then what gives?
A couple of factors are worth considering.
First, Popovich has, for the most part, rigidly adhered to an extended rotation in which his core players see 30 minutes or less per game. Take the November losses to OKC and Houston, for example—both just six-point margins. Duncan played 29 and 33 minutes, respectively—Ginobili just 25 and 27. When the rotation shortens (albeit marginally) during the playoffs, San Antonio reasons to be more competitive in close games.
Second, Popovich's teams have traditionally peaked after the All-Star break, using February's protracted "Rodeo Road Trip" as a chemistry-building opportunity, in which everyone doubles down and prepares for playoff-style action. This is the kind of variable that may not resonate with some stats gurus, and it won't convince analysts who assess teams by talent alone.
But then again, those are the types that traditionally count San Antonio out, only to eat their words at season's end. And this organization has never been in the business of convincing people.
Coming off an epically disappointing collapse in the NBA Finals, we shouldn't be especially surprised to watch this club undergo something of a recovery period. Psychology matters, and its impact is notoriously difficult to measure.
But an educated guess might suggest San Antonio won't put its foot on the gas until absolutely necessary. This is a veteran-led roster that understands the pitfalls of peaking prematurely. It knows the difference between December and March, the risk of playing with too much intensity so early into a long season.
There's certainly a danger in believing a team can flip a switch when the time is right, but there's even greater danger in keeping the switch flipped on a permanent basis. That might mean attacking the basket less aggressively, fighting for loose balls less recklessly, running the floor a step slower.
As tempting as it is to believe the Spurs have all this under control, it would be foolish to ignore reasons for concern. San Antonio's 2012-13 postseason success was due, in no small part, to injuries ransacking the Western Conference. Without similar luck this time around, it's hard to see these Spurs returning to the Finals.
That may have less to do with San Antonio and more to do with the rest of the league. Houston's high-octane attack now has Dwight Howard anchoring the middle. Portland now has a bench. The Clippers have Doc Rivers—and an improved rotation.
The top of the Western Conference is as crowded as ever, even with Reggie Jackson running the point in OKC.
Concern, yes—but is it time to worry? Perhaps the Spurs don't belong atop any power rankings at the moment, but there's no sense in equating those rankings with title odds. When the postseason rolls around, this is still a Gregg Popovich production. Regular-season struggles won't be forgotten, and that might not be a bad thing. Even Pop's productions can use a little extra motivation when the season's on the line.