How Worried Should San Antonio Spurs Be About Their Elite Team Problem?

Ben LeibowitzCorrespondent IIIJanuary 27, 2014

DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 5: Head Coach Gregg Popovich and Manu Ginobili #20 of the San Antonio Spurs talk things over against the Denver Nuggets on November 5, 2013 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2013 NBAE (Photo by Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)
Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

The 2013-14 San Antonio Spurs have continued to be one of the best teams in the league from a record standpoint following an NBA Finals run a season ago. They’ve won consistently at home (17-7) and have the Association’s best road record (16-4), but San Antonio’s inability to compete with elite teams is becoming a valid concern.

At 33-11, San Antonio is the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference—0.5 games ahead of the Portland Trail Blazers and 1.5 games behind the Oklahoma City Thunder. Gregg Popovich’s crew is taking care of business against inferior opponents on a nightly basis, but 10 of the Spurs’ 11 losses have been racked up against six playoff contenders.

While it’s logical to suspect a tough schedule for the Spurs’ shortcomings, that excuse isn’t authorized in this case. Only two of those 10 losses occurred during the second game of a back-to-back set, while six of those defeats transpired on San Antonio’s home court.

The Spurs aren’t beating elite teams with rest or without it. It also hasn’t mattered if San Antonio has played on the road or in the friendly confines of the AT&T Center. Its lone win against those six squads came at home against the Los Angeles Clippers on Jan. 4—when the Clips were without superstar point guard Chris Paul.

To be clear, this narrative doesn’t stem entirely from San Antonio’s most recent road loss against the Miami Heat. The Spurs had to face off with the two-time defending champs without Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Tiago Splitter—who are all sidelined with injuries. That matchup wouldn’t favor anyone.

Despite the loss, head coach Gregg Popovich built on the positives and called it a “good night,” per Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News via Twitter.

Although Pop was proud of his team’s effort, the entire body of work from the Spurs has accumulated in a 1-10 record against those aforementioned six playoff-bound squads.

The question now is: Can the Spurs realistically repeat the NBA Finals run they went on in 2012-13?

As McDonald alludes to, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Co. (if healthy) should have the same chance of winning a title as they did last year. Unfortunately for Spurs fans, a perfect storm of circumstances seemed to vault SA into the Finals in 2013.

First, the No. 2 seed Spurs faced off against the reeling Los Angeles Lakers (who were playing without Kobe Bryant). They swept that series in four games.

After seven days off, San Antonio went on to play the shorthanded Golden State Warriors (who were without David Lee due to a hip injury). The Dubs pushed the second-round series to six games but ran out of gas after a six-game first-round matchup with the Denver Nuggets.

Because Russell Westbrook was lost for the postseason after tearing his meniscus in Round 1, the Oklahoma City Thunder couldn’t overcome the Memphis Grizzlies and lost Round 2 in five games.

MEMPHIS, TN - NOVEMBER 22: Marc Gasol #33 of the Memphis Grizzlies greets Tim Duncan #21 of the San Antonio Spurs before a game on November 22, 2013 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloa
Joe Murphy/Getty Images

That led to a Western Conference Finals matchup between the Spurs and Grizzlies; a series that San Antonio swept convincingly.

In the NBA, one key injury or, perhaps, one offensive rebound, can mean the difference between a win and a loss.

There’s such a slim margin for error that even a dark horse for the title could separate itself from the pack as a result of a few lucky breaks. For the Spurs to get back to the Finals in 2014, they'd likely need similar events to occur.

At the end of the day, this is still just the regular season. And although it’s alarming that the Spurs have posted such a shoddy record against elite teams, that won’t matter until they start losing said matchups in the postseason.

Even at 37 years old, Duncan has continued to play incredibly solid basketball. His scoring average is down to 14.8 points per game, but he’s grabbing 9.8 rebounds and dishing out 2.9 assists to go with a player efficiency rating of 21.53.

Parker, meanwhile, has continued to show that he’s a top-five NBA point guard. The 31-year-old Frenchman is averaging 18.1 points, 6.3 assists, 2.4 rebounds and shooting a career-high 43.9 percent from three-point range.

In addition, the Spurs struck gold by signing Marco Belinelli last summer, and Patty Mills has produced with more minutes.

Aside from Danny Green coming back down to Earth (7.4 points per game this year versus 10.5 in 2012-13), San Antonio may actually be deeper than it was a season ago.

Pop’s crew ranks sixth in the NBA in scoring (104.7 per game) and fifth in the league in points allowed (96.9). You don’t have to be a statistician to figure out that that’s a winning formula.

San Antonio has struggled to find any sort of rhythm against great teams, but these are still the same old Spurs. Even though they continue to get written off season after season in favor of younger, more athletic squads, Popovich puts his players in a position to succeed night in and night out.

Going 1-10 combined against six contending teams isn’t an anomaly that should be ignored, but that doesn’t mean the NBA community should stick a fork in the Spurs.

Each time pundits count this team out, it simply comes back hungry for more.