When it comes to the San Antonio Spurs, one thing must always be remembered: The regular season means very little.
Sporting a sparkling 33-12 record, the Spurs are sitting pretty in a spot where they’ve found themselves all too often for nearly two decades: near the top of the Western Conference standings.
For a team that has experienced as much postseason success as the Spurs, however, their place in the standings carries about as much weight as an “insightful” Gregg Popovich halftime interview. You’re not learning anything new.
The same can be said for the Spurs’ abysmal record against the elite teams in the NBA. Much has been made about the 1-11 mark the Spurs currently sport against the upper echelon teams in the NBA—the Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder, Indiana Pacers, Portland Trail Blazers, Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers.
If this were any other team, that record would be a precursor to future problems. An inability to defeat the teams you would most likely face in the playoffs generally doesn’t drum up much faith.
This isn’t any team, though. This is the San Antonio Spurs. And this really isn’t anything new. The approach the Spurs take to the regular season does not change, regardless of the team they’re playing that night.
It was only last season when Popovich was famously fined $250,000 for sending his entire starting lineup home before a prime-time matchup against the Heat. Quite simply, Popovich understands that there are bigger and more important things than winning a meaningless regular season game.
Take for example one of the more recent Spurs losses against a top team. In a star-studded matchup against the Heat on Sunday, Jan. 26, Popovich stayed true to the course and played his Big Three a combined 73 minutes—24 for both Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, 25 for Manu Ginobili.
That has been the model of success for the Spurs for countless years, and it’s a model that is tried and true. The game does not determine how much Popovich’s players play—the endgame does.
No coach monitors his players' minutes more than Popovich, and the result is that the Spurs are always ready to play when the games truly start to matter. If that means sacrificing a few “big” games during the regular season, then so be it.
“We’ve done this before in hopes of making a wiser decision, rather than a popular decision. It’s pretty logical," Popovich told reporters last season, via Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated.
What is of far more importance than the 11 losses against the elite teams in the league are the 33 wins against everyone else. Those wins are as much a function of the system in which they play as they are attributable to the players actually on the court.
With Duncan and Ginobili both averaging fewer than 30 minutes a game and Parker just over that mark at 31.3, it’s clear that Popovich uses the regular season as an auditioning period for the other guys to show what they can do. And thus far, they’ve proven to be more than capable.
When it comes down to it in the playoffs, guys like Marco Belinelli, Patty Mills and Matt Bonner can be relied upon, regardless of the amount of minutes they are asked to play. And that is all a direct result of Popovich’s unwavering confidence in his system, a system that strengthens his role players while simultaneously keeping his stars fresh and healthy.
The end result has almost always been postseason success.
There may one day be a time for the San Antonio Spurs to panic, when their stars have aged past the point of no return and the system begins to crack. But that time has not yet come.
Make no mistake, come playoff time, the Big Three of San Antonio will no longer be averaging 30 minutes per game. And when that happens, when the team is fully unleashed as in years past, that is when we can truly judge the Spurs against the league’s elite.
Until that time comes, though, quibbling about losing a few insignificant games that the Spurs themselves have deemed expendable is silly. The past has made it abundantly clear that this is the last team you need to worry about.
Far too many teams treat the regular season as if it’s a track meet, grinding out games for the sake of securing a coveted home series in the postseason. The Spurs have perfected the formula of doing just that while simultaneously ensuring that their best possible team is on the court when that happens.
The road to the championship is a long one, but Popovich has ensured fresh legs for the final sprint.