Are San Antonio Spurs Still Among NBA's Elite?

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Are San Antonio Spurs Still Among NBA's Elite?
Don Ryan/Associated Press
Reinforcements are arriving in San Antonio.

Frankly, it's a silly question.

The San Antonio Spurs sit in second place in the Western Conference, yet a very poor record against the rest of the NBA's elite has the team's fans and NBA folks around the league questioning their status. Though really, it's understandable. As a whole, observers' memories are generally selective; what they see in front of them is what is tangible, and the rest is just theory.

San Antonio is 3-11 against the top six teams in the league, which is unquestionably poor. Whether it's an excuse or just good reasoning, the majority of those losses came on the second night of back-to-backs or without several key players, but these things must be taken into consideration when applying context to the situation.

And here's the other part of the equation: The Spurs have lost only twice to teams with a losing record (New York Knicks and Detroit Pistons), and they also maintain the NBA's best road record. In fact, the Spurs' 21 road victories is more than 26 teams have in their own buildings.

Let's be honest with ourselves, too: What exactly do the Spurs have left to prove in the regular season? Seeding is crucial in the Western Conference, to be sure, but does it matter where the wins actually come from? 

San Antonio is notorious for dialing it back a notch during the regular season. With aging core players—Tim Duncan is 37, Manu Ginobili is 36 and Tony Parker is 31—it's a necessity that they approach it this way, especially considering they've all been through these wars. Self-preservation is key, and this isn't a team with anything to prove through the first 82 games.

And when you consider all the injuries this team has endured, they haven't had a chance to prove anything, anyway. Since Jan. 4, Tiago Splitter, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Ginobili, Duncan and Parker have not spent a single second on the court together 

The Duncan-Parker-Leonard-Green-Splitter starting lineup that cruised through the 2012-13 postseason has spent all of 137 minutes on the court together this season. If we're debating their status as a contender, this has to be taken into account. 

Early results with this group weren't good. They were playing great defense, allowing just 92.2 points per 100 possessions; but something was off on the offensive end, where they were putting up just 91.4 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com's media statistics page. But overall, the Spurs have been just fine. San Antonio has an offensive-efficiency rating of 107.5 this season, which is good enough for seventh in the NBA, according to the same site.

However, since the calendar turned, that lineup hasn't played one second together. Once Splitter went down with a sprained shoulder on Jan. 4, the Spurs went into an injury tailspin. Green followed Splitter's injury with a broken second metacarpal in his left hand just eight days later, Leonard followed that with a fractured fourth metacarpal in his right hand only nine days later, and Ginobili tweaked his hamstring only a week after that.

Remember, that starting lineup was an unbelievable 18.1 points per 100 possessions better than its opponents last season and was absolutely dominant in the Western Conference playoffs. This is something that must be taken into account, as we have not yet seen San Antonio's best lineup at full strength in quite a while. But there is plenty of time left.

The Spurs have been beat up for nearly two months; and despite all of that they're 40-15, in second place in the West and on pace for 59 to 60 wins. And since the All-Star break, they've gone on to beat the Los Angeles Clippers and the Portland Trail Blazers on back-to-back nights.

Judging San Antonio based on its performance over the first half of the grueling NBA season is generally a mistake. This is a team well-aware of when winning is important, and it is patient enough to know that things in this league rarely get out of hand during the winter months if you're a solidified contender.

And now, after all the injuries, things are beginning to normalize. Green has been back for a couple of weeks, and Ginobili and Splitter have just returned to the court. Furthermore, Leonard is expected to return to action on Friday in Phoenix, David Aldridge of NBA.com reported.

Of course, this all comes on the back of the announcement that Parker will be out for the "foreseeable future," Gregg Popovich told reporters on Tuesday. This could mean anything, but Parker has been banged up as of late. With a trainer's room full of injuries, the All-Star point guard has carried a hefty load; and with previous bumps and bruises to his calves, legs and back, Popovich has decided to give his floor leader a break.

And that's OK. Parker hasn't had much of a break over the last three years—with both NBA and International basketball taking up the majority of his schedule—and the Spurs know they need him healthy heading into the postseason. And fear not, because the reinforcements are arriving—the most important one coming in the form of the team's lockdown small forward.

While the absences of Splitter, Green and Ginobili were detrimental, Leonard has been the biggest difference between the team that lost in the first round of the 2010-11 playoffs to the Memphis Grizzlies and the one that nearly won the NBA Finals last season. He's one of the only players in the league capable of giving the NBA's best perimeter scorers fits as a defender, and his presence on the boards is one of the most underrated parts of his game.

Eric Gay/Associated Press
Kawhi Leonard is expected back on Friday against Phoenix.

We saw firsthand his importance against Miami in June, when the Heat forced the Spurs to play small and Leonard exploded as one of the series' best players. San Antonio has guarded his minutes carefully this season—he's averaging just 28.6 minutes per game—but once the playoffs roll around that's sure to be a different story.

Leonard fills a massive void in the Spurs rotation. He allows the periphery players to slide back to their normal positions, where before they've been asked to play out of position to bridge the gap between the backcourt and frontcourt. He's not yet a star, but he's one of the best role players in the league and one of the most crucial glue guys to any team in the NBA.

San Antonio has allowed 3.3 fewer points per 100 possessions when Leonard is on the floor, and he's allowing just .75 points per possession on 34 percent shooting as an individual defender (against individual offensive players who finish a play with a field-goal attempt, free throws or a turnover), according to mySynergySports (subscription required). As a team, the Spurs are allowing .86 points per possession, per the same website.

But aside from their two most recent wins, there is no regular-season empirical data at this point to suggest the Spurs are surefire favorites over the rest of the West. After all, they have not yet proven it on the court, where all the numbers in the world don't matter.

Still, on Thursday, Feb. 20, despite all the injuries, the Spurs boast the third-best net efficiency rating in the league (plus-seven points per 100 possessions), and you can only expect the numbers to improve with the return of all their injured stars.

If ever there is a team whose regular-season results should be considered with a grain of salt, it's San Antonio. With the emergence of Patty Mills—someone who played sparingly last season—and the additions of the scorching-hot Marco Belinelli and the bouncy Jeff Ayres, not to mention this version of Scorin' Boris Diaw, the Spurs are arguably a deeper and improved version of the team that finished as NBA Finals runners-up last season. 

Pat Sullivan/Associated Press/Associated Press
San Antonio is a different team in the postseason.

And the playoffs are a different animal altogether, one San Antonio knows better than all the up-and-coming young teams in the Western Conference. With Popovich at the helm and a healthy Big Three, the navigation of a seven-game series has become an art for this team as much as it has become a science, and it's got a tried-and-true blueprint to support the hypothesis. 

By no means should you disregard the outcomes we've seen thus far this season, as the youth and energy of these scary Western Conference teams are absolutely problematic for the Spurs. But be wary of casting aspersions upon a team with aging stars. As the postseason begins, possessions grow fewer and the game is played much more exclusively out of half-court sets, which makes it difficult to get out and run in space against San Antonio's old legs. Execution becomes paramount, and you can argue no one is better than the Spurs in that capacity. 

Whether they'll be able to overcome a soon-to-be full-strength Oklahoma City Thunder remains to be seen, but that's been the case since San Antonio lost to Kevin Durant and Company in the 2011-12 Western Conference Finals.

It feels like the same drumbeat we've heard for the last half-decade, but count the Spurs out at your own risk. The Big Three keep getting older, but their young supporting cast continues to grow and improve. As always, health is the biggest concern; but if it's maintained and the wheels continue to turn, watch out. 

After all, this is their time of year.

Statistical support courtesy of mediacentral.nba.com (membership required).

Additional statistical support courtesy of mySynergySports.com (subscription required).

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