With most of the other top teams in the NBA suffering through springtime slumps, the San Antonio Spurs are thriving. Seemingly immune to age and injury, and apparently unstoppable no matter who takes the floor, San Antonio is, once again, the league's best team.
So what else is new?
Streaks and Streaks
The Spurs extended their winning streak to 10 games with a 122-104 victory over the Utah Jazz on March 16. In that contest, everything that has made San Antonio so good for so long was on full display.
Gregg Popovich's boys zipped the ball around, defended expertly and got contributions from just about everybody. It was a thorough lesson in ruthless execution, and when the final buzzer sounded, San Antonio had shot 62.8 percent from the field, amassed 31 assists and enjoyed double-figure scoring from seven different players.
It's easy to overcomplicate things when it comes to the Spurs, and we'll touch on a little more nuance later, but Gordon Hayward astutely summed things up from the losing side after the game, per the Associated Press (via ESPN): "Regardless of personnel, they all pass the basketball, the ball never stops. They hit the open man and defensively they're all where they're supposed to be at."
When done right, basketball is simple.
The Spurs have a brilliant system dictated by Popovich, and the players all believe in it. That's it. That's all there is to it.
Sure, Pop has made tweaks to his principles over the years, going from a plodding style to one that's much more offensively flexible and, gasp, even fun. But the basic underlying concepts haven't changed.
... The San Antonio Spurs via Synergy produce an unguarded jumpshot... 54 percent of the time. MORE OFTEN THAN NOT THEY ARE OPEN.— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) March 17, 2014
The Spurs still pass up good shots for great ones. They still don't dribble without purpose. They still give help and expect to get it in return. They're still pounding the rock.
In other words, San Antonio hasn't reinvented the wheel. It has, however, been rolling smoothly for a ridiculously long time.
The win over the Jazz wasn't just the latest in a 10-game run. It also marked victory No. 50 on the year. Per Matthew Tynan of 48 Minutes of Hell, that made the win a pretty big deal:
Not only that, but it’s the fourth straight season the Spurs have been the first team in the league to reach the 50-win plateau, and it’s the third consecutive season they’ve done so in exactly 66 games. It’s also the 16th winning streak of 10 games or more during Gregg Popovich’s tenure, five more than any other team.
San Antonio now sits atop the Western Conference, has the best record in the league and is in possession of the NBA's top net rating. And if you think they're impressed with themselves, you haven't been paying attention.
Per Dan McCarney of Spurs Nation, Popovich said:
I don’t really care to be honest with you. You all have to have things to write about I guess. It’s better than losing 50 I guess, but we are thinking about other things. We’ve just had a great group of guys for a long time I guess and that is the reason we have been able to win. Records and that sort of thing, streaks, aren’t really on anybody’s mind.
As much as anything, the Spurs are great now—and have been forever—because they care about the important things and seem practically allergic to the trivial ones. Fifteen straight 50-win seasons would be monumental to any other club, but the Spurs are too focused on winning another title to be bothered about it.
As Sports Illustrated's Rob Mahoney noted, that's something that never changes in San Antonio, and that's kind of awesome:
San Antonio is interested in the same measures of daily maintenance, as evidenced by Popovich’s unwavering insistence on perfection regardless of the opponent. There’s just less to glean in the result for a team that has been so impeccably prepared and so resiliently balanced for so long. That doesn’t mean the Spurs are boring, or even under-covered. They’re simply inevitable.
An Immune System
There's no singular scheme capable of derailing the Spurs, which is probably why they've remained so effective for so long.
They feature an equal-opportunity offense built around Tony Parker's penetration. But even when teams bottle up San Antonio's leading scorer (who, by the way, averages just 17.5 points per game), the Spurs have loads of other options.
Marco Belinelli and Patty Mills are enjoying banner years, and they've excelled in making teams pay for overloading on the Spurs' bigger names. Plus, Manu Ginobili is back in vintage form after appearing to lose a step (or three) last year.
And Tim Duncan can still run the show from the low and mid-post in spurts.
More subtly, the Spurs' overall system doesn't lend itself to being weakened when a defense focuses on eliminating any one player. And it's not like a game plan exists to limit Kawhi Leonard's on-the-margin brilliance. Opponents can't make him stop hustling, disrupting sets or playing perfect team defense.
And if you're looking for answers on how to beat San Antonio, it'd be unwise to simply assume the Miami Heat provided the blueprint in last year's Finals. The only thing that series taught us is that it takes an immense stroke of luck to knock off these Spurs. If not for fortuitous bounces and miracle shots, we'd be talking about San Antonio chasing its sixth ring right now.
Where Does It End?
Nobody's saying the Spurs are a lock to win another title. They've got plenty of issues, not the least of which is their 3-9 record against Miami, the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Indiana Pacers, the Houston Rockets and the Los Angeles Clippers.
But it's hard to ignore the way San Antonio has quietly climbed to the top of the NBA mountain once again. The Spurs look just as good as they did a year ago, and they might even have more weapons and styles of attack than ever.
In a way, it makes sense that the Spurs are the best team in the league because, more than any other club, they play like one.
As long as they boast the most harmonious, repeatable brand of basketball in the league, they'll continue to rack up wins and pursue championships. It'll all come to an end when Duncan retires (perhaps after his current deal expires in 2015), but as long as the Big Fundamental is working alongside Parker and under Popovich, this is a ride that'll continue.
It's hard to know if they'll have better fortune in this year's postseason. One thing's for sure, though: We've been awfully lucky to witness this 15-year run.