No one does sustained success better than the San Antonio Spurs, but their recent surge of victories borders on ridiculous even by their lofty standards.
Following Wednesday's 111-90 thrashing of the Golden State Warriors, the Spurs extended their franchise-record winning streak to 19 games. With their remaining schedule whittled down to only seven games, the question has to be asked: Will this team ever lose again?
Gregg Popovich has masterfully handled his too-old-to-contend roster, buying as much rest as needed for his veteran players (with the tendency to err on the side of caution) and expanding his rotation further than any of his sideline peers would dare.
None of it matters. Nothing ever changes. The Spurs hit the hardwood and leave with a win. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
"Their narrative arc is: Spurs go from excellent to nearly perfect and basically keep doing that," Grantland's Netw3rk wrote. "For 17 years. That the Spurs will clear 50 wins in a season is basically a law of nature at this point."
Since joining the NBA in 1976-77, San Antonio has won 20 division titles which is the most of any team during that time period.— San Antonio Spurs (@spurs) April 3, 2014
With a string of 15 consecutive 50-win seasons already in hand—a streak, by the way, only snapped by the lockout-shortened, 50-game season of 1998-99—we're well beyond the point of surprise from the Alamo City's finest delivering consistent returns. If the Spurs were investment bankers, they'd be living under a microscope held by the Securities and Exchange Commission.
All of that said, these are still uncharted waters for the clockwork winners. The Spurs are world-class marathoners delivering record-setting sprints. For everything we think—and do—know about them, this is different.
This is regular-season speak from a team that only talks in titles. It's a ride the basketball world needed to enjoy, but the kind of fruitless narrative we know the Spurs will never chase.
The Spurs will, in fact, lose a game before the 2013-14 campaign has closed. And they might appreciate that moment more than any stop on this remarkable run.
How Is This Happening?
This torrid stretch has followed the same path all of San Antonio's logic-defying runs have taken.
It's called the Spurs' Way, sort of a know-it-when-you-see-it team-wide approach that dominates this supposed superstars league. Casual fans call it boring, but hoop heads recognize it as the game's greatest work of art.
It's a selfless system built around cohesion, responsibility and trust. Five players move effortlessly as one, to the point that you start to wonder if the personnel even matters anymore:
Kevin Durant on the Spurs consistent system: "If Popovich started at point guard, I'm sure he'd find a way to get 10 assists."— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) April 3, 2014
Six-time All-Star point guard Tony Parker captains the offensive ship. His first priority is breaking down a defense off the dribble, something he's done with relative ease given the facts he a) ranks second in the league with 10.2 drives per game, via NBA.com's StatVU player tracking data and b) holds that ranking while seeing just 30.1 minutes a night (tied for 91st).
Once Parker puts the defense on its heels, he looks for his own shot (17.1 points per game on 49.9 percent shooting) or finds an open teammate. That first pass often sparks a seamless chain of setups. The Spurs rank fifth in the NBA in assist percentage (62.5), and Parker sits tied for fourth in secondary assists (the pass leading to an assist) with 1.9 a night.
When the ball gets moving, the Spurs have a plethora of scoring options. They can pound it inside to Tim Duncan (15.2 points on 49.4 percent shooting), Tiago Splitter (8.5 on 53.9) and Boris Diaw (9.4 on 53.5), spread it around to floor spacers Marco Belinelli (44.4 three-point percentage), Danny Green (41.5) and Patrick Mills (41.5) or spot a slasher like Kawhi Leonard (1.40 points per possession on off-ball cuts, 24th best in the NBA, via Synergy Sports—subscription required).
The choices are frustratingly limitless, apparently impossible to stop and only getting better with time.
|Period||Off Rtg||Ast %||FG%||3PT%|
|First 56 Games||107.1||60.6||48.8||38.8|
|Last 19 Games||112.6||67.7||49.5||42.9|
To put those numbers in perspective, a 107.1 offensive rating would still be tied for seventh highest in the NBA. A 60.6 assist percentage would be in sole possession of No. 7 in the category.
The Spurs were posting elite stat lines before they started streaking. They had a ceiling as high as any and still found room for upward mobility.
As in, the best team in the league right now.
You see, these Spurs aren't only dominating at one end of the floor. They're butchering opponents, many of them playoff-bound teams, in all facets of the game.
|Period||Def Rtg||Reb %||Net Rtg|
|First 56 Games||100.6||50.1||Plus-6.5|
|Last 19 Games||96.4||52.7||Plus-16.2|
Again, this was an unnecessary lift. Another case of the rich getting richer.
That 100.6 defensive rating? It would still be No. 6 in the NBA. The plus-6.5 net rating would top all but four teams in the league.
But the Spurs haven't settled for top-shelf production. Instead, they've found a defensive effort strikingly similar to the Indiana Pacers' league-leading unit (95.9 points allowed per 100 possessions). They've strung together a net rating nearly nine points better than anyone else (the Los Angeles Clippers sit second with a plus-7.7 mark).
Part of that lift has come from getting healthy. Leonard (broken finger), Green (broken finger), Splitter (sprained shoulder) and Manu Ginobili (strained hamstring) all missed substantial time earlier this season.
But another part of it is keeping these players healthy. And no one does that better than Popovich. During this 19-game streak, only Leonard (30.0) and Duncan (28.1) have averaged more than 28 minutes a night.
"It doesn't matter who they have, who's injured, who's not, who's resting," Washington Wizards coach Randy Wittman said, via USA Today's Adi Joseph. "(Popovich) has the ability to plug guys into the system that they've developed. It's like clockwork."
So, when exactly will this clock stop ticking?
When Will It End?
The Spurs are getting set for a true postseason primer.
While the real ride won't start for another couple of weeks, San Antonio's remaining schedule sets up like a six-game slugfest—and one round on the NBA's punching bag.
|April 3||Oklahoma City Thunder||54-19||Away|
|April 6||Memphis Grizzlies||44-31||Home|
|April 8||Minnesota Timberwolves||37-37||Away|
|April 10||Dallas Mavericks||44-31||Away|
|April 11||Phoenix Suns||44-31||Home|
|April 14||Houston Rockets||49-25||Away|
|April 16||Los Angeles Lakers||25-50||Home|
Two teams should jump out of that table: the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets. Not only are those the only two holding a top-four seed in the Western Conference, they're also the only two clubs the Spurs have yet to defeat this season.
Despite the scheduled hurdles, the only team capable of knocking off the Spurs right now are the Spurs themselves. Remember, we care about this winning streak—not them.
"Streaks get you headlines and shout-outs on SportsCenter. The Spurs don’t care about headlines or SportsCenter," NBA.com's Fran Blinebury wrote.
Popovich can pull the plug on this run at any time:
Ha ha ... Get ready for the Cory Joseph All-Stars. RT @DarnellMayberry I'm really hoping Pop doesn't sit his main guys tomorrow.— Jeff McDonald (@JMcDonald_SAEN) April 3, 2014
That fact isn't lost on his players, either.
"I think he'll be happy if we lose any time soon," Parker said of his coach, via Phillip B. Wilson of The Indianapolis Star. When the word "sabotage" was tossed out, a laughing Parker quipped, "He's going to rest like half of the team."
Then again, a split-squad San Antonio team hasn't always been the easiest out.
When Popovich made a $250,000 decision to send Duncan, Parker, Ginobili and Green home from a road trip early before a nationally televised clash with the Miami Heat last season, Pop's "B" team only lost the game by five points.
The coach kept Duncan, Parker and Ginobili out of San Antonio's first stop at Oracle Arena on December 19. The Spurs got 48 combined points from Belinelli and Mills to stun the Warriors in front of their home fans 104-102.
"Belinelli was crazy and Patty Mills was crazy and it was one of those nights for us," Popovich said after the game, via NBA.com's Geoff Lepper.
Does that mean an undermanned Spurs team could do something the full squad hasn't and pick up a win over the Thunder or Rockets? Probably not, although we should have all learned to never say never when it comes to the Spurs.
What it does mean, though, is that this is a strategy Popovich can employ. History has shown that he can sit his starters and not worry about the replacement players embarrassing the brand.
A meaningless regular-season achievement won't pull that card out of Popovich's hand.
"We'll see what happens...(against Oklahoma City)," Duncan said, via the Associated Press.
As the need for playoff rest increases and the minutes of San Antonio's stars head the opposite direction, something will take the fuel out of this run. The Thunder and Rockets are the most obvious candidates for streak-busters, but honestly any of these next six opponents has the tools to end this ride.
So, What Does It Mean?
That we should have been including the Spurs in championship talks earlier than we did. Again.
That those early concerns about San Antonio's struggles with the NBA's best have been put to rest.
The Spurs' past set a precedent, but their present is as bright as ever. This team owns both the league's best winning percentage (.787) and its top net rating (plus-9.0 points per 100 possessions).
The Western Conference race is technically alive, but it's on life support. The Spurs have a four-game cushion over the second-seeded Thunder—an almost insurmountable lead this late in the season.
All this streak means is that the Spurs are peaking at exactly the right time. That's the only thing that's ever mattered to this franchise:
Asked SAS Gregg Popovich if, thru 5 Finals trips, Spurs ever targeted No. 1 seed. "Never. This will sound really strange to you, but ..."— Steve Aschburner (@AschNBA) March 31, 2014
Popovich (cont'd): "...we've never had any numerical or positioning goals – ever. Not 1 time. We've never talked about it..."— Steve Aschburner (@AschNBA) March 31, 2014
Popovich (cont'd): "...the entire time I've been here.The only thing we...talk about trying to be best team we can be come playoff time."— Steve Aschburner (@AschNBA) March 31, 2014
That clockwork rise to the top of the basketball world started a little earlier than normal this season, but it hasn't warped the Spurs' views. Championship-or-bust grades are never assessed in April.
Until that changes, San Antonio won't put itself in harm's way to pursue a goal it never even set for itself.