The San Antonio Spurs' run has been defined by a few key traits: innovation, consistency, character and, as much as anything, a defiant attitude toward the conventional rules on dynasty lengths.
Now, with the end inevitably nearing, a new descriptor has made its way onto the list.
We have to step back for a second to gain some perspective. Typically, it'd be ridiculous to say a defending champion that is mostly healthy, still run by the best coach in the business and on pace for 49 wins is in any sort of trouble.
On the year, San Antonio is tied for 12th in offensive efficiency and tied for seventh in defensive efficiency, per NBA.com. If a team that ranks among the league's top 10 in both categories is generally considered a contender, the Spurs are right there.
And if we expand our study, it's simply never been a good idea to count them out. Their five championship rings are spread over 15 years, and they haven't won less than 61 percent of their games in any season since 1997-98. Incredibly, they've won at least one playoff round in 14 of the last 17 seasons.
That's not longevity. That's invincibility.
Doubting the Spurs has been a mistake since Tony Parker was a teenager.
And oddly enough, as the Spurs' key figures—Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili—continued to age and continued to defy the predictions that this year is the end, the default position became a refusal to doubt. After being wrong so many times, observers simply adopted the position that there was no sense in proclaiming San Antonio's run over until there was irrefutable proof.
That made sense. The Spurs pulled together too many times for everyone to keep viewing every injury-hit season or three-game losing streak as evidence that things were finally falling apart.
If we approach the Spurs logically, there has to be an end to this. And with every passing year (again, logically), that end gets closer. It's just that logic, particularly on topics like aging and diminishing competitive desire, hasn't applied to the Spurs.
Maybe that's changing.
San Antonio's current slide feels different, and it's not just about the core's ever-increasing age.
It's what members of that core are saying—things we've never really heard before. There's an unfamiliar urgency implicit in comments like this one from Parker, via Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News: “It’s tough right now. It’s tough. Since I’ve been with the Spurs, I’ve never experienced that in a three-game, four-game stretch. We’re not making shots. It starts with me. I’m not making shots."
Or this one from Ginobili, via McDonald:
Or this one from Duncan:
There's legitimate concern there. You can sense it.
And why wouldn't there be? Those guys have lived through past eras of doubt, and they know the difference between problems that legitimately threaten a team's future and the ones that only seem to from the outside. You don't get to where the Spurs are by fretting over insignificant stuff.
What's happened lately has been significant, if only because much of it is new for the Spurs. Consider: They've now run together a pair of four-game losing streaks this season. That's a first, per B/R's Dan Favale:
San Antonio has also clinched a losing "rodeo road trip" for the first time since the tradition started in 2003. In years past, the Spurs used the extensive time away from home to jell, running up an incredible 71-29 record coming into this year's sojourn.
There's also the issue of Parker, probably San Antonio's most important offensive cog, looking nothing like the guy who for years diced up defenses and ran defenders ragged around screens.
The burst just hasn't been there, and head coach Gregg Popovich has voiced concerns about his point guard all season, per McDonald: "If he’s not the Tony Parker of past years, we’re not going anywhere."
Parker's across-the-board production is at its lowest levels since his rookie year.
|Tony Parker's Per-Game Averages|
He's averaging just 9.7 drives per game this season, creating an average of 10.3 points (via his own scoring and assists) per contest. Last year, those numbers were 10.4 and 11.9, respectively, per NBA.com.
Couple that dip in impact with the fact that Parker's mid-range jumper has completely deserted him, and you have a real issue—especially for a player in his 14th NBA season whose game depends so much on perimeter speed and quick-strike jumpers.
According to ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton: "Parker's stunning decline from All-NBA second-teamer a year ago to below replacement level this season isn't the only reason the Spurs have yet to make the leap everyone has expected from them, but no other factor looms larger."
Though Parker's seeming decline can be traced to mileage and persistent hamstring injuries, the rest of the Spurs may be suffering from mental slippage. It's hard to blame them.
A letdown in drive and intensity can't be a surprise—not after the Spurs played almost perfectly in their title run a year ago. That brilliant surge, that legitimate piece of basketball art, had the sense of an ultimate achievement. It felt like the peak of something, not a step toward even more upward progress.
Put another way, knocking off the Miami Heat in last year's NBA Finals didn't create a hunger for more within the Spurs because they were already full.
You'd be full too if you'd dominated for almost two decades and avenged a gut-wrenching championship-round loss.
Despite all that, this is still a discussion of doubt—not dismissal.
For the first time, the Spurs are showing signs of frailty. Signs that even they appear to be concerned by.
But Duncan is still inexplicably awesome, the team is relatively healthy (save, perhaps, for Parker), and Kawhi Leonard could very well shake off the injury-related rust that has kept him from continuing his breakout this season.
The youngest member of San Antonio's core fought off an eye infection early on, and then he missed 17 games because of a torn ligament in his hand.
When asked if he'd ever gotten comfortable this year, Leonard replied, per McDonald: "A couple games here and there. But not where I want it to be.”
Critically, the system is still in place, the leadership is as strong as ever and the principles that have always defined the Spurs remain rock solid.
Besides, in this year's Western Conference, playoff seeding will hardly matter. Eight absurdly dangerous teams will square off in April, and it'll be hard to call any outcome an upset.
There's no realistic scenario in which San Antonio doesn't make the playoffs. Even after a four-game slide, it has a four-game cushion between itself and the No. 9 spot. And neither the Phoenix Suns nor the New Orleans Pelicans profile as a threat.
Even when the circumstances look worse than they ever have, the Spurs are still in a stable position.
As has been the case for a very long time, it's unwise to count the Spurs out.
But it feels more appropriate than ever to worry.