Death. Taxes. The San Antonio Spurs.
For well over a decade, San Antonio has been a lock to win 50 games—a feat accomplished every year since 1998-99, when it went 37-13 during a lockout-shortened season and ended up winning the NBA title anyway.
But not this season. With Kawhi Leonard still sidelined, a diminished version of the franchise fights to stay afloat in the Western Conference playoff race. Suddenly, everything is different, and you shouldn't be fooled by its ability to hang tight against the Golden State Warriors on the road in an early March outing.
At first blush, the Spurs' 110-107 loss to the Dubs looks promising. They led for most of the night, only ceding the scoreboard advantage late in the fourth quarter after Kevin Durant started shooting flames. LaMarcus Aldridge was excellent for much of the proceedings, finishing with 30 points, 17 rebounds and four assists on 11-of-20 shooting from the field.
But closer examination unveils the same issues we've seen in recent Spurs outings, and not just because JaVale McGee provided some highlight-reel rejections:
The defense looked shaky at times, uncharacteristically missing rotations and leaving members of Golden State uncovered in the painted area. Somehow, it often appeared worse after Stephen Curry went back to the locker room in the first quarter with a rolled ankle and never re-emerged. NBA analyst Nate Duncan was one of many to notice the questionable communication and, at times, seemingly apathetic rotations:
Aside from Aldridge, the offense wasn't much better—an issue that has tormented San Antonio for most of 2017-18.
When in need of a bucket, the Spurs would either throw the ball to their power forward and hope he could create against multiple defenders or rely on slow-developing plays that failed to materialize against Golden State's stopping efforts. They didn't have the creators necessary to capitalize on the Warriors' mistakes, with far too many possessions ending with a Kyle Anderson drive into the paint or a contested jumper.
The final score misrepresented the strength of the team, just as the season-long record (37-28) masks the struggles that keep the perennial contenders well outside the list of reasonable title threats.
Playoffs Aren't Guaranteed
At this point, we can safely write off a 50-win season. Perhaps this might've unfolded differently if Kawhi Leonard's balky quadriceps had remained in working order, but the Spurs aren't losing just four more games for the rest of the season. And given the unpredictability of the Western Conference, that may doom them in the hunt for one of the eight coveted playoff berths.
The Warriors and Houston Rockets are guaranteed entry. The Portland Trail Blazers and New Orleans Pelicans are trending toward the postseason. Beyond that, two of the following teams will miss the playoffs: Minnesota Timberwolves (reeling after the loss of Jimmy Butler), Oklahoma City Thunder (reeling after the loss of Andre Roberson), Los Angeles Clippers (the least talented of the contenders), Utah Jazz (red-hot, but digging out of a hole), Denver Nuggets (trying to reincorporate Paul Millsap) and Spurs.
The Spurs sit just two games clear of the Clippers, Nuggets and Jazz, and two factors remain troubling in their quest for a 21st consecutive playoff appearance—a streak that dates back to Tim Duncan's rookie season out of Wake Forest.
First, they have the league's toughest remaining schedule. Per Tankathon, these are the winning percentages of the unplayed opponents for each of the eight postseason challengers, ordered from toughest to easiest:
- San Antonio Spurs, .580
- Oklahoma City Thunder, .559
- Portland Trail Blazers, .553
- New Orleans Pelicans, .552
- Los Angeles Clippers, .541
- Denver Nuggets, .506
- Minnesota Timberwolves, .495
- Utah Jazz, .485
That would be troubling enough in a vacuum, even if the Spurs of old made a living of upsetting favored teams and proving they're an unkillable entity. But this year, everything feels different.
After its loss to Golden State on Thursday night, San Antonio is now an unpalatable 6-15 against the nine other Western playoff contenders. The Spurs have feasted on lesser foes, racking up a disproportionate percentage of their wins against bottom-feeders. Worse still, a 2-0 record against the Clippers, who I maintain are the least talented squad in the hunt, pushes the win-loss record into less-awful territory.
But again, these are the Spurs. Surely they're playing quality basketball and getting unlucky. Surely a rip-roaring win streak is coming. Right?
Except that's the second issue. Plagued by injuries, ineffectiveness and a shocking lack of discipline on defense, San Antonio has been thoroughly mediocre in recent months.
Dating back to the beginning of February, the Spurs rank No. 17 in net rating, sandwiched directly between the Nuggets and Milwaukee Bucks. They've been outscored by 0.2 points per 100 possessions, due primarily to a defense that's suddenly become incapable of stopping anyone. San Antonio sits at an uncharacteristic No. 18 in defensive rating, and it only falls five spots higher in the offensive counterpart.
Those aren't the marks of a playoff lock, regardless of what history and the enduring presence of head coach Gregg Popovich might lead you to believe.
But let's say San Antonio overcomes its struggles and works its way into the field all the same. We still have to deal with some un-Spursiness.
Don't Expect Anything in the Postseason
For the sake of the argument, let's assume everything goes right.
The Spurs right the ship against the league's most difficult slate and climb up the Western Conference standings until they sit in the No. 3 seed. Pau Gasol gets healthy. Rudy Gay stays in working order. Kawhi Leonard is back in business.
"I don't have a set date right now [for my return]," Leonard recently said, per ESPN.com's Michael C. Wright. "The progress I've been making has been great. [The pain] is diminishing. It's hard to explain, but I'm definitely better. I feel better, and I'm feeling more comfortable."
Again, we're assuming the best.
Even in that situation, even with one of the league's 10 best players returning to action at full strength, the Spurs still aren't going to emerge as a team that strikes fear into the hearts of opponents. They'd be viewed as a squad on upset alert in the opening round; then they'd have to deal with a juggernaut in the second should they stave off a challenger. Enormous difficulty with the Rockets or Warriors, against whom they're a combined 0-5, would await.
San Antonio's dirty little secret all season has been its inability to score with any semblance of consistency—an issue that has depressed it to No. 17 in offensive rating on the year and would prove fatal against either of the Western Conference bosses, both of which boast historic scoring units.
Obviously, that'll change with Leonard in the fold. But by enough to dethrone one of those two teams seemingly bound for a semifinals clash? That's a tough ask, especially now that the defense is showing significant holes.
It's that defense that has allowed for petrifying stats like this one from The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor:
"Of the 18 teams with records above .500, only the Bucks (14-24) and Clippers (11-23) have a worse record than the Spurs (13-21) against teams above .500. The Spurs pummel teams below .500 by 8.6 points per 100 possessions but get outscored by 1.8 points per 100 possessions against teams above .500. Only the Knicks, Bulls and Clippers see a more significant drop-off based on the strength of the opponent. That's a terrifying sign."
Again, Leonard will help with this. He just won't be enough to put a scare into the Rockets or Warriors. Even last year, at the peak of his powers, he only improved the Spurs' net rating by two points per 100 possessions while on the floor.
The Spurs had designed systems that helped minimize the impact of any one player. Now, that's an issue for a roster devoid of the talent levels populating it in previous seasons.
Aldridge is good for plenty of explosive games, but you can't rely on him as a defensive stopper. Gasol's limited mobility must be accounted for. Tony Parker's defense and Dejounte Murray's limited shooting range turn the leading point guards into one-way threats. Patty Mills and Danny Green have been inconsistent. Kyle Anderson's defense is magnificent, but the slow-footed forward isn't always impactful on offense.
The list goes on, making you wonder how Popovich has already squeezed this many victories out of a limited, mismatched roster.
To be clear, the Spurs are not a bad team. That shouldn't be your takeaway from the negativity. They're just not the unrelenting force they've served as in previous seasons, no matter what the similarity of their uniforms might initially lead you to believe.
With or without Leonard, they have serious flaws and a lack of success against the top teams they'll have to beat in order to make a seventh appearance in the NBA Finals.
This version of San Antonio isn't the dynastic one of old. Just don't take that as a sign that you should go searching for the Fountain of Youth and attempt to defy the ongoing inevitability of death.
And please. Don't use this decline as an excuse to avoid paying your taxes in April.