Are the Spurs concerns real or is this turning into another case of San Antonio flying under the radar?
The San Antonio Spurs have made the playoffs every year since 1998, winning five NBA championships during that impressive 17-year streak. Their earliest title win during this streak occurred in 1999, and their latest coming last season against the LeBron James led Miami Heat. The model of consistency in the NBA, San Antonio is always a threat in the NBA Playoffs.
Their identity has changed over the years. At times they were dominant, and at other times there would be a monkey they just couldn’t get off their backs. This season, they’ve started to fly under the radar, and that’s dangerous for other teams. The situation that San Antonio is in right now may make them even more dangerous as well.
Currently holding the 7th seed with a 24-16 record, San Antonio sits nine games behind the 1st seed and holds a 1.5-game lead over the Phoenix Suns. San Antonio lost 20 games all of last season. A quick glance at the standings and you would think San Antonio’s dynasty is ready to end. While there is a bit of a drop-off compared to last season, San Antonio is still playing on an elite level while they have every excuse not to.
Injuries always play a part in professional sports, and they can easily derail a team’s season. The great Gregg Popovich is adding to the legacy of his career with another gem of a season. Systematically managing his roster, Pop has coached his team to victory throughout the season with key injuries to players, most notably Patty Mills, Tiago Splitter and superstars Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard. The four players have combined to miss 85-games. Even with the absence of these players, San Antonio still holds a sizeable lead for the 7th seed.
Mills and Splitter were key players involved in the Spurs run to the championship last year. Mills was especially dangerous as he proved he can shoot the three-ball effectively (42.5% 3-PT last season) and missing that firepower unquestionably slows down the Spurs offense. He has slowly made his return to the line up averaging just a bit over 23 minutes per game. He has been productive with the three as well making at least one three pointer in six out of nine games.
The timing couldn’t have gone any better as Tony Parker returned to lineup shortly after. Incorporating Parker, Mills and Splitter back into the lineup together won’t be the smoothest transition, as San Antonio wants to build that same championship chemistry from last season. However, the movement towards success truly begins when Kawhi Leonard makes his return to the lineup. As of today, Leonard is listed probable for a January 16 matchup against the Portland Trailblazers.
There’s no doubt that San Antonio misses their rising star. After their game against the Charlotte Hornets, Popovich said that the Spurs stink on defense without Kawhi Leonard. “That’s the bottom line. He does all kinds of stuff for us. He guards the best player. He guards a couple of different guys. He rebounds the position. He makes steals. He covers for his teammates. He is huge on D.” said Popovich. The Finals MVP from last season is in fact turning into the new face of the franchise on this San Antonio squad. His return to the lineup is the start of San Antonio’s run toward the playoffs.
Coach Popovich couldn’t have said it any better. The impact Leonard makes on defense is immense. That is not the only thing he impacts though. His impact goes beyond the stat sheet. With Leonard out on the floor, he takes pressure off of other players as his all around play makes defense key in on him. That makes it easier for Parker and Duncan to get theirs while freeing up shooters such as Mills, Danny Green, and Marco Belinelli.
The return of Leonard is key in jumpstarting their midseason run. His return could also signal less minutes for Parker, Ginobili, and Duncan as Coach Pop has a tendency of resting his Big Three as the season drags on. Yes, Leonard needs to ease back into it, but there is no rush for him to be playing big minutes. There isn’t a sense of urgency in San Antonio and they are still winning games. However, Leonard is still young and still has a lot of miles to put on his legs. If things start turning sour any time soon, Pop will be forced to play his hand.
Despite their hurdles this season, San Antonio is in a perfect position to sneak into the championship race. Their key players are returning from injury and, sooner or later, the Spurs will find their groove. There is some cause for concern regarding minutes played for Tim Duncan as the future Hall-of-Famer is averaging 31.0 minutes per game, his highest MPG total since 2009-10. Even so, Tim Duncan can still get the job done regardless of minutes played. With the success that San Antonio has this season, why is it we still don’t focus in on their success. Why do we tend to write them off so early?
Is it because they play “boring ball”? Do we just fail to recognize them? Or is San Antonio getting losing their touch?
What we should recognize is that San Antonio is gearing up for one last title run for the trio of Parker, Ginobili and Duncan as Father Time is getting ready to take home another victory.
What San Antonio should look to accomplish is to at least earn the 4th seed in the West. Home-court advantage is important any time but especially in the playoffs and especially in the Western Conference. San Antonio has proved to defend home court this season as they have gone 13-6 in the AT&T Center.
With the return of Leonard, the championship roster will finally be back on the floor and the rest of the NBA better watch out.