This article was originally published in The Field at scroll.in on February 2, 2017.
This happens every season.
The San Antonio Spurs are dismissed from the playoff picture every single season. Either they are too old (2009-2013), or too devastated (2013-‘14).
This season they ought to have been both old and devastated. They brought on an aging Pau Gasol to pair with a sluggish LaMarcus Aldridge, when the league is moving towards lighter, faster, more dynamic offense. They have three key players well into their 40s. And the biggest change of all; they lost Tim Duncan, the greatest power forward in NBA history, to retirement.
Fans would have understood if the Spurs did not do what they always do, quietly dominate the season and make a deep run into the playoffs. After all, despite Leonard’s brilliance, the Spurs did not look like a playoff bound team on paper.
Luckily for them basketball is not played on paper.
The Spurs greatness is the reason why they get taken for granted; people either expect them to be there in the playoff mix, or forgive them for any dip in performance because, well, they (Spurs) are old (and devastated).
For Gregg Popovich and the Spurs, this is routine. The Spurs are a machine that just keeps on going.
A machine that just keeps on going
Take for instance this season.
They have the second best record in the league at 37-11, four games behind the Golden State Warriors (41-7), and the second best road record at 20-5 behind, well, the Golden State Warriors.
They lead the league in three-point field-goal percentage (3P%), with 41% and have the second best field-goal percentage (FG%) at 48%.
Defensively, they hold opponents to 99.2 PPG, second to the Utah Jazz, and rank among the top ten in Opponent FG% (44%, 6th) and Opponent 3P% (34%, 2nd).
In addition to featuring in the top ten in nearly every meaningful statistical category.
More importantly though they are 17-6 against teams that are playoff bound (as off the time of this article), second to the Warriors who are 17-4.
Considering all these numbers indicate they are second best to the blazing Warriors, are the Spurs legit title contenders?
So are they really title contenders?
That is where it gets tricky.
Long answer: No, they are not. They go ten deep, which sufficient in the regular season, but the talent to hold off better teams drops off significantly after their starting five. Other title contenders have kept their core intact over multiple seasons, the Spurs have to contend with a roster that is still earning their playoff chops. They have also finished a whopping 16 games with a score differential of five or less (9-7 record) leading all five legit title contenders. That’s dangerous territory in the postseason.
Defensively, their most used and successful lineup features both Gasol and Aldridge who are mediocre at switching on defence, a big drawback when playing a seven game series against longer, quicker, more versatile teams. The Warriors and the Cavaliers, both, have at least two (if not three) high scoring stars. The Spurs do have Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard, two elite defenders to cover up for any defensive shortfall on the part of their frontcourt. However, Leonard is now is tasked with the responsibility of carrying the Spurs offensively as well, something that is bound to take a marginal toll on this defence.
Short Answer: Yes. They have Gregg Popovich. And they are the San Antonio Spurs. Do you even remember the last time they were not a contender? Thought so.