The State of the Spurs

These days, San Antonio attaining a 50-win season is about as bankable as Jennifer Lawrence. The Spurs are currently on track for their 17th consecutive winning season (their 24th of the past 25 years). Yet, here we are in late February, and the same old question, “are the Spurs still among the NBA’s elite?” still lingers….

We are sometimes fast to jump on young upstarts, and brush aside the old stalwart Spurs. Heck, why not? It’s more fun talking about Kevin Durant’s historic scoring streak than Tim Duncan’s creaky knees and trusty bank-shot. There are few genuine contenders every season and each year the majority of those teams hold the distinction of relying on an experienced and tested core group. Despite enduring a string of rotten injuries, Portland’s raging start, Houston’s retooling and Blake Griffin’s expanding offense, somehow the Spurs sit second in the Western Conference standings with an impressive 40-16 record.

When San Antonio handed Miami the championship last season, numerous NBA ‘experts’ all but wrote the Spurs off as genuine contenders heading into this season.  Hall of Famer and TNT analyst Charles Barkley, for instance, predicted that the Spurs would fall behind the Warriors and the Clippers. So far, San Antonio has denied the naysayers and survived the wild Western Conference by relying on unusual lineups, unlikely contributors and a trusted system. They have been anything but conventional and Coach Gregg Popovich would have it no other way.

In his eighteenth season as the Spurs head coach, Popovich is perhaps having his finest season yet.  He’s even starting to reveal parts of his softer side to the media…

Pop has used an incredible 24 different starting lineups this season. To put this into context, Portland has used just two. The Spurs have conjured road wins and survived back-to-backs with a backcourt that has sometimes consisted of only Cory Joseph, Nando De Colo and Patty Mills. Seriously, Pop could probably coach a playoff team with me standing in the corner jacking up threes every night.

Considering the Spurs are 18-6 without Tony Parker, and 12-6 without Duncan over the past two seasons, and that they haven’t played with its full strength lineup in 53 days, the future hall of fame coach is doing a masterful job.

Aside from Popovich’s comically mischievous sideline interviews, there’s a surreal feeling to this Spurs season. ESPN’s George Karl recently claimed that Tim Duncan is considering retirement.  Moreover, Pop added that without Tim Duncan, he’ll be “coaching the JVs Pomona.” Nostalgia seems to be flowing through the Alamo.

So, is this really The Big Fundamental’s last season?

“I don’t know what I’m going to do so I don’t know how he knows what I’m going to do,” Duncan said in response to Karl’s comments.

If Duncan does decide to call it quits, it will be as devastating as Alf Stewart leaving The Bay. Of course, we’re probably not going to hear about it until next season’s training camp. I imagine the opening exchange between Coach Pop and reporters to go something along these lines.

Reporter: Pop, umm, where’s Timmy?

Popovich: What?… Oh crap, yeah, he retired.

With a player option worth $10 million for 2014-15, The Big Fundamental is most likely to go around for one more run. Even at age 37, Duncan is averaging 15 points, 10 rebounds and 2 blocks on the year. Aside from a slow start, Duncan has been playing at his usual All Star level. He’s still playing intelligent, impactful defense and is still as crafty as ever on the low block.

The Spurs have maintained the contender status ever since Duncan entered the league and it would be presumptuous to think that circumstances have changed.

There is no NBA person, other than probably David Kahn, who would evaluate the Spurs’ roster as loaded with talent. The team is really just a bunch of old stars surrounded by well-drilled role players.

In many ways, this year’s Spurs are a deeper and more flexible version of the team that finished a rebound away from being NBA Champions last year. Marco Belinelli and Patty “Thrills” Mills are having career years. Belinelli, in particular, is crucial to the Spurs’ rotation. He plays off Manu Ginobili brilliantly and his hot-hand shooting, creative passing and high basketball IQ make him a perfect fit in the Spurs system.

And then there’s everyone’s favourite Australian, Patty Mills, whose career, at one stage, seemed to be headed for a strangely entertaining duel with Robert Sacre and Kent Bazemore in the Bench Gee-Ups Power Rankings.

P. Thrills has transformed his role as the exotic foreign cheerleader to Tony Parker’s primary backup by committing to the weight-room and playing to his strengths. Patty has averaged 17.5 points per game thus far in February and his ability to be an effective “heat-check” guy and play pesky defense renders him a genuine x-factor this post-season.

However, let’s be honest - the Spurs are not posing as a championship threat if Parker, suffering from “a variety of maladies”, can’t rediscover his MVP-like form. Duncan might be the team’s foundation, but Parker is the motor. The Spurs’ motion offense, which is predicated on pick-and-rolls, backdoor cuts and unselfish ball movement, is most effective when Parker is running the point. The Spurs set double, triple and even quadruple screens for Parker in an effort to play off his creative genius.

San Antonio heavily relies on Parker’s ability to withstand the nightly pounding from nosey defenders. His toughness and durability are two of his most underrated qualities. Even at 31, Tony is still one of the game’s finest finishers at the rim.

Parker’s importance is even more telling when we look at San Antonio’s 3-11 record against the top six teams in the league. While their record can be construed as disturbing, the reality is quite different. Some may blame back-to-back scheduling or poor stretches on the defensive end, but ultimately, it’s about the little Frenchman’s struggle to find his energy (averaging 14.5 points against the elite) after fighting through a seven-game NBA Finals series and leading France to European gold.

Parker has mostly been able to get by this season with a few games here or there against the Poop Conference and the Lakers. Yet, when faced with the clever Chris Paul or explosive Damian Lillard, Parker’s burst of speed and acceleration on pick and rolls have diminished. Heck, in his last game before the All Star break, Parker looked more like Big Baby in transition.

Hmmmm, maybe not quite that bad.

The Spurs are a middling playoff team without a firing Parker and Kawhi Leonard’s perimeter defense and rebounding (get well soon, Kawhi). Yet, we’ve already seen this script, where San Antonio meanders through the regular season and then turns it on during the postseason. Last year, the Spurs finished the final 20 games of the regular season at .500. If there is a team whose regular-season results should be considered with a grain of salt, it’s the Spurs.

The Duncan-led Spurs have won, choked and even managed to rip out a part of me that I might never get back (cheers, Ray Allen). Sure, time is ticking on San Antonio’s championship clock, but it has been ticking ever since 2007.

As the old saying goes: it ain’t over till the annoying Spurs lady screams.

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