Confused Spurs still aiming for No. 1 seed
Gregg Popovich’s demeanor was unusually frivolous prior to Saturday’s tip against the Atlanta Hawks. He had a persistent smirk, a back-and-forth, swaying posture and an “ask me a question and see what happens” look to him. So, naturally, I did.
After Pop announced Nando De Colo would start in place of the injured Tony Parker, I asked him to comment on the rookie point guard’s progress. How much has Nando improved?
“36.5 percent,” he quipped before shrugging his shoulders and shaking his head.
Pop’s goofy sarcasm and terse yet vague answers seemed to reflect on the state of things around the Spurs’ locker room. As it turns out, we’re not the only ones confused by the team’s performance over the last month.
“(We’re) not as good as we were two months ago,” Pop said, specifically referring to his defense. “I don’t know why. Lots of reasons. We’d done a great job at it and we backslid, as they say.”
And as he said, there are plenty of identifiable reasons as to why the Spurs have dropped off, despite regaining the lead position in the race for the West’s top spot two nights ago. Whether it’s injuries, rest, fatigue or attrition, things haven’t been right for San Antonio since Parker first went down with a sprained left ankle on the first night of March. Tack on yet another hamstring injury to Manu Ginobili and the numbers have been falling freely.
The Spurs have resided in the top 5 on both offense and defense for the majority of the season, something Popovich placed a paramount on last summer. But over the last 17 games (beginning with the March 3 game against Detroit, when Cory Joseph made his first start of the season), San Antonio’s defensive-efficiency rating has dropped from 98.1 to 102.1 points allowed per 100 possessions, which is tenth in the league during that timeframe. That middle-of-the-pack range defensively is what the Spurs were desperately trying to avoid in the wake of several years worth of disappointing playoff exits.
What carried San Antonio to those high seeds in recent years, though, was an elite offense. While their defense hardly brought back memories of the team’s title runs, the Spurs were setting a franchise precedent on the offensive end, putting up numbers never before seen during the Popovich, Tim Duncan era. Even with the improved defense this season, San Antonio was able to sustain high point totals and an offensive-efficiency rating of 107.3, good for fourth in the NBA up until the Parker injury. But since then that number has crashed.
Since March 3, San Antonio’s 104.4 points per 100 possessions is brutally average — 15th out of 30 teams. The Spurs’ 57.7 true-shooting percentage was third in the league through the end of February, but since then this team has fallen to 11th in the same category. Furthermore, the success the silver and black had from the paint — in many ways the lifeblood of the Spurs’ offense — dropped nearly four percentage points from its average through the first four months of the season. And as a result, however indirectly, their efficiency has dropped off from beyond the arc as well. San Antonio’s drive-and-kick offense isn’t nearly as effective without its two best playmakers, but that’s pretty obvious.
Basically, across the board, the Spurs have had their issues in recent weeks. They’ve stopped scoring as efficiently as they’re accustomed to, the defense has slipped, and because of it all they find themselves in a battle for first place out West after recently giving up a three-game cushion.
Or maybe the more appropriate phrasing would be, despite all of that, they still sit atop their conference.
Even with all the issues, all the problems that have surfaced, the Spurs still lead the Thunder by a full game in the standings, they still control their own destiny and certain star players are potentially on the verge of returning from injury in the near future. And as they do, San Antonio will inch closer to properly situating rotations and personnel groupings over the course of the next five games.
And is it really just as simple as that? Are these struggles basically just tied to the rash of injuries this team has experienced? It’s easy to look at the big, fat DNP labels next to the names of guys like Ginobili and Parker and point to them as the reasons for the slide, but only time will tell if that is indeed the case. This team has stressed the importance of health relentlessly over the years, even if it sacrifices the overrated idea of momentum. So from here, all San Antonio can do is wait.
The Spurs, after all, have been through the process before.
“The good thing about it, we’ve been in this game a long time, so we know how to deal with the bumps and bruises,” Stephen Jackson said at a recent shootaround. “But I guarantee, come playoff time, everybody will be ready to go.
Stats courtesy of NBA.com/stats