Halfway to 70, but is it sustainable?
Halfway in, and halfway to 70, the San Antonio Spurs are on a franchise-best pace that few other teams have matched in NBA history. Yet, to believe that the Spurs can actually achieve 70 wins one would have to be, as head coach Gregg Popovich put it–drunk.
A team whose core is aged this much, who treat the occasional regular season game with such nonchalance, cannot possibly be expected to keep up with this pace, right? In theory, eventually this team will take its foot off the gas and suffer a few let downs.
But still, 35-6â€¦
Since 1987 five teams have reached at least 35 wins at the halfway mark, with only the 72-win Chicago Bulls keeping pace (research courtesy of our own Scott Sereday). These Spurs are not those Bulls. But even if 70 wins is out of the question, there are valid reasons to think that this success is sustainable.
And if this team should somehow find itself with an outside shot at 70, it might not be as much of a fluke as one would think.
Common sense dictates there are several legitimate hurdles factoring against the Spurs run at greatness, the biggest four being as follows: Regression to the mean, the gas pedal theory, health, and luck
Regression to the Mean
Given expectations heading into the season, there is a thought that the San Antonio Spurs, while an elite team, will eventually regress back to a more common mean. That a team that is still not trying their hardest is somehow playing over their heads.
Perhaps the most encouraging sign of this early season success is that outside of an inflated team record, there is not an individual player or component that is playing beyond their reasonable capabilities. Realistically, only Matt Bonnerâ€™s 50% three-point shooting shines as a positive outlier.
The lone player to play above their heads for a significant stretch this season was Richard Jefferson. But even as his game has regressed to a more reasonable mean, his improvements in three-point shooting and defense have remained. The improved shooting is not a statistical anomaly, but a valid improvement quantifiable by both statistical data and visual evidence.
Backcourt backups George Hill and Gary Neal have been good, but not out of the ordinary, and starting point guard Tony Parker is having a bounce back year well within his career norms, even if they havenâ€™t reached his peak season.
His backcourt partner and Spursâ€™ leading scorer Manu Ginobili hovers just outside Most Valuable Player discussion, but even at an advanced age, none of his production is questionable. His scoring numbers have been inflated by a large increase in three-pointers made and attempted. But itâ€™s not as if he is hitting them at an unprecedented rate.
For the most part, Ginobili still remains a slightly better than league average shooter. His early season success is more change of approach than an unsustainable hot streak.
If anything, from an individual standpoint, the San Antonio Spurs have seen three players perform below expectations and a fourth out due to injury. Duncan, DeJuan Blair, and Tiago Splitter have not had as strong a season as many predicted, and any expected regression in other players could easily be offset by expected improvement from these three, along with the eventual return of James Anderson.
The Gas Pedal Theory
Another reason that the Spurs will not reach 70 is that Popovich simply will not pursue it. Given a choice, Popovich will always rest starters in favor of playoff success over regular season glory.
But to think the Spurs will eventually take their foot off the gas is to assume that they have it on there in the first place. This is not the post-Larry Brown Pistons or Boston Celtics, playing their top six players 35-45 minutes on a nightly basis. Â
There has been no special approach to this season. Minutes are still rationed, and the Spurs continue to play for the bigger picture. The only exception is that, unlike in previous seasons, there has been no tinkering with the rotation. For the most part, each unit Popovich has employed has worked.
Even if all this team does is slowly decrease the minute restrictions, it will improve. But there also is the possibility that between Tiago Splitter and James Anderson, the Spurs will have one more viable rotation player ready to contribute.
Luck and Health
Luck favors the prepared. Coin flips games are those decided in the final minutes that statistically are 50-50 propositions. Every team is privy to such good fortune, but not every team is capable of taking advantage of it.
In Popovich, the Spurs have the best coach diagramming plays out of timeouts. Combined with players savvy and skilled enough to execute them, the Spurs will win their fair share of luck games because when fortune swings their way they are most prepared to take advantage.
The only thing that the Spurs cannot account for, the only fluke in the whole process if you will, is health.
Health is the theme of the entire season, has been for the past several years. Health is what has kept the Spurs from the full potential we are starting to get glimpses of now. But while this is somewhat out of their control, the Spurs do try and sway luck in their favor by limiting minutes and wear and tear on their players.
Which brings me to my main point. This team is not on a mission to destroy the league, the way the 72-win Bulls did. The process has been remarkably the same.
The Spurs have incorporated several new pieces (Gary Neal, the starting DeJuan Blair, improved versions of Jefferson and Parker, Splitter and Anderson) while limiting players minutes. Their defense, in a big shock, has started to show signs of life heading into the second half of the season.
This is a team that will never strive for 70 wins. This is a team that is still holding back, and as such, will not reach such lofty heights. They’ve essentially backed into their record.
But still, 35-6…