By Dan Ehrlich
Contributor to Project Spurs
The 2009-10 season is still very much in its infancy. The Spurs have only played a handful of games so far, and it is clearly too early to make any firm conclusions either way. There is no doubt that the thumping of Chris Paul’s Hornets on opening night gave us a hint of how good the team can potentially be, with a bench that some say is the best the team had in recent memory.
Not long after that, though, the Spurs also displayed early season jitters in heavy losses at Utah and Portland. Being at the 0.500 mark is not too surprising. The fact remains that the wins so far all came at home, and that the Spurs are still winless on the road so far. They have in fact lost their first 3 regular season road games for the first time in 16 seasons, and all of them in pretty emphatic fashion. The reason that this is cause for concern, in my view, lies in the schedule for the remainder of the season.
Having a sneak peek into what’s awaiting the Spurs in the months leading to mid-season, an unusually home-heavy schedule is revealed. By the time the team embarks on its annual Rodeo Road Trip in early February, the Spurs would have already played 29 home games versus only 17 road games. That is quite a significant discrepancy, which then of course has to be balanced out by a very road-heavy schedule in the second, and crucial half of the regular season. In February, March and April, the team will go on no less than 24 roadies, with only 12 games at the AT&T centre.
Why is this a potential cause of concern, you might ask? Shouldn’t a home-heavy schedule allow the Spurs the get into a good run of wins, given their great start at home? That is of course a plausible argument, and there is obviously a good chance the Spurs will head into the latter half of the season sitting on a very good record. My concern is actually more around what happens if the Spurs do not capitalize on this opportunity and head into a very tough stretch run needing to win a lot of tough road games in order to get a good playoff seed and to avoid playing teams like the Lakers or the Nuggets early on in the battlefield that is the Western Conference Playoffs.
To see why this is a cause for concern, and why the next few weeks could prove crucial to the season, here are a couple of points to consider:
Let’s remind ourselves that the Spurs are not normally at their best in the first half of the regular season. Pop usually uses this time of year to determine the most efficient rotations; the starting unit and the pecking order on the bench. He cares more about players learning the system and gaining experience than winning every game. This season, more than most, there is a lot of jelling and system-learning to do for multiple key rotation players such as Jefferson, McDyess and Blair. As a result, fans and experts alike expect the Spurs to have some early-season rustiness, leading to a sub-par game here and there that can give a perennial lottery team such as Memphis a surprising road win in the Alamo City.
Most of those who have followed the Spurs over the past couple of seasons know that Pop will choose some nights to rest one or two of the "Big Three" in order to save them for the playoffs, especially in the second night of back-to-backs. He would do that even if it means sacrificing the game for it. This point is actually mainly applicable for the road-heavy second half of the season.
Starting February, the Spurs have eight back-to-backs, where the second leg of those back-to-backs include games at Portland, New Orleans, Orlando, Phoenix and Denver. Most fans would agree with me that resting key players in such games would make those games extremely hard to win, despite having a great bench this year. Let’s not forget the above opponents will all have playoffs seeds to fight for. If the Spurs do not come into this stretch of the season with a decent record, there is a danger of either getting a low playoff seed, or risking injury to key players by playing them more than Pop would ideally want.
The Western Conference’s top echelon is as competitive as it has ever been. LA Lakers, Portland, Denver, Dallas, Houston, New Orleans, maybe even Phoenix and Utah, could all pass the 50-win mark. A couple of extra losses here or there could mean facing the Lakers very early on, maybe even in the first round.
Given the above points, it gets apparent to me that this regular season could turn out to be much tougher than expected if the Spurs don’t capitalize on the upcoming string of home-stands and head to the Rodeo Road Trip with only an “OK” record. It will be important for Pop and the coaching staff to very carefully plan their approach to the schedule so that, on one hand, the new players are still given the time they need to get confident and to learn the Spurs system, but on the other hand, the team also does not lose sight of what is coming later in the season and realises that they cannot afford to drop many home games early on.
In the coming few weeks, the Spurs play at home to teams such as Oklahoma City, Milwaukee, Golden State, Philadelphia, Sacramento, Charlotte, LA Clippers, Minnesota, New Jersey and Memphis. These are all games that the Spurs should really win at home, with or without any early season rustiness. And I do think that resting the Big Three in the second leg of back-to-backs later in the season is probably more important as far as the playoffs are concerned than anything else. To be able to do that, the Spurs will have to make sure enough wins are earned in the easier, home-dominated, first-half schedule.
Getting 60+ wins suddenly sounds a tad harder now. All of this is actually one of the reasons why I personally predicted only 54 wins for the Spurs this season, and the more I think about it, the more I realize even 54 would actually be a very good achievement considering the circumstances. I hope, of course, that the Spurs prove my concerns to be completely baseless by playing like road warriors later on in the season and therefore compensating for any silly early home losses. However, I’d still rather have the luxury of being able to rest our big three late in the season to keep them fresh for the playoffs by capitalizing on the extended home cooking the Spurs are about to get in the upcoming few weeks.