So that just happened. Forty-two games are in the book, the NBA season’s official midway now in the rear view, and the Spurs are exactly where everyone thought they’d be.
San Antonio, Texas.
But their league standing? Not even the most optimistic or delusional of fans could have seen this start coming. An improvement? Sure. The San Antonio Spurs ranking amongst the top handful of teams? Absolutely. A little good fortune on the health front and the added bonus of some actual continuity with a returning roster largely intact, surely the Spurs would be improved and avoid the type of start that plagued their 2009-10 campaign. But 36-6? Let me repeat that: 36-6? Yeah, that just happened.
Coming into the 2010-11 season, a reasonable expectation—and a tad optimistic for some—would have been a Western Conference finals appearance or even a loss to the eventual Finals participant. If the Spurs could just manage to stay upright and keep their pieces on the floor, the talent was certainly there for them to hold their own against any team in the league. But they had a ceiling.
The Spurs weren’t a team deemed by most to be championship-caliber, not without a move or two anyway. Few if any believed them to be on the same level as the Lakers or Celtics or even the talent taken to and amassed on South Beach. For all intents and purposes, this Spurs team’s title aspirations were on life support, a ventilator being the only hope for one last championship breath. They were the old guard. The elite of the league, well, they had passed them by. Someone apparently failed to notify the Spurs, though. Or, maybe they’ve just benefited from a sort of selective amnesia—placebo’s are all the rage, just ask George Hill about his extraordinary bracelet.
After the official midway of last year’s NBA season, the Spurs had used sixteen different starting lineups. Let that sink in … 16 (17 and another loss would come in the next game). Their 25-16 record—the worst start for any team during the Duncan era—was good for 8th overall. They ranked 10th in points per game (101.0) and 27th in free throw percentage (.737). A record of 17-7 was the best they could muster in their first twenty-four home games and the road treated them to the tune of 8-9. The Spurs would play twelve more games before the All-Star break and finish with a record of 30-21, a point differential (average margin of victory) of 4.7.
Just one year later and with essentially the same roster, the Spurs are both the league’s best home team (23-2)—currently riding a 16-game home winning streak; the longest since winning 16 straight during the 2004-2005 campaign—and road team, posting a record of 13-4 away from the friendly confines. The Spurs rank 5th in points (104.7) and 6th in assists (23.2) per game—the former marking their highest output since 1994-95 (106.6) and the latter of which being their highest since 1995-96 (24.9). Their .396 three-point percentage is good for 2nd overall and the Spurs’ .778 free throw percentage is good for 10th, seventeen spots better than a year ago. And their point differential? A healthy 7.98, more than 3 points better than this time last year. The team’s SRS (Simple Rating System: margin of victory and strength of schedule) is currently 7.97, more than one point better than both Miami (6.90) and Boston (6.78) and more than two points better than the defending champion Lakers (5.78)—the Spurs have averaged an SRS of 7.24 in their championship seasons. The Spurs are putting up numbers that a stat-based basketball analyst simply can’t ignore.
And the more you look at the historical significance of this current team’s statistics and record, it’s hard not to shake your head a little bit in disbelief. Only six teams have started off with a better record than 36-6, a mark ranking as the 4th-best 42-game start of all-time? The last time the San Antonio Spurs had an 8.5 game lead in their division was 1980? Over the Kansas City Kings?
Whether it’s the Spurs’ franchise-best start of 35-7 … them besting their 7-0 road start set during the 2006-07 campaign by one (8-0) … their flirting with the team’s all-time high for three-point percentage of .407 (.396) … becoming aware of the fact that only the 1980-81 76ers can boast to also having two separate win streaks of twelve and ten in their first 28 games … or whatever other statistical accomplishment you’d like to point to—and we’re really just scratching the surface here—it’s just hard to believe these Spurs are those Spurs. A team seemingly on the brink, falling further and further away from championship yesteryear with each passing day. But Popovich and Co.’s patience was rewarded— instead of pulling the plug, they gave their team the time and means to find a way to breathe on its own.
Rudy Tomjanovich’s "Don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion!" worked because it was weighted in truth, as is the case with anything that becomes cliché. Once a player or team has had their game tempered and hardened, exposed to the extreme pressure and scrutiny of a championship run, a confidence and belief is instilled that can never be taken away. And in much the same way, one should never underestimate the pride of a professional—a team of professionals.
Richard Jefferson and Antonio McDyess. They were supposed to be the reinforcements needed to immediately catapult the Spurs back into title contention. Some even went as far as to suggest the Spurs were their favorite to take home the 2009-10 Larry O’Brien. That sentiment and belief wasn’t something foreign to those in the Spurs’ locker-room, those expectations were their own. The players arriving via trade or free-agency were there for a purpose. They had a job to do. They were there to help the Big Three finish up one last project; professionals take too much pride in their work to just leave it incomplete.
“… Losing in the playoffs like we did against Phoenix, 4-0, you know, this is not the history of this franchise,” said McDyess. “So, we were going to do whatever we can to improve. And we came in with a different attitude this year.”
Health may be the biggest reason for this year’s turnaround—both theirs and their opponent’s lack thereof—but the team’s pride isn’t a distant second.
Put succinctly, the Spurs failed last year. Something that’s never an easy pill to swallow. But in doing so, they lost expectation and gained hunger, fire. Complacency and monotony was replaced with drive and urgency.
The Spurs had gone stale in the two years following their 2007 championship. They were no longer chasing or being chased, but instead trying to keep pace—conserving energy and biding time in hopes that their warhorses would be healthy and at the ready to endure an extended playoff run.
Meanwhile Boston was putting together a Big Three of their own, only consisting of stars that had never been able to get it done. Pierce, Garnett and Allen had been unable to achieve any real significant post-season success as their team’s No. 1 option. They were players humbled by their years and more than willing to accept each other’s help. They were united by failures and galvanized through hunger—they were starving for a championship. The Celtics weren’t looking to pace themselves, but set the pace. Likewise, Kobe Bryant had become virtually irrelevant in terms of title contention after O’Neal’s departure. Kobe had heard all of the whispers and criticism and knew full well sharing a starting five with the likes of Smush Parker, Lamar Odom, Brian Cook and Chris Mihm wouldn’t allow him to silence them. Kobe and the Lakers were desperate to regain their perch atop the NBA once again. They, like the Celtics, were chasing—as were younger stars trying to live up to the hype and/or create their own championship legacies. They had the eye of the tiger—the Spurs needed a beat down via Clubber Lang and a little bit of Apollo Creed’s inspiration to step back into the ring.
A 4-0 loss to the Suns became the Spurs’ Clubber Lang. A defeat so unsettling and jarring the players and coaches had to look within, internally. The aftermath left in its wake gave way for Popovich to play the role of Apollo Creed. He had his team taken out of the same, comfortable gym and exposed to a different setting; a new style and technique. He got them back to basics (and someone’s going to have a field day if video of a slow-motion beach race exists to be found).
What resulted was a renewed dedication to the regular season. An added sense of urgency permeating players and coaches. The mindset of recent years changed, no more was the sole purpose to prevent the team from breaking down. The Spurs have remained smart, limiting minutes and erring on the side of caution with injury, but not overly cautious. Forty-two games have been played and the starting lineup’s yet to change once—7 back-to-backs have been played in the process and not one DNP due to rest. Turns out, what they needed all along was to be broken down to be built back up—the mind’s health is the body’s wealth. There may be no more preventative measure than a properly conditioned mind.
Health and professional pride have the Spurs back in the fight. Alone atop the league, the Spurs breathe on their own.
Follow Nick Kapsis @Kap10Jack
Yes it always tough going when it is health problem.........
Hey nick i liked ya article though....
Great write-up Nick!
I still find it hard to digest last year's result - to beat the Mavs so convincingly and then fail to even put a dent into Phoenix was simply unbelievable. I'm sure the players felt the same way too - after all, beating your nemesis only to fall to the guys you used to bully is pretty humiliating!
The defense + new offense approach gives hope that the Spurs are not the new 06-07 Mavs. However, one has to hope the secondary players who are so vital to our success will not shrivel in the playoffs. After all, Neal, Anderson, Jefferson, Bonner, and Blair have never really made their mark in the playoffs. Hill has only been productive against the Mavs, but disappeared against the other teams.
You have a great blog here and an amazing talent for writing. Keep it up!
Certainly plenty of reason for optimisim, my man. And thanks again for all of the support and great feedback/comments.
I'm definitely curious to see how the Thunder-Celtics trade will play out on both fronts. Boston, all things being equal, would have been my pick to win it all prior to making the trade. Now? I'm not so sure.
But where Boston came down a peg in my eyes the Thunder have risen. I still like the Spurs over them but the gap's closed and you can never dismiss a team with players like Durant and Westbrook. They're the type of players that could spring an upset or two if they get hot at the right time.
The East, to me, will come down to matchups and just how well people gel and maintain their health. At the moment, after the trade, it sure seems like the Celtics may have given the Heat just enough of an opening to make it to the Finals. But I'm also pretty high on the Bulls. They've got a great defensive unit and system and Rose has been playing MVP-caliber ball. Still, I think they're probably a year away. So My guess is it's between Boston and Miami and I'm actually finiding myself thinking the Heat just may be able to get by. More of a gut feel than anything, but that's what I think at the moment - I could be back on the Celtics bandwagon once I see how they gel after the trade, I'm just a little skeptical.
As far as the West, I see three teams as well: Spurs, Mavs and Lakers. One of those three will be taking on the Heat or Celtics if I had to pick now. And believe it or not, but I view Dallas as a bigger obstacle than the Lakers right now.
Spurs-Mavs is always a difficult one to call or predict. It doesn't seem to matter where they're seeded or who's perceived to be better, they just know each other too well and both team's have matchups the other can exploit or take advantage of. So any injuries, fluke plays, bad calls and everything in between, they're all capable of becoming the difference in a series' outcome. They're just that close.
The Lakers remind me a bit of the team the Spurs bounced in '03. They look old and disinterested, fat and uninspired. Essentially, they've lost the eye of the tiger - if I may tie it in with my original piece. :P
The Spurs just seem to be causing them more matchup problems these days than vice-versa. The Spurs are just putting too many weapons on the floor and the Lakers are having a hard time keeping up (which is hard to do when Kobe won't allow them to play inside-out; keep doing your thing Kobe ;)). So I'm much more optimistic when it comes to how the Spurs match up with the Lakers these days.
So as of this very moment, all things being equal ... and I'm not in the business of making predictions (I never do), but I'm kind of feeling a Spurs-Heat Finals. That's what thet gut's saying at the moment - I reserve the right to change my mind, but that's just what I'm feeling. The Lakers and Mavs will have to play each other prior to meeting the Spurs if records hold to form, which means the good guys will only have to play one of them - and after a grueling series.
Can't say I like that particular matchup for the Spurs, I'd actually prefer the Celtics at this point (a more or less known quantity and better matchup positionally), but I'll take another Finals appearance, especially given the expectations coming into the year.
And, oh yeah, the Spurs are 4-0 in Finals appearances and there's a very good chance they'd have the home-court advantage - as they did in their previous four trips - as well.
Bad matchup or not, I'll take my chances - it would be sweet to see Timmy send LeBron home one more time before he hangs 'em up.
Heh Kap10Jack runs this place :D
Totally agree with you that the Mavs had a good chance, it is always a case of match ups, just like the Spurs had the misfortune of running into the Mavs who are their worst nightmare in the playoffs so many times (Manu's last minute foul on Dirk not withstanding)...
WIth a few more games under their belt, this year's Spurs reallyt look like they could go the distance, despite the recent trades. What more, I think they'll have a better chance against the Celtics now, if both teams make it all the way to the finals.
- Neal's been playing fearlessly like Kap10Jack ^_^
- Blair has yet again been up and down, but his bad days occur far and few in between now, so perhaps he's on his way to achieving some kind of consistency.
- Bonner gives the impression he's grown balls this year
- Splitter definitely looks like he could do well if the matchups are right and Pop feels like throwing him a bone. And also if he's not injured. That's a lot of Ifs :)
There's a lot to hope for!
Really appreciate you taking the time, Quasar. Thanks for the kind words (and don't tell Mike or Jeff about this thing being my blog lol).
As to the 2006-07 Mavs comparison and the playoff defeat last year, it seems that old adage has some merit: styles make fights.
That Mavs team could have very well won the title had it not been for the Warriors. Nowhere near the forgone conclusion a Mav fan and even some Spurs fans would have you believe, but it was certainly plausible. When it comes to the Spurs and Mavs, the only thing seemingly certain is that it's going to be a toss-up.
And had it not been for Phoenix Suns and their small-ball attack, exposing the lack of mobility the Spurs had on the interior and size and athleticism they had on the wing, it's a pretty safe bet the Spurs make it to the Western Conference finals. And had they done so, I feel pretty comfortable in saying the Spurs wouldn't have been swept by the Lakers. They would have lost, in my view, but not without getting a game or two.
The questions I have for this team remain on the interior and wing defensively, but I've at least seen some reasons for hope. I'm pretty confident in Jefferson and Neal being the players we've become accustomed to seeing (and in the case of RJ, taking the whole picture into account, not just the great start) but Bonner remains a question mark, Blair's youth and lack of length could go either way, and we just don't know whether Anderson will be able to get healthy and integrated in time to make any kind of playoff impact. But in the latter two's case (Blair and Anderson), they've got the potential to be huge when it comes to upside and the Spurs' needs.
Let's hope the good fortune continues.
Jefferson and McDyess have certainly become more comfortable and ingrained in the team's concepts and schemes. The offensive improvement has also been a pleasant surprise, at least to the extent that they're now ranked as the No. 1 team in points per 100 possessions -- they were likely to be better but no one could have expected that much of an improvement. But there's more to it than that in my view; which takes me to....
No, not exactly (but you'd probably be able to read the title of most books and get the gist of their content).
Good health and fortune combined with the improvements of players like RJ and 'Dyess are only part of the equation. The Spurs and their coaches had a change in mindset and approach as well. The offense isn't only improved because the individual players are playing better and more cohesive. The actual offense and points of emphasis have changed -- the Spurs have been instructed to not come back for outlet passes to increase pace and tempo which has resulted in more possessions and quality shots. Likewise, the Spurs have become more active in passing lanes and looking to create offense off of their defense, no longer sticking to a pure, percentage-based and counter-punching D. And those are just two examples.
Point is, there's been both a tangible change in the players' performance and the way they've been utilized by their coaches and that in turn has led to a change in mindset and attitude -- and sometimes it takes getting your brains beaten in for that to happen.
I agree that the Spurs finally being healthy has allowed us all to see who and what this team truly is: a contender. But I disagree that they're clicking on all cylinders.
They are playing collectively better than they have in years but if you look at the players individually, no one is really playing out of the norm or above their head. Manu may be the only one of the Big Three who's played at a level that's been close to his peak for the majority of the year -- Tony's been pretty damn good more times than not but he's yet to even play his best ball in my view. His jumper is only now coming around and I'm sure the off-court stuff settling can only bode well moving forward.
But Tim hasn't played as well as he's capable. RJ play about as good as he possibly could to start but has faded. Hill and Blair have both had their moments, both good and bad -- the effect Hill's defense has had on the team has been impressive most of the year, though. Bonner's played as well as could be conceived, so I'd probably throw him in with Manu in terms of hitting on all cylinders. McDyess has been close to hitting on all cylinders but he pretty much is what he is when healthy: solid, indispensable. Neal? he doesn't look to be playing over his head or without room for improvement; Splitter hasn't even been given an opportunity because of how well the team and those in front of him were/are playing and Anderson's been out most of the year (though he did prove to be a legit player in his short time).
The scary thing about these Spurs for the rest of the league is, they've got significant potential to improve. And for a team that's not taxing their players with minutes or going all out to have that kind of record, it's a scary thought.
But the Spurs have to remain healthy for that potential to be realized. Otherwise, it's woulda-coulda-shoulda . . .
That painful playoff loss to the Suns really woke up the Spurs. Now they have the best record in the league and hopefully they can make it all the way this year. Go Spurs Go!
Seriously this whole article can be summarized into this: The Spurs are better this year because they are healthier than ever, got some breaks going to their favor and McDyess and Jefferson finally playing as expected.
The Spurs offense improved a lot and Richard Jefferson and McDyess has looked more comfortable with the system that made this team better than last season.