Creating a great basketball team seems easy on paper, but the reality of competition means plans can change very quickly. At the start of this season, many thought the Spurs would look beaten down from their Finals heartbreak. Thankfully, we've seen the team craft a different narrative these first fifteen games, but I thought I'd take a look at what the Spurs might be if the summer narrative had stuck with the team. In the spirit of Thanksgiving, this alternate timeline should put the Spurs' phenomenal 13-2 start in the proper context.
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Another night, another disappointing loss.
Though the Spurs (7-8) entered tonight's contest against the Oklahoma City Thunder (10-3) hoping to take advantage of a team still trying to figure itself out, it was instead the veterans who found themselves looking for answers. In what has become the story of the season, the Spurs have looked confused and tired. Their defense, one of the best in the league last season, has struggled to maintain even league average numbers. And the offense, a key part of last season's run to the Finals, has looked stagnant as winded players do their best to keep the ship afloat.
Nobody's saying it publicly, but the question is unavoidable: Are the Spurs still feeling Game 6?
Ask that question around the locker room, and you're not likely to get much of a response. "Of course not," Tim Duncan says. "Last year is last year. We've hit a rough patch to start the season, but nobody's panicking." A winded Tony Parker shares his confidence. "It's early," he cautions. "You don't win championships in November."
The team is saying all the right things, but the talk off the court isn't doing much to change the play on it. Things started promisingly enough against the Thunder in the first quarter, as the Spurs jumped out to an early lead. But as we've seen throughout this season, the bench was unable to sustain. Marco Belinelli, a prized offseason acquisition, is struggling to acclimate himself to the Spurs on both sides of the court. Manu Ginobili has lost several steps. There seems to have been no progress on the backup point guard question. Where last season's Spurs made their deep playoff run with poise and confidence, this season's team is looking increasingly desperate to kick start something - anything, really - that might separate them from the large group of Western Conference contenders.
Going into the season, the Spurs were hoping that their "corporate knowledge" would help them get a head start on teams that would need time to fit new players into important roles. Instead, the Spurs have watched as the Warriors, Rockets, and Clippers have made great strides in the early parts of the season. And old foes like the Thunder and the Grizzlies have not showed any signs of slowing down. With every game the Spurs struggle to finish, they lose ground in the West. Tony Parker is right; championships aren't won in November. But the teams that win those championships are born in the games of early winter.
Last season's magical season coincided with some good fortune, as all good runs do. The team was healthy. It had the right pieces in the right roles. It had a perfect path to the Finals. But this season is a different animal. Tony Parker is tired. Kawhi Leonard is fighting though injuries. Tiago Splitter still looks shaken by the heartbreak of July. The West continues to birth basketball monsters. And even in the East, as powerhouses rise in New York and the Rose-led Bulls tear through the NBA, it's clear that last year's magic can't by itself create this year's hope.
It's a fool's game to predict when a Spurs title window has shut. But surely, that window is shrinking. There are promising young players on the roster, but the older, vital core continues to age. The competition has gotten tougher throughout the league, and even this year's bottom dwellers are making moves for the future, with Kobe Bryant's shocking pay cut being only the most recent example of a struggling team loudly declaring its title aspirations.
"It's early." Yes, that much is beyond dispute. But as the season marches forward and the once stable Spurs continue to stumble, those two words seem more hollow than ever.