It's been tough for the Spurs lately. Four key rotation players are missing time with injuries, resulting in a drop in the standings. The most optimistic among us were expecting someone to step up and make a case for more playing time while easing the burden on the stars. It hasn't happened and the Spurs are not looking so great. So it's easy to succumb to a doom and gloom mindset when it comes to the Spurs' immediate future. But it's not as bad as it seems right now.
It's not surprising that the team is struggling
The narrative surrounding the Spurs is that they are a "system team". Tony Parker is the team's single All-Star this season and he could have easily been snubbed. The perception is that the Spurs' "next man up" mentality and depth would make it easy to sustain their level even with injuries. But while it's true the Spurs don't rely on one or two players as much as other teams, they still depend on the talent of individuals to make them an elite team. As tempting as it is to think that everyone but the big three is replaceable, that's just not the case.
Take a look at this, courtesy of The Box Score Geeks:
A Spurs fan's ode to David Stern
Dear Mr. Stern, if you can ignore all the times I wrote terrible things about you, and the thousands of times where I simply thought them, I'd love to shake your hand. You were the best commissioner the Spurs ever had.
For those unfamiliar, wins produced is a rather complicated composite stat that uses a formula to calculate how many wins a player contributes. It's pretty accurate, as the added wins of players on a team usually come extremely close to matching that squad's record. According to the stat, Ginobili, Leonard, Splitter and Green combined to produce 15 of the Spurs' wins. Replace them with average players - not bad, but average - and the Spurs would be getting half of that production. With seven fewer wins, the Spurs would be the eight seed in the West.
Wins produced is not the be all and end all stat, but it serves to exemplify that the injured players are all well above average for their position and were a huge reason for the Spurs' early success this season. Without them, the Spurs are simply a solid but unspectacular squad. So it's not surprising that they have played like one.
Luckily, the injured players are returning soon
Tiago Splitter could be ready to go this Saturday against the Kings. That's great news. Having Splitter means that Duncan won't be the only rim protector on the team. His presence should improve both the team's interior D and allow the perimeter players to close out more aggressively with the knowledge that there is a real safety net.
Offensively, Splitter has struggled this season at times and coming back from injury we can't expect him to immediately be in top form. But by simply setting those great screens and forcing the defense to collapse on dives, he could open up things for his teammates. It could also allow the Spurs to prop up some toothless bench lineups by giving the ball-handlers a great pick-and-roll partner. Just by replacing Baynes minutes and limiting those of Bonner and Ayres, Tiago's return should be a boon for the Spurs.
And soon after Tiago returns, Danny Green should be making his comeback. Green was injured on January 13. That means that if it does in fact takes him the full four weeks to heal, he will miss the next five games and be back before the All-Star break. Green's return would provide the Spurs with the wing defender they are sorely lacking right now. And for all the flak he gets for his inconsistent shooting and declining percentages, the mere presence of Danny should help the Spurs' spacing.
With those two proven contributors back and taking minutes from players who have seemed over matched, the Spurs should be able to withstand the upcoming Rodeo Road Trip. Because...
The schedule couldn't be any easier
The next seven games are against teams with a below .500 record. True, only one of those is at home but the Spurs have the league's best road record. It's hard to imagine the Spurs, with Splitter back for all the games and Danny for some, dropping more than a couple to the Kings, Pelicans, Wizards, Nets, Bobcats, Pistons and Celtics.
After the All-Star break things get tougher, with games against the Clippers, Blazers, and Suns, but Kawhi Leonard could be back by then. If Kawhi misses the four weeks he is supposed to be out, he should be back against the Blazers. It would not shock me at all if the Spurs go 7-3 in their next ten, and after that, there are three winnable home games against the Pistons, Bobcats, and Mavericks before an away game at Cleveland. That's around the time Manu is expected back.
Injuries always suck, no matter when they happen. But if the Spurs were destined to suffer these health problems, this is the best possible time for it to happen. The good guys have an easy schedule which will hopefully allow them to not drop too far in the standings, and then barring any more injuries (frantically knocks on wood), they will have a full month-and-a-half to get back in rhythm and make up any lost ground.
Health is all the Spurs need
With the Thunder looking really scary even without Russell Westbrook and the Spurs looking terrible because of the injuries, the breach between the two teams seems gigantic right now. The Thunder are the favorite to come out of the West, as they should be. So I understand why more and more people seem to believe the Spurs need to make a move to have a shot against those guys.
Of course if there is an upgrade available to the Spurs, like any other team they should pounce on the opportunity to make it. But a healthy Spurs team is really, really good. It's just a matter of finding balanced lineups.
The Spurs' starting lineup from last season had an 18.1 net rating, meaning they outscored other teams by that much every 100 possessions. That same Parker - Green - Leonard - Duncan - Splitter lineup has a negative net rating this season and the problem is the spacing on offense, as we've explored in the past. Which means that, in theory, all that would be necessary to get them back to being a great unit is for Duncan to find his jumper and for Leonard to hit his threes.
Even if that doesn't happen, the Spurs have the possibility to start Diaw, which would allow Duncan to operate closer to the basket. Pop has showed his willingness to experiment by inserting Marco Belinelli into the starting five, so we know he will continue to tinker. It's very possible that the Spurs already have the players needed to be able to trot out three or four very good lineups and that's all they will need in the playoffs.
A magical trade that would give the Spurs the upper hand against the rest of the league would be fantastic. But with the assets the Spurs have it is just not very realistic. It's much more likely that the Spurs simply fine tune a couple of things and go into the postseason with a real shot at a championship. Being the favorites would be better, but I'll settle for being a true contender.
So hang in there, Spurs fans. It's very possible that the hard times come to an end very soon.
Stats courtesy of The Box Score Geeks and NBA.com/Stats