It's a good thing the Spurs won the championship last June because they're currently suffering through the biggest crisis of the Tim Duncan Era, with no end in sight. The promising 15-5 start through the first quarter-season has completely disintegrated, with losses in eight of the past eleven games and a 18-13 record, just barely good enough for seventh in the insane Western Conference, closer to being out of the top eight than to the sixth-place Los Angeles Clippers. Many of the things we took for granted through the first 20 games (the team's defense, their ability to put away inferior opponents, their competitiveness against quality foes) have all disappeared like so much used wrapping paper.
The cause: a combination of injuries, timing, awful luck and a brutal schedule. The lion's share of the problem can be traced back to a dreary Tuesday night at Utah (a game where the Spurs were uncharacteristically awful from downtown and the free-throw line) when the lingering absence of Tiago Splitter caused the Spurs to be far too soft inside against Derrick Favors in a 100-96 loss. Kawhi Leonard was one of the few bright spots for the visitors in that game, but he hurt his right hand in a late collision, and the Spurs soon found themselves plummeting toward the abyss from then on.
Leonard missed two games but then re-aggravated the injury two games after returning against Portland. He has been out since, six games and counting, with no end in sight. To add insult to injury (or, more accurately, injury to injury), Tony Parker strained his left hamstring on Dec. 5 at Memphis, four days before Leonard got hurt, and the two of them haven't participated in the same game since, a span of 12 games and counting. The Spurs have played without Leonard and Parker five times already in December and have gone 1-4 in that stretch, with the sole win coming against the lowly Knicks. Parker's played in just three of the past dozen and has re-aggravated his injury twice, with Gregg Popovich pledging to err on the side of caution after the latest setback.
By now it should be obvious that Leonard, not Splitter is the team's most important defender. The team's defensive rating has regressed in Leonard's absence, from 97.2 after 20 games to 100.7 currently. Leonard's defensive rating is 94.4, and the next-closest Spur, Duncan, is a mile behind at 98.5. Splitter, still working his way back to form, has one of the worst ratings on the team at the moment with 104.9. Not only are the Spurs missing Leonard's individual defense, but all the little things he provides, from close-outs on threes and rebounding, to steals and deflections, to the two or three easy transition buckets he creates per game. The Spurs aren't getting anything easy right now.
They're missing Parker too, even if the numbers don't necessarily reflect it. What Parker provides is pace, play-making and points. He gets the team into their sets quickly, and pushes the tempo. He saves Ginobili from the burden of having to create everything. Most important of all, he creates enough for himself that everyone else can save something in the tank for defense. Right now Ginobili and Duncan are using too much of their energy to score and have to relax on the other end.
The Spurs had their injury woes last season, but it was an entirely different set of circumstances. For one, they had a much comfier cushion in the standings when Leonard hurt his hand on Jan. 22 against Oklahoma City. The loss to the Thunder that night dropped the Spurs to 32-10. Danny Green had already been down with a hand injury of his own but the rest of the crew were in decent shape. Even when Manu Ginobili hurt his hamstring two games later at Houston, the Spurs still had Duncan and Parker. In fact, the Spurs missed Leonard, Ginobili and Green for just two games before Green returned. Popovich shut down Parker prior to the final game before the All-Star break, at Boston, and then presto, Ginobili was back in the fold. Also, note the timing: they had the All-Star break to rest. Basically the Spurs had Duncan the whole time, plus either Parker or Leonard. It should not be dismissed that the Spurs also enjoyed the services of Patty Mills last year, and Game 5 of the Finals aside, he was at his best in February when all the wings were sidelined. He, Duncan, Parker and Marco Belinelli carried the Spurs during that stretch.
The other critical difference was the schedule. Last year Leonard returned to action Feb. 26 at home against the Pistons, exactly five weeks after hurting his hand. He missed only 14 games. The Spurs had just three sets of back-to-backs. Not only were the Spurs significantly less fatigued but the quality of competition they faced was much worse. Yes, technically nine of the 14 opponents in that stretch were playoff teams, but six of those nine were Eastern playoff teams and eight of the 14 games in all were against the East.
Now consider the plight of the current Spurs. Starting with Nov. 30 at Boston and lasting until New Year's Eve against the Pelicans, the Spurs will play 19 games in 32 nights, with seven back-to-backs. Furthermore from Dec. 15 to January 3 they face nine playoff teams in 11 games, with eight of those being Western playoff teams. The other two games are against New Orleans, featuring an MVP candidate in Anthony Davis. (Last night's loss dropped the Spurs to 0-2 against the Pelicans this season.)
Finally, we factor in the plain old bad luck that has cost the Spurs dearly in December. Brook Lopez banked in a desperation 20-footer at Brooklyn. Kobe Bryant and Nick Young both canned 30-footers, helping the Lakers pull off a stunning upset on the road. Marc Gasol banked in his first three-pointer of the season at the buzzer to turn what should have been a win over the Grizzlies into a deflating triple overtime loss, and two nights later the Spurs somehow suffered a similar loss to Portland, thanks in part to Duncan and Green having potential daggers overturned by shot clock violations best measured in milliseconds, and the zebras missing a critical out-of-bounds save by LaMarcus Aldridge. If just two of those four games flip the other way the Spurs would be 20-11 and things wouldn't appear quite so dire. But like Popovich has said, it's pretty ridiculous for Spurs fans to complain about bad luck.
All the Spurs can do is ride out the storm and wait for Leonard, Parker and Mills to return. They will play fewer games in January and against worse competition. They will catch some breaks, eventually. The absolute first priority, above all else, has to be keeping Duncan and Ginobili healthy at all costs. Also, Popovich should seriously consider starting Boris Diaw until Parker returns, so that team always has one elite passer on the floor. Let Splitter play with Ginobili and the two of them can run pick-and-rolls together with the second unit. Beyond that my only advice would be for PATFO to do something about the medical staff. The Spurs' recent track record of misdiagnosing injuries and the readiness of their players to return has been even worse than their play of late.