It doesn't take a genius to realize that the Spurs are struggling. They've already lost more games this season --21-- than last year, and there's still a third of the schedule left. They're seventh in the West on merit and the only reason they're not worse is because Kevin Durant has played something like 13 games.
I realize that many people are still in denial about the extent of the team's slippage, but perhaps the loss to the Clippers was something of an eye-opener for us. The past two seasons, the Spurs played at Los Angeles right after the All-Star break as part of their annual Rodeo Road Trip. Both in 2013-14 and 2014-15, the Spurs won easily, despite being without the services of Kawhi Leonard in both games and also Tony Parker last season. It was a signal that the team was getting locked in for the stretch run and serious about doing damage in the postseason.
But this time around they lost to the Clippers even though they had everyone available and L.A. was missing Blake Griffin. They surrendered 119 points, despite the fact that they resorted to hack-a-Jordan for large chunks of the second and fourth quarters and had great success with it. Gregg Popovich admitted after the game that he had no confidence defensively against the pick-and-roll orchestrated masterfully by Chris Paul. The game lasted forever and the overall performance was embarrassing. When you take into account that fatigue or injuries weren't an issue and that the Clips were without Griffin, it's a giant flashing neon warning sign that something is rotten in San Antonio.
The next night the Spurs got routed at Oakland, getting run off the floor in the third quarter after playing a competitive first half. Again their defense let down as the Warriors got open shot after open shot from downtown, but the bigger issue was the Spurs simply ran out of gas offensively. They couldn't match Golden State shot for shot, and it's been a recurring problem all season.
On the whole it's a positive that the Spurs play team basketball. Everyone passes, everyone shares the ball, and everyone is a threat to score. Just about everyone in their 11-man rotation should be expected to score double digits and all of them can go off for 15-plus on any given night and most of them can even go off for the occasional 20-plus game. The problem is that while everyone can score, no one is expected to, no one is taking on the burden or the responsibility of contributing an x-number of points nightly, and not having that one guy to lead everyone else is hurting the team.
Last season Parker led the Spurs for the first couple of months, and then newcomers Marco Belinelli and Patty Mills took the baton for the injury-plagued middle, Tim Duncan put the team on his back in February and Leonard carried them home in March and April. This year there's been a bit of a void. Again Parker started very well in November, but once he got hurt in early December no one has really picked up his slack. There was a nice two-week stretch from Leonard when he returned from a 15-game absence in mid-January, but he couldn't sustain it.
Consequently the Spurs wind up with games like the other night in Oakland, where no one breaks out. It was the sixth time already this season where the Spurs had nobody score 15 points or that Cory Joseph was the lone exception, and it's tough to really consider him a contributor going forward with Popovich set on playing Mills and Belinelli. [Even though this post was written prior to the Utah game, on cue the Spurs delivered a seventh such performance against the Jazz, with Duncan leading them in scoring with just 14 points.] The point is the top ten guys are all going flat.
The problem is bigger than the Spurs averaging 4.9 fewer points this season than last or sinking from 7th to 12th in offensive rating. It's that almost everyone has been worse, or at least less efficient, instead of just one or two guys.
Parker, Mills, Belinelli, Manu Ginobili and Boris Diaw are all scoring less and shooting a worse percentage than they did last season. That's five of the team's ten best players, and they're having more difficulty scoring, dramatically so in some cases.
Leonard, Danny Green and Matt Bonner are averaging more points, but shooting a worse percentage. That makes eight of the top 12 shooting it worse than last year. Again, the difference is huge in some cases.
Duncan and Tiago Splitter are scoring fewer points but shooting a better percentage, just barely so in both of their cases.
That leaves two Spurs who are both scoring more points and shooting more efficiently than last season: Joseph and Aron Baynes. No offense to either of them and I'm a fan of both, but when Joseph and Baynes are your only two improved scorers, your team is probably struggling to score.
We can also break down the team's offensive difficulties in chart form. Here is the team's scoring ranges in 2013-14. I left out the single-digit games and grouped the scoring from 10-14 points, 15-19, 20-24, 25-29, and 30-plus.
The Spurs had 50 cases of a player scoring 20-24 points last season, 18 cases of someone scoring 25-29 and seven times where somebody cracked 30 (five Spurs turned that trick and neither Ginobili nor Leonard were among them).
Now let's look at this year's breakdown, through 55 games.
The Spurs have had 28 instances of someone scoring 20-24 points, 13 outbursts of 25-29 points and just two 30-point games, both of them coming from the ageless Duncan.
Whereas last season, where the Spurs got a 20-24 point scoring performance in 61 percent of their games, meaning that out of every five games they played somebody was likely to score between 20-24 points in three of them, this season that number has dropped to 51 percent.
The other big drop-off has been in 30-point games, from a nine percent chance to four percent this year. Add up the 20-24, 25-29 and 30-plus percentages up and basically the Spurs have sunk from a 92 percent likelihood of having a 20-plus point scorer in a game to 79 percent. That's a pretty drastic plunge.
Popovich had a feeling this was coming in the off-season. "I'm worried for one reason," he told Buck Harvey of the San Antonio Express-News. "They are human beings. They are going to feel satisfied."
His solution was to shift more of the load and the responsibility to the guy who one would assume would be the hungriest to accomplish a lot more in the NBA, and that's Leonard, especially going into a contract year. For various reasons, that plan hasn't panned out. Either Leonard is expecting more from everyone else or they're expecting more from him, but it's just not working.
Either nobody wants to be the alpha dog to lift the team out of its malaise or no one is capable of doing it for any meaningful stretch. Right now the Spurs are a team of followers, and they're all looking at each other, wondering why they're not scoring at will like they have for years.