It has gone by in a blur, but the Spurs have already passed the season's 50-game mark. It hasn't been the most inspiring title defense so far, and injuries have factored mightily into some of the team's problems. In fact, their last game against Miami was the first time that they've had their full squad available, and we all remember the run these guys went on last year after they got Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker back in late February and proceeded to rampage the league -- especially in March, when they went undefeated. Despite their ailments, I think it would be beyond homer-ish to use injuries as the be-all-end-all excuse for everything.
A glass-half-full argument could be that the Spurs have become the kind of defending champ we've long loathed, "the on/off switch team" that thinks it can afford to take quarters, halves or even whole games off because they know they can turn it on when it matters. Remember how much flack we gave the Lakers and the Heat when they did that? Well, I now realize that we were just being haters. Making multiple runs deep into the playoffs year after year is difficult, and great teams regularly fall into the we'll-try-when-we-have-to mode that often ends with a close game at the end of the fourth quarter.
Except what if the machine is broken? What if it's blown a gasket or some of its turbines have rusted beyond repair? What if the Spurs, as currently constituted, are beyond saving? There is definitely plenty of big-picture evidence pointing in that direction. For one, even though they've gone 9-3 with Leonard back in the lineup, they've only played four good teams in this soft stretch and have gone 1-3 in those games, having gotten blown out at Chicago and at home against the Clippers. Worse, they couldn't use fatigue or the schedule as an excuse for either of those defeats, as they were well-rested for both games.
The main proof is not the 32-19 record, which is poor by Spurs standards, but the 3.7 point differential, which ranks ninth in the league and is just a tick ahead of Houston's 3.6. The eight teams ahead of them are all at 4.9 or better. Last season the Spurs --who had just as many injuries if not more-- led the league with a 7.7 differential. The Warriors lead this year, with a historic 11.2 differential, the stuff of video games.
The Spurs have been fine defensively, by and large. The only two areas they've significantly slipped, according to Project Spurs (thanks to Paul Garcia's tireless work) are field goal percentage allowed on corner threes, and in field goal attempts in the paint. We can attribute that some to Tiago Splitter's absence and his reduced role in the games he has played, but also teams are just being more aggressive attacking the rim regardless of whether they get quality looks. Foes are shooting only 57.6 percent versus the Spurs in the paint as opposed to 58.6 percent last year, but they're getting to the line on average one attempt more, so it evens out.
The problem, friends, has been on the other end of the floor. The Spurs rank 12th in scoring, at 100.7 points per game, and have scored over 100 just three times in their past 13 games. They're 13th in Offensive Rating, at 103.7, per NBA.com, and a slug-like 22nd in pace, at 95.5 possessions per 48 minutes. They're behind the ironically-named Pacers in pace, for crying out loud. They're playing slower than a team with Roy Hibbert on it. Last year they ranked sixth in offensive rating at 108.2 and 12th in pace, at 97.1.
The Spurs are still passing it as much as they ever have. They're assisting and hockey-assisting on their buckets at a great clip, but they're just not getting as many shots to fall as they're accustomed to. They've slipped from second in the league last year with a 48.6 shooting percentage to tenth this season at 45.7; from first in the league in three-point marksmanship at 39.7 to sixth this year at 37.0. They're even scoring two fewer points in the paint and five points less from the bench.
Now that injuries are no longer an excuse, and the schedule can no longer be blamed, what's left? Why are the Spurs playing this badly and what can they do to pull themselves out of it? Is there anything that can be done, or have they finally gotten too old, like their critics have accused them of being for the past decade?
The numbers tell us the Spurs are getting nearly as many wide open looks as last season and the eye test confirms it. There have been games where the spacing looks congested but for the most part the Spurs have relied on their good-to-great ethos. They just can't get the ball to go in the hole. They look tired and stagnant for large portions of games, even when they're had multiple days off. They can usually summon some 17-2 run at home to save them, but on the road those bursts of inspiration have been few and far between.
In the end we are left with only a few positives to cling to. One, they are healthy. They've got that, and it's the most important thing. Two, they'll have a week off during the All-Star break to recharge and regroup. Three, there's a bit of a muddle in the Western standings, so one good month could still get them to the third seed. Finally, they do still have their experience and the "corporate knowledge." They're going to be a tough out for anybody in the playoffs.
(Just in case though, you might want to keep your DVDs from last spring nearby.)