Had Erwin Schrodinger used a basketball team rather than a cat when developing his thought experiment about quantum mechanics, he might have chosen the 2014-15 San Antonio Spurs. After a (somewhat) promising January bounce-back from their nightmare December, the Spurs seemed to succumb to a particularly debilitating toxin precisely at the time they've traditionally begun storming the League. Yes, it was the Worst Rodeo Road Trip Ever. Both the 2007 and 2010 teams went 4-4 on the RRT, but only this bunch actually sank below sea level, thanks to a 4-game losing streak immediately following the All-Star Break. Their subsequent awakening in wins against Sacramento and Phoenix only furthered the mystery. Are this year's Spurs alive or dead?
Stan Van Gundy memes aside, the Spurs scale the same 82-game wall as everyone else during the regular season. As the Great Losing Streak of February '15 drug on, fans ceased looking at the teams higher up the wall, like the Clippers, Mavs, and Blazers, and began focusing on the rapidly ascending Thunder, Suns, and Pelicans a mere handhold or two below. At the advent of meteorological spring, the Spurs are at the precise median between the 4th seed and the 8th seed. The fact that they've been stuck in 7th for the better part of two months is frustrating, but by no means prescriptive when it comes to moving up the standings. Judging by the awards handed out to both the organization and R.C. Buford at MIT's Sloan Analytics Conference, the Spurs are continuing the garner the respect of the league despite their unusually low place in the standings.
The win over Phoenix was a godsend, but the real story to end the month was the return of Tiago Splitter to the starting lineup. In February, the Duncan-Splitter-Leonard-Green-Parker combo posted a +27 efficiency differential and tossed over 4 assists for every turnover. Those thirty minutes are certainly a minuscule sample size compared to what that lineup played over the course of last season, but the change appeared to light something of a fire under the team. It allowed Aron Baynes to do his Baynesing with the overworked second unit (he was perfect from the field and the line against Phoenix and grabbed 10 rebounds). While its fair to assume Splitter might eventually be shifted back to the bench once spacing becomes an issue, in the meantime the move seems to have restored Tiago's confidence and boosted the Spurs' defense from "Good-Not-Spectacular" to "Formidable."
After the game, Tim Duncan indicated the team benefited from the change in ways the Sloan Conference might find difficult to quantify:
"I think that's been shot for a while," he said of the Spurs' confidence. "So we're going to start building it back and start winning some games."
The other story in February was the bizarre state of Tony Parker. After a solid showing against Miami on February 6th, Tony entered a kind of fugue state during the RRT, shooting under 36% from the field, posting a minus-8 scoring differential after the All-Star Break, bricking a backdoor layup against Portland, and generally looking like a duck in search of a pond. Even as late as the win in Sacramento, Parker was pulling up on the fast break, losing his dribble under minimal pressure, and even got waved off the ball at one point by Boris Diaw, of all people. That he bounced back with 17 points in the second half was encouraging, but more of a relief was the regularity with which he was getting to his spots against both the Kings and the Suns.
Compared to Parker's fits and starts, Kawhi Leonard had a proper resurgence at the end of the month. After shooting 41% for the month and grabbing just over 6 rebounds per game (compared to his season average of 7.4), Leonard scored 39 points on 50% shooting and grabbed 17 rebounds in the Sacramento and Phoenix games. What's more, he played with the disruptive energy of two men on defense, and seemed to have much greater lift and confidence in his jump shot.
A word about the 4-game losing streak. It was brutal, and the team played their way out of each game with a combination of bad shooting and worse decision-making. But there are similarities between this streak and the one in December, which was defined by the first back-to-back triple OT game by one team in fifty years. Each streak featured multiple road games against Western Conference playoff teams (of the eight opponents, only Utah had a record under .500), SEGABABAs, general bad luck and unfavorable circumstance that conspired to steal some otherwise winnable games. The December streak reminds me that the Spurs have the worst record among the West playoff teams this year in games decided by 3 points or less, which is a factor that tends to even out over time. While the Spurs looked worse overall during the February stretch, the truth is that the extended All-Star break has conspired to make most teams look bad over the last couple of weeks.
Speaking of the All-Star game, the Spurs' lone entrant looked consistently awesome throughout the month. Some day, a government-funded lab will reverse-engineer Tim Duncan's DNA and create an army ageless Terminators. In the meantime, though, there's only one Timmy, and he's as good as ever.
In a recent assessment of Spurs fans' collective mental state, Gomez highlighted the fact that team is missing a lot of open shots. That's certainly something that's likely to correct itself over time, but it is rather spooky that the entire bunch is suffering through such a slump, as highlighted by this ESPN graphic:
Here's what a team-wide shooting slump looks like. pic.twitter.com/ZmfqADfeP1— oldmanshirt (@oldmanshirt) February 26, 2015
Whether the Spurs are shooting poorly this year or simply overachieved last year, the fact remains that the team is still 6th in the league in 3-point shooting, only 1% behind number 3 Milwaukee. Their number 8 ranking in efficiency differential might come as a surprise, as well, and indicates that the Spurs are a better team than their low seed in a very good conference would indicate. That, and the fact that they still produced spurts of inspired play in coming back from 19 down on the road against Portland and playing league-leading Golden State tough in the first half on a SEGABABA, suggests to me that the D.C.s have their best basketball left to play.
For most Spurs fans, February 2015 is liable to mean mostly bad memories. We at PtR are have done as much as anyone to propagate that attitude. A search through the February archives reveals piece after piece about "What's Wrong With the Spurs." One from Feb. 9th stands out; in a piece entitled "Why Are The Spurs Still So Mediocre?" Michael Erler wrote:
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.
Replace "a week off during the All-Star Break" with "three days off Post-Road Trip before starting a 5-game home stand", and I think you could sum up the entire month. As bad as February looked, for the Spurs to enter March healthy and still having a fair shot at home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs should temper some of the alarm. They'll likely need some help even to get there, and losing the season series to Portland hurts, but things could look far worse. Just ask Washington, or Chicago.
Of course, these are the Spurs, so only the playoffs will reveal what's truly in the box.