As we enter the precipice of another playoff journey, the San Antonio Spurs are in pretty good shape, all things considered. Despite their three-game losing streak and their 1-3 head-to-head record against the Warriors, they still lead the league in scoring differential and net rating, and those things have proven to be just as predictive when picking a champion as the actual standings. For example, the 2006-07 Spurs were a three-seed in the West, but had a better scoring differential than the 67-15 Dallas Mavericks and a better net rating, too. You know how that worked out. They won it all in 2004-05, too, as a two-seed, and again had a better scoring differential and net rating than the Suns or anyone else that year. Since 2002-03, the team with the best overall record has won the title just four times, while the team with the best scoring differential has won five. On three occasions they were one and the same, those being the 2007-08 Celtics, the 2013-14 Spurs and last year's Warriors.
The Spurs will also likely enter the postseason as healthy as they could be. Boris Diaw missed the past three games with a sore right abductor, but Gregg Popovich said that he kept him out Sunday against the Warriors as a precaution and he quite likely would've played had it been a playoff game. Unlike last season Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili won't be nursing dings this time around, so we'll be getting their level best, whatever that is.
Unfortunately, the problem may be that their best won't be enough. It's kind of odd given their differences in age (but morbidly apropos seeing as they'll always be linked together) that Parker, Ginobili and Tim Duncan are all lurching toward the end at the same time, a synchronicity I'm kind of digging for sentimental and poetic reasons but one I'm guessing isn't generating many warm and fuzzies from PATFO or the fan base.
Surely I can't be the only one who's noticed that Parker, 33, has basically crashed into a wall since the end of the Rodeo Road Trip. The Wee Frenchman averaged 8.6 points on 42.1 percent shooting in March and has been even worse so far in April. Parker's not really shooting his trademark teardrop anymore. Only 17.1 percent of his attempts have come from 3-10 feet this season, according to basketall-reference.com, his lowest rate in six years, and he's making just 42.9 percent of them. Whether you use PER or RAPM, he is not faring well among starting point guards. Who knows, maybe the Spurs are trying to hide another injury, but Parker is hardly ever getting to the rim anymore, and his inability to penetrate is gumming up the offense and creating fewer open looks for the others.
Ginobili is in similar dire straits. He's going to the rim about as often as he has the past few years, but converting from there at by far the lowest percentage of his career, making just 53.7 percent of what are basically layups. His overall percentage has been rescued by the fact that he's hitting above his career norms from three feet and beyond, especially on long twos. There's also the issue that we've seen Pop change the way he's used Ginobili these past two seasons. More and more, he's been reluctant to bring him back into games at the end of the second and fourth quarters unless he's really got it going. Instead we see Danny Green close the games, or Patty Mills, or even Kevin Martin on Sunday against the Dubs.
Then there's Duncan, who showed against Denver --with all his star teammates sitting-- that he still has a few grains left in his hourglass, but has become an afterthought in the offense when the lineup is whole, reduced to mainly screening and passing so that others can shine. He remains, even a couple weeks shy of his 40th birthday, an elite rim protector, but scoring on anything but put-backs or short rolls to the rim seems to be a bridge too far for the living legend. The lack of reps he's gotten hasn't exactly helped the situation.
If only the offensive issues were limited to "The Big Three."
Outside his hot January, Danny Green has had a season to forget on offense. He's shooting the worst percentage of his career, 37.4 percent, and only 32.9 from downtown. Those numbers drop to 35.4 percent overall and 26.2 from three post-All-Star break. Green's not really playable if he's making just one of every four shots he takes from out there, no matter how stellar he is at the other end. He's just not buying the other guys enough room if opponents can leave him open without consequence.
Even Kawhi Leonard's outside shooting has regressed to the mean. After leading the league in three-point percentage for most of the season, he's wobbled a bit of late, hitting at a 37.9 percent clip since the All-Star break and just 26.7 in April.
Practically everywhere we look, there are problems. Diaw, whose versatility is supposed to be a key against the Warriors, with his ability to play inside and out? He hasn't been a threat from the three-point line for a while now. His last triple came on March 5th, 18 games ago. Kyle Anderson has impressed me lately with his all-around skills, but people continue to leave him open from outside and he's not making them pay for it. Patty Mills has shot very poorly in April and his selection has left much to be desired. David West is another who settles for too many "good" looks instead of seeking out the great ones.
Add it all up and you just wonder if the Spurs will have enough margin for error to get past even Oklahoma City, let alone the Warriors. It's easy enough to jot down in pen that Leonard and an in-form LaMarcus Aldridge will be good for 50-55 points a night, but at what rate of efficiency? Even more pressing, where's that other 50 points going to come from? Right now there's a nebulous hope and a prayer for a different third party to get hot on a given night, whether it's Parker, Ginobili, Mills or whomever, and then for the rest to chip in with 35 or 40, but that's a risky thing to count on game after game, especially when it's far from a given that Aldridge or Leonard --two stars who take a lot of high-degree-of-difficulty attempts-- won't slump themselves. If you're wondering about the wisdom of placing such a scoring burden on two guys and assuming the supporting cast will figure it out, check with the Thunder on how well that plan works.
The bottom line is in every past Spurs championship run, they had an unmistakable look and feel about them down the stretch of the regular season. They peaked late and carried it through the postseason. Granted, there were some false alarms in there too, in 2004 and 2012, but San Antonio has never won a 'chip without being the league's best in March and April, and these Spurs certainly aren't there right now. Perhaps being practically locked at the two seed for months has had some subconscious effect. But it's hard to not have serious doubts about the state of the ball club right now. Just too many guys are struggling, at exactly the wrong time.
So the numbers tell us one thing and our lying eyes tell us another. And on top of all, that there's a 73-win juggernaut with home-court advantage waiting in the Conference Finals. If the Thunder represent the "easy" part of your playoff plans, then the journey is fraught with peril indeed.
It's ironic that after what's been their best regular season ever, if San Antonio wins it all this year it could be their least likely championship to date. Godspeed, Spurs.