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The Spurs’ place in the Western Conference this season

This week, the staff takes a look at how the Spurs measure up in an extremely deep Western Conference.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

We’re into the season, and even though it’s still early, the sample size is just large enough to begin to reveal some items of interest. One, the Spurs are struggling against the Eastern Conference. Fluke, or is there something to be said about the quality of the East this season? With Jimmy Butler joining the 76ers, odds makers might have to re-calibrate.

While the Spurs struggle with the Eastern Conference, the Rockets’ overall struggles were highlighted by San Antonio’s win last weekend. Have they already seen the best season of the James Harden/Chris Paul era, or can they still contend for a ring?

PtR contributors Mark Barrington, Marilyn Dubinski, Bruno Passos, Jesus Gomez, and editor-in-chief J. R. Wilco ponder the outcome of the Pop calling his starters “soft”, how the injury bug will impact the next two weeks of back-to-backs, and the Jimmy Butler trade.

After back-to-back losses, Pop called the team performance “soft.” Was he right? Should we be worried about the Spurs not playing as hard as they can from time to time?

Mark Barrington: It’s human nature to slack off when you’re doing well with less than optimum effort. It’s the coaches job to serve notice to the players when they’re getting complacent. But it’s natural for the effort level to ebb and flow during the NBA regular season that’s about 25% longer than it should be, and this is pretty standard stuff in the early part of the schedule. I’m not worried.

Marilyn Dubinski: I’m not too worried about them. After developing some rhythm during their four-game winning streak, they suddenly had to adjust again after losing two key cogs in Rudy Gay and Pau Gasol for a few games. That doesn’t excuse their slow starts that resulted in the two losses that triggered Pop’s ire, but more than anything he was just lighting a fire under them. This isn’t his old team with his old stars whom he could trust would straighten things out themselves, so we might being hear more from him than we’re used to when his team needs a spark.

Bruno Passos: I think you can worry about any team’s effort level being at 11 every single night. It’s a long season! That said, the Spurs did struggle against Miami’s physicality, and they’re not good enough to let something like that throw off their execution, even if the whistles aren’t going their way. Pop’s quote has more the air of a coach needing to send an early message to his team more than anything people should be actually concerned about.

Jesus Gomez: I’m not worried because the at times lethargic play is not a pattern yet. Every team drops a winnable game or two because it lacks what Pop calls the “appropriate fear.” These Spurs simply can’t afford to have a lot of those game because they need every win they can get to secure a playoff spot and because they don’t have the talent to win without executing. So I get why Pop was mad. I’m more worried about the little lapses within games, where players don’t run back on defense or settle on offense, but there’s time to work on those, too.

J. R. Wilco: Whiteside’s domination was in large part due to his physicality. Many times, he’d be blocked out by a Spur, only to bully his way to the rebound. It happened so often that I was wondering whether the league had changed the over-the-back rules without me realizing it. Pop doesn’t waste anger. If he used a word, I’m certain he chose it specifically for the purpose at hand.

We’ve been hearing about the Houston Rockets struggles this season, but Saturday night’s win gave Spurs fans direct insight. Can these Rockets turn things around and be a credible threat in the Western Conference this season?

Barrington: Rumor has it that they’re dumping Carmelo Anthony. That’s a case of addition by subtraction. But their roster is getting older and they lost several contributors from last year. They’ll get better, but they aren’t a credible threat to win the conference. Nobody is, except the team wearing Blue and Gold in Oakland.

Dubinski: They should get better by default simply by having James Harden and Chris Paul on the team, but they won’t reach last year’s level with this roster. They lost too much of what made their defense good last season in Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute, replaced them with a way worse defender and outside shooter in an over-the-hill Carmelo Anthony (who might be on his way out anyway), and Paul is starting to look more his age (although he says his shooting woes are related to an elbow injury). They need to make some trades to get this team even close to last year’s level, but when all is said and done they should get back to the playoffs with little issue.

Passos: They have the pieces to bounce back, as long as Chris Paul isn’t already slowing down. That’d be my big concern for a team that’s paying him $160 million through the 2021-22 season. Whether they’ll be good enough to take the Warriors to 7 again is another story and will depend on what kind of magic Daryl Morey can pull off at the trade deadline.

Gomez: They’ll be a playoff team, maybe even finish in the top four in the conference. But they are not a threat to win the conference anymore. Once they re-signed Chris Paul, they should have gone all in and keep their team together despite going over the tax. They didn’t and are now just another Western team that has no chance to dethrone the Warriors.

Wilco: They lost their best defenders; the guys who allowed the Rockets to be a top-flight team even though Harden was on the floor so often. Without those guys, it’s largely irrelevant how many points they score (as we saw in the SEGABABA after the Spurs beat them) because they won’t be able to get enough stops to make it to the WCF.

The Spurs have several players injured and will have three back-to-back series in the next two weeks. How big of an impact will those absences have on their chances to have a good November?

Barrington: I think if this team goes .500 in November, it will be a good month for them. I think that’s doable, even with the absences.

Dubinski: Rudy Gay and Jakob Poeltl came back against the Kings so that helps. The offense took a nose-dive without Gay, especially since he’s a big part of keeping the double-teams off DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge and acts as that cushion when one of them is having an off night. Gasol’s value seems to be showing more by his absence than anything, but the bench unit misses his rim protection and creativity. It’s a grueling stretch of schedule, and you can probably chalk up games vs Golden State and at Milwaukee as losses, and visits to the Clippers, Indiana and New Orleans promise to be tough. Breaking even during this stretch can be considered a semi-success.

Passos: A big one, especially in the frontcourt. Chimezie Metu isn’t ready for meaningful rotation minutes, but the Spurs were without options on Saturday, and may be again if Pau Gasol and Jakob Poeltl aren’t good to go.

Gomez: Even a fully healthy Spurs team could have been expected to drop most of their remaining November games, except for the matchups with Phoenix and Chicago. With the injuries, things get even trickier. Metu shouldn’t be getting minutes. Poeltl is still a little lost. Pondexter looks better than I expected but is probably a 10-minutes a game backup. The main rotation guys will have to work hard for the Spurs to escape this month with a .500 record. Hopefully they’ll be able to pull off some unlikely victories and get fully healthy by December.

Wilco: For a team that already had a margin of error that was thin enough to be suspected of anorexia, the injuries make it so that a victory requires near-perfect execution. Unless the other team shoots itself in the foot (hey there again, Rockets) the Spurs will lose on nights they aren’t hitting on all cylinders.

For the second time we see a superstar demanding a trade to Los Angeles sent to the Eastern Conference. After adding two MVP candidates, is the East now better overall than the West?

Barrington: The west is still better, but there are a few good teams in the Eastern Conference. I thought Boston was going to have an easy path to the Finals, but Toronto looks really good right now. The Sixers and Bucks have a lot of talent, but they’re not seasoned enough to challenge yet, in my opinion. The Pacers are a bit of a darkhorse. Nobody else looks like a contender.

Dubinski: The West is still much deeper overall, but you could say the East is more top-heavy. The Celtics, Raptors, Buck and 76ers (assuming Jimmy Butler works out) could all make a case for the conference championship when all is said and done. At least as of now and unlike the past few years, it looks the Warriors will face little resistance on their way to the Finals, but per usual the first round of Western Conference playoffs should be more entertaining than the East based on there being more “good” teams.

Passos: I’m not sure we’re there yet, especially since LA was always going to struggle early and teams like Utah and Houston have also come out of the gate weaker than expected. Toronto is a monster, Milwaukee has gone up another tier, and the Celtics, Pacers and Sixers are all very good, but the West remains deeper and a tougher place to earn a playoff spot. Still, the fact that we can have this discussion says a lot about the balance that’s being restored between conferences, and it’s cool to see the former Spurs assistants (Bud with the Bucks, Brown with the Sixers, and Borrego with the Hornets) all helping usher in a new era in the East.

Gomez: Maybe? The West still has the likely champion but there’s a case to be made for the East having the next three to four teams in the league. I’d still give the West the edge, because the fringe playoff teams in the West are better than the Eastern counterparts, but the gap between the two conferences has closed significantly. Now all we need is for Durant to go to the Knicks next season.

Wilco: No. Not at all. Absolutely not. Uh uh. Nope. Negative. Under no circumstances. Not on your life. Utterly preposterous. Negatory. That’s laughable.

The Timberwolves have one of the worst records in the West. Should the Spurs and other teams fighting for a playoff spot be worried about them making a push up the standings after the trade?

Barrington: It’s too early in the season to count anyone out. But they just barely squeaked into the playoffs last year, and they traded their best performer for a couple of role players. It looks like a lottery year to me, but Thibodeau will punish teams that face them in the regular season (and his own players, sadly).

Dubinski: I don’t think anyone beyond the Suns and maybe Mavericks can be counted out just yet. Maybe some improved chemistry gets the Wolves out of their rut and back on track, but then again every game counts in this conference. Simply put, the Spurs should be worried about everyone and can’t afford to take anyone lightly.

Passos: They’re on the bubble. Losing Butler makes them worse on paper, but they’ll still be a tough out. Whether they’re a playoff contender will depend on Thibodeau’s ability to integrate the new pieces, as well as how Wiggins and Towns perform now that they don’t have a vet telling them what disappointments they are all the time.

Gomez: They’ll bounce back. The two guys they got back for Butler fit their roster perfectly and chemistry is bound to improve now that this whole mess is over. I’m not sure they’ll be able to leapfrog the many teams ahead of them to make the playoffs, but they could be a threat, for sure.

Wilco: I was recently texting Michael Erler about Minny, and he was utterly perplexed at the lack of intestinal fortitude from KAT and Wiggins, and I must admit that the way the pair let Jimmy walk all over them makes me very skeptical about considering them elite. A team’s playoff hopes are directly tied to the capabilities of their top two guys, and I’m currently dubious about the Timber-canines’ ability to mature from puppies to wolves.

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