Looking at the Spurs’ schedule so far, seeing them at a 5-2 record despite all the injuries shouldn’t be the most surprising happening in the league. Their only two losses came against currently playoff-bound teams in the Portland Trail Blazers and Indiana Pacers (yes, we are looking at the seeding this early), while their five wins came against West teams that are currently on the outside looking in.
The more surprising trends in this very early NBA season are teams like the Houston Rockets (1-5), Oklahoma City Thunder (3-4), and even Los Angeles Lakers (3-5) starting poorly relative to the extreme hype they received heading into the season. Of course, they have their reasons — injuries, suspensions, etc. — but the question for all four teams is whether these trends are sustainable.
Bleacher Report’s Adam Fromal attempted to answer these questions. Although he mostly excused the three struggling favorites because of their personnel and ability to “average back to the mean” on troubling stats like defense, this is what he had to say about the Spurs:
This is a painful selection. And considering Gregg Popovich is still pacing the sideline as the San Antonio Spurs head coach, it could easily backfire while the team makes the playoffs for the 22nd consecutive season.
But while the perennial Western Conference power has seized a 4-2 record, the underlying numbers aren’t as rosy.
We could focus on the 2-4 Pythagorean record (based on points scored and allowed), the minus-3.77 SRS that leaves them between the Minnesota Timberwolves (minus-2.72) and Brooklyn Nets (minus-4.34) at No. 20 overall or the minus-3.5 net rating that ranks No. 19 despite their bottom-half strength of schedule.
If that’s not enough, maybe it’s more convincing that their victories have come against the struggling Los Angeles Lakers (twice by a combined five points with one overtime period), the tumultuous Minnesota Timberwolves (by four points) and the lottery-bound Dallas Mavericks (by five points in overtime).
DeMar DeRozan is playing inspired basketball, averaging 28.3 points, 6.0 rebounds and a career-best 8.0 assists per game while shooting 49.3 percent from the field. Rudy Gay (14.7 points on 52.1/66.7/66.7 shooting) and Bryn Forbes (14.5 points on 47.1/45.5/80.0 shooting) seem incapable of missing, picking up the proverbial slack while LaMarcus Aldridge and Marco Belinelli search for their games.
But this squad still has serious flaws—more serious than we’ve seen from any iteration over the last two decades. As covered in more detail here, the Spurs are struggling immensely on the defensive end, hemorrhaging 114.5 points per 100 possessions with a rotation that isn’t bound for much improvement. Even when Derrick White (plantar fascia) and Lonnie Walker IV (right knee) are healthy, the season-ending ACL tear suffered by Dejounte Murray might be too much to overcome.
Popovich could still work some of his magic, fostering unexpected breakouts from overlooked contributors. But at best, this feels like a team that won’t do anything more than sneak into the playoffs as first-round fodder for a true contender.
Even that, while a low bar for the Association’s model franchise, is asking a lot.
To recap: no, the Spurs cannot maintain this winning rate because the defense isn’t up to snuff yet, they likely lack the personnel, and the schedule has been unimpressive so far. Never mind that they have two All-Stars playing lights out, which is often an indicator of a playoff team. Also, let’s note the difference in approaches here when compared to the other teams on this list.
First, let’s get the Rockets out of the way as few if any don’t expect them to bounce back sooner than later with James Harden and Chris Paul on the team. Still, that doesn’t mean they’re as good as last year. After 2018’s impressive defensive showing (especially for a Mike D’Antoni-led team), they are back to currently being ranked 24th in the league, which, similar to the Spurs, can to an extent be related to replacing a defensive ace on the wing in Trevor Ariza with Carmelo Anthony. However, the belief is:
They’re far better than we’ve seen, though, as will become clear when the defense regresses toward a more reasonable mean and all the key pieces play together.
So despite lacking elite defensive personnel outside of Clint Capela, their defense will improve just . . . because — though the same can’t apparently be said of the Spurs. Okay, next.
The close losses are infuriating for a team that expected better than a 2-5 record at the start of the James era, but this is a process. Especially while boasting a roster filled with so many young players still learning how to win—some of whom haven’t been fully healthy throughout the offseason (Lonzo Ball) or have been suspended (Brandon Ingram)—the Lakers have to realize they’ll only trend upward.
So . . . having LeBron James on your team automatically makes you expect more, but as mentioned he is surrounded almost entirely by an unproven group of young players (along with some tumultuous veterans), and a lot of the team is pretty unfamiliar with each other.
That’s understandable, but why can’t a Spurs team with plenty new players but also a more proven and mature roster be granted some time to come together and improve themselves, especially when they’ve already proven themselves against this very team twice already? To that end, if the Lakers eventually are supposed to be that much better than the Spurs, then why should their losses to us be considered “infuriating” to them but an unimpressive accomplishment for the Spurs?
Finally, the Thunder. This one is actually decently thought out. Fromal doesn’t mark them as contenders or even a definite playoff team, but he acknowledges that Russell Westbrook missed some time and hasn’t gotten much playing time with Paul George and Steven Adams for everything to start clicking yet, plus they are already trending back up with three straight wins after an 0-4 start.
Still, let’s see who OKC’s victories were against: the Clippers (who are off to a decent 4-4 start), and two teams with losing records in the Suns and Hornets that were won by single digits despite Westbrook, George, and Adams all playing. So if a still-gelling Spurs team deserves scrutiny over who their wins are against and how they were won, then why trust the “haven't gotten a chance to click yet” Thunder despite the fact that their three best players all played together last season?
In the end, without knowing quite where the Spurs stack up against more elite competition, it’s hard to tell where they stand right now. Will they keep winning at a pace around their current .714 win-percentage? That seems like a tall task once the schedule gets tougher, but it’s still hard to ignore the other teams getting the benefit of the doubt based primarily on preseason hype and with reasoning that can just as easily be applied to the Spurs.
The Spurs have regularly made pundits eat crow by the time this season is over, and this season presents a similar opportunity. So far, I’ve enjoyed watching this team play with a chip on its shoulder while simultaneously being more relaxed from reduced expectations, and drama-free from . . . I guess from having a roster made up of guys who actually want to play for Pop.