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Spurs still finding their rhythm on the cusp of the playoffs

This week’s staff roundtable takes on the team’s rotations, LMA’s chances for recognition for his regular season greatness, and Parker’s struggles.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

This past week, the Spurs started strong with a win at the AT&T Center against the top-seeded Houston Rockets, then headed out and dropped back-to-back games in Los Angeles. The trip out west put an end to the franchise’s 18 year run of 50-win seasons. Meanwhile, returning home proved positive as the Spurs spurned Portland’s hopes of locking in the 3rd seed.

The Western Conference standings remain a logjam to the point that predicting the seeding is still impossible. But there is much to discuss.

This week, PtR contributors Jesus Gomez, Marilyn Dubinski, Mark Barrington, Bruno Passos, and editor-in-chief J.R. Wilco focus on what is going on internally with the team as we head into the postseason. There have been some line-up changes and various pairings as Pop continues to seek the right combination of men on the court to face any opponent. As LaMarcus Aldridge continues to shine, we start today’s panel discussion with him.

LaMarcus Aldridge keeps performing at an extremely high level, even when the rest of the team struggles. Is he a shoo-in for an All-NBA team?

Jesus Gomez: Yes, he is. He probably would have made it even if he had been listed as a center. As a forward, I can’t see a scenario in which he’s left out. I think he has a air-tight case to make the second team thanks to his production, role and durability. If I’m being honest, I did not see that coming after his struggles last season.

Marilyn Dubinski: He should be. It’s hard to name six other forwards who have had better or even similar seasons to him. Lebron James, Kevin Durant, and Giannis Antetokuonmpo are the only ones who immediately who come to mind that he’ll be in direct competition with. I think he’ll make the second team, wouldn’t be shocked if hard-to-impress media voters put him in third, but if he’s completely left out it would be one of the biggest snubs of all time.

Mark Barrington: He’s in. Certainly not first team, but probably second team. He’s been the best player on the Spurs this year and arguably the fourth best forward in the NBA, so solidly on the second team. He’s also been pretty good at center, but you can only make the All-NBA team at one position.

Bruno Passos: Yes. He gets a big assist being listed only as a forward, since the battle for the three center spots should be tougher between guys like Davis, Jokic, Gobert, Embiid, and Towns. A spot on the Second Team definitely seems possible.

J.R. Wilco: It shouldn’t be possible to play as well as LMA has this year without being recognized. His play has been elite, and I’d be surprised if he wasn’t on one of the top two All-NBA teams.

Dejounte Murray and Kyle Anderson have the worst clutch plus minus numbers on the team, by far. With how much the Spurs have struggled to win close games, should Pop play someone else?

Gomez: I’m tempted to say yes. Anderson tends to fade as the game goes on anyway and Dejounte is mistake prone (stop fouling three-point shooters!). It’s not really fair to suggest someone should sit without also saying who should replace that player, and that’s when it gets tricky. My ideal closing lineup would be Mills-Manu-Green-Gay-Aldridge. But that unit has struggled to score so far and Pop has apparently lost faith in Danny. I still maintain that I’d like to see those five out there with the game on the line, but I can’t really blame Pop for mixing it up at times.

Dubinski: Common sense says this is because of their lack of scoring prowess, so their presence makes it easier for opponents so sag off and double LaMarcus Aldridge or whoever else the other team may fear taking the final shots, but at the same time their other clutch stats aren’t that bad, and it’s understandable that they are in there for defensive purposes. Under normal circumstances Kawhi Leonard would be in instead of Anderson (but these aren’t normal circumstances), and while Pop has shown maybe a little too much trust in Murray in the clutch (like the game in Milwaukee), I’m okay with letting him learn as he goes because he has to someday. (Of course if a playoff series is on the line, that might be another story.)

Barrington: The trouble with the idea of giving the ball to someone else is that the other options on the team are even worse. Except for LaMarcus, of course but he’s often facing double and triple teams in game-end situations and another player needs to step up. Kyle has looked fatigued at the end of games lately and he’s made some uncharacteristic mistakes late in games, with turnovers and poor shooting. This is the first year he’s had to play as many minutes as he has, and he just has to get used to it, I think.

I’m not worried about Dejounte at all. He’s a living exemplar of Nietzsche’s most famous saying, and every failure makes him a stronger finisher.

Passos: I think it depends on if they’re playing from behind or not, since the team identity is so tied to its successes on the defensive end, and those two are big contributors there. That said, the Spurs become easier to guard in end-game situations if both of them are on the floor, so I’d rather it be one or the other.

Wilco: There must be a balance between defense and three-point shooting (or at least the threat of someone having the audacity to attempt a three-point shot) otherwise teams will do what the Clippers and Lakers did: sell out to keep the ball from Aldridge, and recover before the Spurs can eventually work the ball to someone who is: a) open, and b) can make the occasional three. I’d like to see Mills for DJ and/or Gay for KA.

Pau Gasol has started the last three games, as Pop has seemingly shelved the small starting lineup featuring Kyle Anderson at power forward. Do you agree with his decision to go big?

Gomez: I’m not a fan of the big lineup, but I recognize that it has its uses. Having Gasol and Aldridge start both halves is a good way to get that pairing some playing time. I’m not vehemently opposed to starting the two, but I’d love to see the amount of minutes they get next to one another limited. Anderson, Gay and even Bertans offer a lot more versatility as the second big man. The Spurs should use them instead of insisting on a traditional look that only makes them more predictable.

Dubinski: I understand the decision to stay big in some cases — like against OKC, presumably the goal was to draw Steven Adams off Aldridge and way from the rim, and it worked — and Pop usually staggers Aldridge and Gasol other than during the first few minutes of each half. My hope is that he will remain flexible and adjust to the match-up come playoff time, similar to what he did in 2014 with Tiago Splitter and Boris Diaw. If the big starting line-up clearly isn’t working but he fails to adjust, then I’ll start worrying.

Barrington: I think it’s more matchup driven than a permanent change. I don’t see Gasol starting against Golden State if we face them in the playoffs.

Passos: I agree with Mark that it’ll still probably depend on the matchup. Gasol has made it clear he wants to start, but it’s been a mixed bag for him this season, and it’s hard to say what the best combination is for him. The biggest pro of playing him with the starters is likely the physical stress he can take off of Aldridge guarding opposing centers, while feeding him in the post with the kind of passes only Gasol can deliver.

Wilco: I’d go back to what I kept saying last season: it’s not about who starts, it’s about who finishes — only San Antonio’s major issue this year not going able to close the door on teams they have big leads on. Nothing’s simple this year.

Tony Parker got just four second half minutes against the Blazers. He’s really been struggling lately. How worried are you about his chances to contribute in the postseason?

Gomez: I’m extremely worried. He just doesn’t look like himself. I’m not expecting him to take over games with his driving ability — those days are likely gone. But he’s not even running the team most of the time he’s on the floor and his mid-range shot has abandoned him. I’d love to see Playoff Tony show up and invigorate the bench, but I don’t see it happening.

Dubinski: Not overly. He showed last year he can flip the switch come playoff time, but even if he doesn’t I don’t think it will change the outcome of these playoffs that much. It’s reasonable to assume that regardless of his performance, the Kawhi-less Spurs’ ceiling is the second round, and the only way I can see him changing that is if he somehow goes into a full vintage “MVP Tony” mode and fixes the bench’s (better yet, the entire team’s) road woes.

Barrington: I’m waiting for playoff Tony to arrive. Last year he was right on time.

Passos: Maybe a 7 out of 10. We all remember how much he stepped up his game last year, but the combination of an inability to get to the rim and find the right lift on his floaters and jumpers is more than a little concerning.

Wilco: Zero worry. I expect him to flip the switch like he always has. He showed me enough during the season to know that he’s still capable. Worst case scenario, he stinks and Pop sits him pretty quickly. I don’t see him getting postseason minutes he doesn’t earn.

The 18-season 50-game winning streak came to end this week. The Spurs are experiencing off-court controversies. Manu Ginobili could be gone after this summer and Tony Parker is no longer a starter. Is this the end of this era?

Gomez: It certainly feels that way. The signs are all there. The older players have smaller roles. A bunch of role players could enter free agency. Even if Leonard returns, the roster could look vert different next season. The off-court drama seems here to stay, just like it’s there for even all the other well-ran franchises. Big change is ahead. Hopefully it will be more of a transition period from one successful era to the next and not an end to the Spurs’ run of excellence.

Dubinski: If we’re talking about the end of the Big 3 era, then it’s probably safe to say it is definitely over. However, if Kawhi returns healthy next season (which still seems like the most likely scenario) and the Spurs go back to being their typical 60-win, contending selves, then I see no reason why this will be the end of any other era. If all goes accordingly, this season will just turn out to be a hiccup that people will look back on and wonder how they still managed to make the playoffs despite Leonard only playing in 9 games and in such a wild conference race. Of course, if Kawhi doesn’t return, then we can start talking about the end of the era, but I’ll cross that bridge when/if we get to it.

Barrington: Everything ends. The beginning of the end was Tim Duncan’s retirement, but the Spurs are starting a new era. Whether or not this will be a fondly remembered one depends on the resolution of the Kawhi Leonard drama. My guess is that he will be back next year in full force and the Spurs will start another string of sustained excellence, but that is not the only possible outcome.

Passos: This is an interesting question, because it forces us to weigh all the different pieces and abstract concepts that collectively form our personal idea of what defines/defined the era. Some might say it ended as Duncan left and the other Big Three members faded into smaller roles. Others deemed Kawhi Leonard the torch-bearer of the Spurs spirit until he suddenly went dark. If it’s a cultural thing, then Extraneous G is still around, quizzing his players on current events and stressing the importance of worldly awareness. But maybe because now we have to scrutinize these elements, whereas we once knew simply by knowing, it is over. And that’s fine.

Wilco: Nothing is over until we decide it is. The Spurs dropped to the 6th seed in 2015 and it wasn’t over. How can it be over this year when the 4th seed is still a possibility? To me, it’ll be over when a season begins and we don’t expect the team to contend and/or make noise in the playoffs — and we’re right. Until then, they’re still the same Spurs to me.

Do you have a question for the Roundtable as we head into the postseason? Post your questions and comments below.