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Why this season’s training camp is so important to the Spurs

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And why we shouldn’t worry about it.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs-Media Day Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs start training camp today (September 25th) and it promises to be one of the most important camps in memory. Just months removed from a season unlike any other in Spurs history, there’s no shortage of skepticism about the team, with many projecting them to miss the playoffs for the first time since Tim Duncan was a senior at Wake Forest. With so much change, it’s fair to wonder how the team will perform, and these next three weeks will go a long way towards determining the answer.

The Spurs first preseason game is just 5 days away. They’ll play 4 more games over the course of the following 12 days, then after a 4-day break, open the season at home against the Timberwolves on October 17th. If the team can successfully integrate so many new and important pieces and get off to a good start to the season, it will be one of Coach Pop and crew’s most impressive accomplishments. If they can’t, the naysayers may prove correct, and the Spurs could enter the lottery for the first time since drafting Timmy.

Corporate education

After a season of turmoil, the team underwent more upheaval this off-season than at any time in the last twenty years. The big changes, Manu’s retirement, Tony’s departure, and of course, the Kawhi trade loom large, but losing Danny Green and Kyle Anderson left holes to be filled as well. Those five players started 157 games last year and played nearly a third of the team’s minutes.

When you include the four other players who aren’t coming back (Brandon Paul, Joffrey Lauvergne, Darrun Hilliard, and Matt Costello), they accounted for almost half the team’s steals last year, over 40% of the team’s assists, and a third of the team’s points. Todd Whitehead has a good visualization of predicted changes in minutes, field goal attempts, and time of possession you can check out. In short, there aren’t many teams replacing as much production as the Spurs.

More importantly, though, the team lost more corporate knowledge than it ever has before. The players who departed would have come into this season with a combined 56 years in the silver and black, the bulk of which obviously belonged to Manu and Tony. The players who remain have only 23 years with the team, total. Patty Mills is the longest tenured Spur at 7 years, with LaMarcus Aldridge in a distant second at 3 years. Every other player has spent two years or less with the franchise, so there will be a ton of teaching going on every day. Fortunately, they should be able to depend on regular visits from their recently retired vets, which should go a long way towards helping offset the loss.

All of that leaves a lot of opportunity for new and young players heading into the season, but the team has only a small window of time to integrate new personnel into the system and figure out everyone’s roles. It’s almost a certainty that they’ll still be adjusting through the first couple months of the season, and just about every player on the roster should get a chance to shine as Coach Pop works through the rotations.

Projections, past performance, and playoffs

While that’s great news for the future of the organization, it doesn’t bode well for the team’s playoff aspirations this season. With most projections essentially predicting the Spurs to barely make the postseason, a slow start could be the death knell.

2018-19 Spurs Win Projections

Source Wins Seed
Source Wins Seed
ESPN Panel 44 9th
ESPN BPI 43 9th
538 40 9th
CBS Sportsline 47.1 7th
Westgate 43.5 9th
Jacob Goldstein 39 10th

The Jimmy Butler situation obviously throws these predictions off a little, given that Minnesota was anticipated to finish ahead of the Spurs in every projection except for Sportsline. Even if they trade him, and as anticipated, are unable to get the same value in return, most analysts seem to think the Spurs will still be on the bubble. That could mean another end-of-the-year dogfight for seeding, though, as Jesus Gomez points out, that’s not the only issue that’s arisen for the Spurs’ competition in the non-Warriors division out West.

Still, playoff seeding could very well come down to the last night of the season again, and the Spurs will need every game they can get. Last year, the team squeaked in based largely on their success early in the year. Of course, holding 3rd place for the majority of last season still resulted in a disappointing 7th place finish, but if they hadn’t started off so well, it could’ve been much worse.

The Spurs opened up last season with a critical win against the Timberwolves, which ended up being the difference in the 7th and 8th seeds. They followed that win up with three more, then dropped four in a row, including a bad loss to a weak Orlando team. After falling to 4-4, the team reeled off eight weeks of winning basketball, going 21-7 over that time. Just before the new year, the Spurs found themselves at 25-11, good for a .694 winning percentage and 3rd in the West.

Without that dominant stretch, the Spurs likely miss the playoffs. In fact, from that point forward, the team had a losing record, going 22-24 the rest of the way, though they managed to outscore their opponents by 2.4 points per game over those 46 games. That’s hard to do and still have a losing record, but the team just couldn’t finish enough games to keep from falling in the standings.

The team’s strong record from earlier in the season proved to be sustainable. That run of good basketball just happened to coincide with a stretch where they played 19 of 28 games against lottery teams. They went 18-1 in those contests and just 3-6 against playoff teams.

The Spurs won’t have that luxury this year. Over the first 10 weeks of the season, 22 of their 36 games are against projected playoff teams. If Minnesota falls out, that number drops to 19, though they also have 2 games against Portland, the presumptive 9th seed in that case. If the Spurs perform anything like they did last year against playoff teams during that stretch, they’ll quickly find themselves on the outside of the playoff picture looking in.

On top of that, the West is loaded, and even if the Spurs make the playoffs, they need to get to the 6th seed to have a realistic shot of getting out of the 2nd round. That means they need to finish ahead of two of the Jazz/Lakers/Nuggets/Pelicans/Thunder quintet predicted to finish ahead of them by nearly every set of projections. That will likely require the Spurs to get off to another good start, especially with 10 of their 17 games against those teams coming in the first two and a half months of the season.

Take the over

Of course, if we could accurately project something as complex as an NBA season, they wouldn’t need to play the games. That’s not the case, of course, and Spurs fans aren’t the only ones who see those projections and scoff. The Spurs infrastructure and history of success matter, and several analysts have come out on behalf of taking the over, including Haley O’Shaughnessy of TheRinger.com and SBNation’s own Tom Ziller. Barring injury, that ought to be a pretty safe bet.

Still, the uncertainty is concerning, as is the schedule. The team needs to come out of training camp ready to play Spurs basketball right from the tip if they want to have any chance of making noise in the playoffs, but they’re in a new situation, relying on a lot of new faces. With no shortage of potential narratives, it’s guaranteed to be an interesting season. But when it comes to predicting whether it’ll be the good kind of interesting or the bad kind, there’s one very important face that hasn’t changed. When in doubt, you gotta trust Pop.