The All-Star break is almost over. The final stretch of the season is upon us. For the Spurs, currently sitting with the seventh best record in the West, it’s gut check time. They need to find some consistency on defense and start playing on the road or their playoff hopes could be dashed.
In this week’s edition of our staff round-table series, In the Bonus, PtR contributors Mark Barrington, Bruno Passos and Marilyn Dubinski join me and Editor-in-Chief J.R. Wilco to answer some of the same questions that have haunted the Spurs all season but now feel more urgently in need of an answer.
The Spurs have the 25th ranked defense in the league since the New Year. Can they go back to being competent in the back end of the season? What would it take?
Marilyn Dubinski: They showed they can be, at worst, a middling defense for an extended stretch in December, so they should be able to get back to the teens range without much issue. They just need to be healthy, committed, not take entire quarters off, and take care of business on the other end to prevent easy points for their opponent.
Mark Barrington: If Derrick White gets healthy, then they’ll be a lot better. Maybe even competent. By the way, there are only 23 games left in the season, so it’s really closer to being just a quarter of a season to go. Not much time to get it all together.
Bruno Passos: If “competent” is that sweet spot between good and bad, then, yes, I think so. Their December level is probably better than what their actual ceiling is, but they were 8th in defensive rating for that entire month. I can see them posting something between 12th and 17th in the final few months of the season if everyone stays healthy.
Jesus Gomez: I think they can be better than they have been recently if they are healthy, but I’m not sure they can consistently be solid on that end. For a while there everything clicked; rotations were crisp, effort was high, everyone tried their best. But it didn’t last, in part because it’s hard for offensively-inclined players to sustain that level of commitment to defense. Hopefully the Spurs as a team will be able to muster it in the games they absolutely need it.
J.R. Wilco: Health, first and foremost. The Spurs must have access to their nine best players, because otherwise, they’re toast — on defense, at least.
How important is it for DeMar DeRozan to regain his form as slasher and playmaker for the Spurs’ playoff chances? Can they survive if he doesn’t, as long as Derrick White is healthy?
Dubinski: The Spurs can win on most nights without DeRozan being at his best if the rest of the 9-man rotation is playing well, especially White, but we can’t expect everyone else to pick up the slack for him every night. He doesn’t have to be the hero he was at the beginning of the season when everyone else was struggling, but simply a better shooting percentage from him would do wonders. Hopefully the All Star break is exactly what he needs to fix whatever ails his game and get focused for the final stretch.
Barrington: I think DeMar will be better when he’s not the only player that can create his own shot, which means that Derrick White is going to have take on some of the load. LaMarcus is a fine scorer, but he can’t be the go-to guy late in the shot clock.
Passos: I think White’s health and an improved defense (which seem to be pretty interconnected) are higher on the regular season list than DeRozan regaining his early-season form, but it’s still important — if only because he can’t really contribute as much as a defender or off-ball threat. I think they could withstand it and still squeak into the playoffs with him still struggling, but that’s as far as they can hope to go.
Gomez: It’s really important. At his best, DeRozan puts pressure on the defense with his drives in a way that no other Spurs can come close to replicating. It used to complement his mid-range scoring and set up a bunch of threes, which he did without turning the ball over too much. Without those skills, he’s the player his critics claim he is: an empty calorie volume scorer. The good news is that some of the turnovers he’s been committing are avoidable and his shot seems to be back. If his confidence returns, he could go back to being the well-rounded offensive hub he was earlier in the season.
Wilco: It’s only important if: a) the Spurs are interested in getting the best playoff seed they can, and if b) they’re going to have a chance of making it to the second round. The Spurs can’t excel as a team as long as DmDr is playing bad, instead of Breaking Bad.
The Spurs have a .360 road record so far this season. Can they do better than that in the 11 games they have left away from San Antonio?
Dubinski: The schedule says seven of those games are at least winnable for the Spurs. However, that hasn’t meant a whole lot with this squad over the last two seasons. If they can win in New York, Atlanta, Dallas, Washington and Cleveland (while naturally taking care of business at home), they will have done their job.
Barrington: Probably not, they are who they are at this point of the season.
Passos: I wouldn’t feel comfortable predicting anything more than a marginal improvement on that end until I see it. They just haven’t looked like the same team away from the AT&T Center this entire season. They are fortunate that at least four of those games should be against tanking teams, though.
Gomez: They should. The schedule is pretty forgiving. They have five games (vs. Knicks, Hawks, Mavericks, Cavaliers and Wizards) in which they’ll go against opponents with a record below .500. The Hornets might also have more losses than wins when they face them. At some point they’ll need to figure out how to beat those bad East teams. If they don’t, they might not make the playoffs.
Wilco: I’m with Barrington . . . unless the team has zero injuries over the rest of the regular season. I’m still holding out hope that the form the team showed in their December run can be recaptured if everyone is available and playing at their best.
The Spurs have 33 wins. There are 23 games left. How many do they need to win to make the playoffs?
Dubinski: I feel like 47 means they’re in, 46 might be enough but likely means another first round meeting with the Warriors (gag), but anything below that means they have to hope the teams below them (mainly the Clippers, Kings and Lakers) don’t catch fire and do any better.
Barrington: I have a feeling they will be at 45 or 46 and either be the last team in, or the first team out.
Passos: 45 feels like where the split between 8th and 9th will be. 46 (which is the pace they’re currently on) probably gets your average team in, but the Spurs have at least one crucial tie-breaker (Sacramento) working against them, so I’d feel most comfortable with them getting to 47.
Gomez: I think 46 probably gets them in, although the tie-breaker with the Kings gives me some pause. Hopefully the Clippers will decide they’d like to keep their pick this year and take their foot off the gas pedal a little and LeBron will continue to look human. But it could ultimately just come down to the Spurs winning some of those road games that we talked about.
Wilco: Their current win percentage will get them to 47. I feel like as long as they don’t slip, they’ll make it to the postseason. If they win at a lower pace than they have so far this year, I doubt they’ll make it.
Assuming the Spurs make it, which other teams will get to the postseason in the West? Can the Spurs realistically win a round?
Dubinski: I think it ends up being the eight teams you see now, maybe swapping the Clippers and Kings. My main source of comfort for the Spurs is their schedule is one of the easiest in the league after the break, while the Kings’ is harder. I’d love for this to be the year that LeBron James misses the playoffs because he chose Hollywood over winning. If the Spurs could somehow reach 5th or wherever opposite of the Trail Blazers is, that would be their best bet at winning the first round, but that’s still asking a lot without home court advantage for this group. That being said, outside of the Warriors no one seems completely invulnerable to first round upsets this season, not even the Nuggets if only because of their lack of playoff experience (plus in two games so far the Spurs have matched up well with them).
Barrington: I can’t see the Spurs winning a round, but anything can happen. More likely, they can stretch the number 2 team to six games if they can get the 7th spot. If they play the Warriors, it’s most likely a sweep. I think the current standings are about where everyone will end up. I think the Lakers are toast, and the Kings are gonna make it.
Passos: I know the Spurs are technically just a hair behind Utah in win percentage — and just two games from 4th placed Portland — but it really does feel like they have their work cut out for them more than the six teams in front of them. I’d say all those six are already in, and would put the Spurs and the (gasp) Kings in the final two spots. Can they win a round? Against anyone but the Warriors — maybe?
Gomez: I think the top seven you see now, probably in that order, with the Kings replacing the Clippers. But maybe that’s wishful thinking. I just like the Kings more than the two LA teams. As for the Spurs getting past the first round, it seems really unlikely. No opponent other than the Warriors seems unbeatable, but the Spurs are not exactly the battle-tested reliable squad they were in the past era. I do think there’s some potential for an upset against the Nuggets, mostly because they have struggled getting healthy and could be trying to reintroduce players back into the rotation when the first round rolls around. That could be a fun series for the Spurs.
Wilco: I’m not going to spend any time guessing at the bottom of the West’s bracket. With LeBron back, I see L.A. making at least the 8th spot. And if San Antonio is going to make it out of the first round, they have to climb to no less than the 6th seed, because they’re not going to take down the Warriors or the Nuggets — we know who Golden State is, and the Nuggets have proved to me that, at the very least, they know how to not beat themselves. And that’s something that this season’s Spurs are still learning.
How many wins do the Spurs need to make the playoffs?
This poll is closed
42-43. The teams below them will struggle. Just staying around .500 will be enough.
44-45. No team below them is going to go on a huge run. Going .500 for the rest of the season will do the trick.
46-47. That’s what it took last season and at least a couple of the teams below them will get there this year.
48+. The teams below them will go on runs. The Spurs need at least 15 of the next 23 to get in.