The Spurs’ win over the Celtics on Wednesday allowed them to get a full game of separation over the soaring Grizzlies and the Trail Blazers in the battle for the eighth seed. The playoffs remain a very realistic objective for San Antonio.
It’s a little surprising that is the case because the Spurs have had a less than stellar start of the season. They have been below .500 since Nov. 13, and at one point they had seven more losses than wins. Even now, their 16-20 record is far from impressive.
Most years, the West would have been too unforgiving for a team to struggle that much out of the gate and remain in the playoff picture, but the Spurs were lucky to be bad but not terrible in a rare year in which that has been enough to survive in the better of the two conferences.
Just to give you an idea of how much of an outlier this year has been for the typically ultra competitive West, only once since the new millennium has a team with a lower winning percentage than the 2019/20 Spurs had on Dec. 31 held the eighth spot in the West by that date. The vast majority of the time for the past two decades, at least eight teams were over .500 at the turn of the year.
With their current winning percentage, San Antonio would have held the second-worst record in the West in the packed 2018/19 season and would have ranked 10th in the conference in 2017/18. Over the past 10 years, on average the eighth seed in the West has won 46 games. The Spurs are projected to win 35 games, which would be by far the lowest out of any team that has made the playoffs in the conference over that period.
It’s unusual for the West to be this bad and a little unexpected that it has happened this year. The Warriors were predicted to tumble their way back to the lottery, but the Lakers and Clippers were expected to take their place at the top of the West while several other teams, including the Spurs, had either kept their core together or improved, at least on paper. Instead, a lot of the franchises that were at the very least on the fringes of the playoff picture last season are having bad years. Some, like the Trail Blazers and the Kings, can blame injuries for it, while others, like San Antonio and Minnesota, have simply underwhelmed. Arguably only the Mavericks and, shockingly, the Thunder have truly outperformed expectations so far.
The Spurs have clearly benefited from the poor state of the West, as they have played uninspiring ball for two months but not paid for it in the standings to the degree similar teams have in past years, which has allowed them to remain relevant. There’s no shame in being the best among a group of mediocre teams, of course, which is what the Spurs are at the moment. San Antonio can’t be criticized for taking advantage of the failures of other franchises to improve, and no one related to the franchise will think twice about how the they managed to keep their playoff streak alive, if they manage to do so.
At the same time, it’s important to remember that these Spurs are not a normal potential eighth seed right now. So far they seem to have more in common with the bad Eastern teams who typically sneak into the postseason only because the conference is top heavy than any of the very good low-seeded West squad of recent years. There’s very little evidence to suggest they can dream about an upset or even a competitive first round series like the one they had last season against the Nuggets. At this point, their relative success can be attributed to being around in one of the least competitive seasons the conference has seen in decades.
The recent wins are fortunately starting to change that perception, and the January schedule could completely reshape the narrative. The Spurs have taken down two elite teams this week and will be tested both on the road and at home by several opponents with better records. If the improved play we are seeing is sustainable, San Antonio will climb up the standings or at least get the winning percentage of a typical low-seeded West team. Then we could start hoping for not only another postseason appearance but maybe even an upset.
There is a very good case to be made that the Spurs’ playoff hopes are only as good as they currently are because their conference, typically relentlessly competitive, has been much worse than usual. Fortunately, there’s enough season left for them to prove that they don’t only deserve to be thought of as a legitimate postseason candidate, but one who could also make serious noise in April.