The Spurs are not, technically speaking, out of the playoff race. One could easily imagine scenarios where the Silver and Black are able to climb back out of the 5 game hole they’ve dug for themselves with only 28 games to go.
Perhaps Ja Morant accidentally dunks the ball so hard that he creates a momentary tear in the fabric of space-time, which then sucks the entire Grizzlies franchise into an alternate universe. The league doesn’t currently have any rules concerning how the tiebreaker would work in such a scenario, so it seems reasonable to suggest the last playoff spot would go to a team that still exists, and maybe the Spurs could be that team (assuming they can catch the Trail Blazers, obviously).
Or maybe Tim Duncan comes out of retirement and is still, somehow, an upgrade in the middle. Keep in mind, he’s only 9 months older than this guy.
Or maybe DeMarre Carroll’s almost absurd level of professionalism and composure despite his inexplicable lack of playing time was somehow holding the team back.
Or maybe Coach Gregg Popovich has been sandbagging so far this season and he’s about to unleash the real rotation with a defensive system that makes sense for the personnel on hand.
Or maybe the Spurs could just play two straight months of good basketball. Yes, this is the least likely scenario imaginable, but it is possible. The team does, after all, have a slightly better net rating than both of the teams between them and the playoffs (the Spurs are at -0.9, per Cleaning the Glass, while the Trail Blazers are at -1.2 and the Grizzlies are at -1.4). They also have a relatively easy schedule the rest of the way, with an average opponent winning percentage of .488 per Tankathon, while the Grizzlies have the league’s toughest at .554.
But even if the Spurs really are a little better than the Grizzlies and have a much easier schedule, they’d need to play way over their heads to make an actual run. If the Grizzles even win 13 of their 28 remaining games to finish 41-41, the Spurs would need to go 18-10 (.643) the rest of the way just to get a tie. At that point, IF the Spurs beat the Grizzlies in their 4th match-up on March 16th, and IF they have the better Division record, they’d make it into the playoffs — IF the Trail Blazers (who have already won the season series over the Spurs) haven’t kept pace.
If that seems improbable, consider that the Spurs haven’t won more than 15 games in any 28 game stretch this season. They haven’t even managed to win 7 out of any 10 games this season, something they’d almost have to do to win over 64% of their remaining contests.
So, the Spurs aren’t technically out of the playoff race, but for all practical purposes, they’re already a lottery team. That means it’s time to start preparing for next season. It’s a little late to join the race to the bottom of the standings, with 7 different teams sitting 5 games or more behind the Spurs. Still, a few extra losses couldn’t hurt their lottery odds. More importantly, vets with bumps and bruises need rest and young players need time on the court to develop.
Now is the time to start asking questions that will lead to better decision making in the upcoming offseason than the team has displayed in its recent history. Here are a few that need answers.
Are Dejounte Murray and Derrick White the backcourt of the future? Who knows. They’ve only played 146 non-garbage time possessions together. How do those two fit with Lonnie Walker IV? Great question. The Spurs’ most promising young trio has only played 9 non-garbage time possessions together.
What about Jakob Poeltl? Is he a piece of the team’s long-term future or just a talented backup? It’s hard to tell. He plays like the former but his playing time makes it seem like the latter. Is by design to make him more affordable as a restricted free agent this summer? It’s possible.
Chimezie Metu still looks like the kind of project player who doesn’t break through until his 2nd or 3rd team, but the Spurs have three rookies (Luka Samanic, Keldon Johnson and Quinndary Weatherspoon) who have all shown promise in the G League. Each of them could benefit from some playing time with the big league club.
And there will be plenty of playing time to go around once they give into the idea that the playoff push is behind them. That doesn’t mean they need to openly try to lose games, but as the season comes to a close, the Spurs have an opportunity to invest in the young players who constitute the future of the team. Pushing those players into the mix together will likely cost the team a few games in the short term — although that’s not necessarily a given — while better preparing them for next season and beyond.
At this point, it doesn’t really matter how many games they win or lose. The Spurs need to treat these last 7 weeks of games as an extension of Summer League and next year’s preseason. The closing stretch of this season might not be as meaningful as the Spurs fans are used to, but it should at least be fun if the team still gives us something new to look forward to.