One of the biggest stories out of Orlando right now is the great work the Dallas Mavericks are doing against the Clippers in the first round, mainly courtesy of Luka Doncic.
Normally a team doing better than expected and a young player emerging as a legitimate superstar would only tangentially affect the Spurs. In this case, however, the team in question not only shares a conference with San Antonio but also a division, ensuring that the Silver and Black will have to suffer Luka at least four times a year, which is scary.
If the Mavericks were the only threat in the Southwest to the Spurs’ playoff aspirations, it would be fine. Unfortunately, the bubble has showed that the entire division will probably be a gauntlet in the next few years.
The Rockets have not made as many waves as the Mavericks so far despite arguably being the better team, because the NBA world has become accustomed to their competency. Yet James Harden, despite somewhat underwhelming playoff performances, remains one of the best players in the league. Russell Westbrook has found his place in a five-out, small unit that allows him to slash and crash the offensive boards, and the bold experiment of essentially playing without big men makes Houston a tough opponent to game plan against. The Rockets should win close to 50 games for the foreseeable future, making them a playoff staple and hard team for the Spurs to catch up to.
Beyond the two teams with superstars, the division is home for two of the most promising young cores in the league. Neither the Pelicans nor the Grizzlies made it to the postseason this year, but both had good seasons led by the best rookies in the league. Ja Morant has proven he can be the engine on a good offense and by virtue of being healthy will collect the hardware, but Zion Williamson has also showed superstar potential in the games in which he was available. Both rookies also have two other potential stars flanking them in Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Ingram, other good young pieces and a few young veterans around, which should make their transition into reliable cornerstones more seamless.
Then there’s the Spurs. The Silver and Black actually posted a winning record against the Southwest this season, but doing so going forward will be a challenge. San Antonio doesn’t have anyone who can come close to the level of Harden or Doncic, and the young players on the roster, while promising, have not showed the type of potential or production that Morant and Williamson (or even Jackson Jr, and Ingram) have displayed. Assuming the rosters stay the same, it would be optimistic but possible to rank the Silver and Black as the third best team in the division for next season, but any look at the future doesn’t look all that encouraging.
The current landscape would suggest next season would be the perfect one in which to tank. Essentially no West team will be in rebuild mode unless someone (the Thunder?) unexpectedly decides to blow it up. The Spurs could just move their veterans and give the young players all the minutes they can handle and get a high pick, even if the prospects take a step forward. The 2021 draft is expected to be stacked, and a good selection would catapult the Spurs’ young core to the same orbit as the Pelicans and Grizzlies.
At the same time, planning for the future right now carries its own problems. Besides the pandemic potentially threatening next season, the Spurs don’t really know what will happen with DeMar DeRozan. If he opts in, it could be tempting to just go for the postseason in what will likely be one of Gregg Popovich’s last seasons roaming the sidelines, especially considering the important questions surrounding the rest of the division. Kristaps Porzingis’ health is always a concern, and Jaren Jackson Jr. has not been able to stay on the court consistently, either. Williamson and Morant have the type of explosive athleticism that can lead to potentially serious injuries. The Rockets’ new ownership doesn’t seem as committed to winning as the previous one, and both Harden and Westbrook can be hard to get along with. Anything could happen in 2021.
The only certainty is that the Southwest is set to be insanely stacked for the next few years. It’s something that has happened before and as recently as the 2014/15 season, when all five teams in the division made the playoffs.
The biggest difference between then and now is that San Antonio could potentially be the weakest of the bunch unless something changes. Hopefully there will be a plan in place to prevent the Spurs from becoming the runt of the litter in the Southwest after being top dog for so long.