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Reconsidering where the Spurs fit into the Western Conference playoff picture

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Preseason rankings aren’t always right...

NBA: Boston Celtics at San Antonio Spurs Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

Virtually all pre-season predictions had the San Antonio Spurs coming in 11th or 12th in the tough Western Conference. Because only the top ten teams make the expanded playoffs, the prognosticators had a strong consensus that the Spurs would be left out of even those expanded playoffs.

A recent article of mine focused on the preseason predictions of the “smarter than me and you” folks at FiveThirtyEight.com. The smart guys predicted the Spurs would finish 35-37, good (or bad) for 11th in the West, with only a 31% chance of coming in the top eight. (FiveThirtyEight’s playoff predictions are based on finishing in the top eight, ignoring the “play-in” possibility if a team finishes 9th or 10th. Maybe they are not that smart after all.) In my article about the preseason predictions, I pointed out that that Atlanta Hawks, with the same predicted record as the Spurs, were given a 65% chance of making the top eight in the weaker conference, while the Spurs were at 31% to make it in the West.

With the week off before the Super Bowl and twenty games in the book, I decided to take a look at how FiveThirtyEight views the NBA now. I also had no desire to write about the Spurs Saturday night game against the Grizzlies in which the Spurs made the Grizzlies look like the 2017-2018 Warriors.

I will take a look around the league first, saving the best for last — like the chocolate cake after the nachos on Super Bowl next Sunday. (Please, please, please watch it in your own bubble. It should be a great game, so watch it in your own home without the distraction of pesky outsiders. That will also help ensure that you and your friends can watch the 2022 Super Bowl together.)

Not surprisingly, the predictions for the top two teams in the NBA have not changed — the Lakers and Clippers remain with the best odds of winning the crown. The Lakers have a 34% chance to make it to the Finals, with a 23% chance to go back-to-back, essentially the same as the preseason prediction.

Several teams have taken a leap forward. Speaking of eating a lot of nachos and chocolate cake, James Harden joining the Nets has greatly enhanced their odds. While the preseason Harden-less Nets were only given a 1% chance of winning it all, the updated predictions rank the new Nets as the 6th best overall team, third in the East, with a 9% chance of winning the crown. Another team that has made a big leap is the Utah Jazz. The Jazz have jumped from seventh in the West to third best, both in the West and overall.

At the other end of the spectrum, FiveThirtyEight originally predicted the six worst teams would all be from the Eastern Conference — I dubbed them the Sucky Six. But the Sucky Six now include two teams from the West — the Timberwolves as second worst and the Kings as fourth worst. The T’Wolves were originally predicted to finish ahead of the Spurs. Even with fifty more games to play, each of the Sucky Six are given an 11% or less chance of making the playoffs.

How about the Spurs? The good news is that they have basically doubled their chances of making the playoffs, from 31% preseason to 61% today. The present prediction has the Spurs finishing at 37-35, 7th place in the West, just ahead of the Trail Blazers. What’s the bad news? Nothing — I like those odds, especially given the preseason consensus of the experts. You can take a look at all of of FiveThirtyEight’s team predictions are here.

If you want to take a deeper dive, FiveThirtyEight also evaluates how all NBA players with a minimum number of minutes have performed thus far in this season. Interestingly, the Spurs player with the highest overall ranking is Jakob Poeltl, despite having a negative offense ranking. He really is an outstanding defender. The next three are also bench players — Patty Mills, Rudy Gay and Devin Vassell(!!). While that may be surprising to some, those of us who watch a lot of (or all) Spurs games recognize that the bench crew is often charged with overcoming the deficit that the starters have left them. Those who watch the games will also not be surprised to see that DeMar DeRozan has the highest offensive rating of any Spurs — and the worst defensive rating. As wonderful as DeMar has been on offense, I just wish he would try harder at the other end of the court. Who agrees?