For all that’s changed in the NBA over the past two decades, one thing has remained constant: The Spurs have made the playoffs.
The last time San Antonio didn’t qualify for the postseason was 1996-97, when a preseason back injury and a season-ending broken foot limited superstar center David Robinson to just six games. After a 3-15 start to that snakebitten season, Spurs general manager Gregg Popovich fired head coach Bob Hill and took his spot on the bench; five months later, San Antonio rebounded from the worst season in franchise history by winning the draft lottery. Tim Duncan’s arrival immediately vaulted the Spurs back into the playoffs, and they’ve never looked back; San Antonio has appeared in 21 consecutive postseasons, tied for the second-longest such streak in NBA history.
Three weeks ago it seemed a solid bet that Pop and company would make it 22, thanks to a two-way surge that had shaken off a slow start and propelled San Antonio back into the chase for home-court advantage in the Western Conference. But after a punishing 1-7 road trip that wrapped up with a distressing pair of losses to the Knicks and Nets, the Spurs now sit in eighth place in the West with just 20 games to go—and are, perhaps, in greater danger of starting an early summer vacation than they’ve been at any point in rookie guard Lonnie Walker IV’s entire life.
The Spurs’ bête noire wasn’t one particular opponent (although that 39-point pasting at the hands of the Warriors probably stung a bit extra) or the injury bug (although losing increasingly important guard Derrick White to plantar fasciitis for six of the last eight games certainly didn’t help). No, it was their yearly cross-country odyssey to clear the AT&T Center for the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo.
Since 2003, the Spurs have headed out on the so-called “Rodeo Road Trip,” which starts before the All-Star break and keeps them away from home for nearly all of February. For the most part, San Antonio has been able to weather the wandering, going .500 or better on all but one of the first 15 trips. But as the legends behind the franchise’s five championships have faded from view, the Spurs have snapped back to reality over the past two jaunts. After dropping four of six last season, they went on that disastrous 1-7 run this time around—with the lone win coming over struggling Memphis, by a single point, with Marc Gasol traded away and Mike Conley Jr. resting.
The offense that started clicking on all cylinders earlier this season? It managed 108 points per 100 possessions during the Rodeo Road Trip, good for just 21st in the league in that span. And the defense that began to take off once Pop locked in his rotations, switched up his pick-and-roll coverage, and unleashed White as his primary perimeter stopper? It’s looked leakier than ever, conceding a ghastly 122.1 points-per-100 on the trip—far and away the league’s worst mark during that stretch.
Everybody knew the Spurs were going to be bad defensively this season, especially once All-Defensive team point guard Dejounte Murray suffered a torn ACL beforehand. Stumbling during an extended road swing isn’t necessarily something to panic about, especially when you’ve got some home cooking coming your way. But just getting on a return flight won’t wash away the bad taste of allowing 130 points to the worst Knicks team in franchise history—which is saying something—and the Spurs seem to know that.
“[The poor play during the road trip is] too dramatic to erase,” LaMarcus Aldridge said Monday, according to Mike Finger of the San Antonio Express-News.
“We can’t have obliviousness to what’s happening,” added veteran guard Patty Mills. “There’s things we need to acknowledge.”
Chief among them: There’s no magic bullet for this year’s Spurs.
Aldridge has been largely fantastic, a deserving All-Star carrying the load in the middle on both ends, quietly plugging away and producing in a manner that’s become quite familiar to San Antonio fans over the years. DeRozan has taken steps forward this season as a facilitator and playmaker, and he remains one of the game’s best one-on-one shot creators. Neither, though, are such towering individual forces that they can propel an underwhelming roster to new heights—or produce enough to cover up for ongoing defensive struggles—on their own.
If the Spurs score like gangbusters but can’t stop anybody, like on Sunday at Madison Square Garden, they’ll lose. If they crank up the defensive effort and DeRozan and Aldridge do their parts, but their complementary shooters brick away, as they did on Monday at Barclays Center, they’ll lose. There’s no Duncan or Kawhi anymore; San Antonio needs all hands on deck to get right, or else things will keep going wrong.
”Guys are not happy, [they’re] frustrated, want to win and want to do the things to win,” Aldridge told reporters after Monday’s loss, San Antonio’s lowest-scoring outing of the season. “So it’s on us, no one’s going to save us. We’ve got to figure it out ourselves.”
The good news: With the Rodeo Road Trip now in the rearview, the Spurs have one of the softer remaining slates in the league. Twelve of San Antonio’s final 20 games will come at home, and nearly all of the toughest opponents still on the schedule—Oklahoma City, Denver, Milwaukee, Portland, Golden State—will visit Texas.
Another silver lining, as my colleague Paolo Uggetti notes, is that none of the other teams vying for the final few playoff spots in the West seem all that ready to seize the opportunity. Losing seven of eight all but erased the Spurs’ margin for error, but it didn’t knock them out of the running; FiveThirtyEight’s projection model still pegs their chances of extending their postseason streak at 80 percent, with ESPN’s Basketball Power Index and Basketball-Reference’s probability projector offering similarly sanguine odds. To turn those predictions into postseason reality, though, the Spurs will have to do more than just hope the other playoff aspirants keep stepping on rakes.
“We need to fix everything,” DeRozan said after the loss to the Knicks.
And they need to fix it fast, lest the NBA’s lone remaining constant find itself lost to the ravages of time too.