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The Spurs Have Regenerated Into a Contender Yet Again

Gregg Popovich has secured his 22nd straight winning season. Maybe we should have seen this coming.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Spurs deserve more love for the very reason starfish do. Allow me to do my best David Attenborough: A sea star can fully regrow a missing limb. It needs only one intact leg to regenerate completely, and the new limbs will be genetically identical to their forebears, not lopsided and wonky like the Patrick costumes that loiter next to the SpongeBobs on Hollywood Boulevard.

No franchise regenerates year after year and era after era quite like the Spurs. For 22 straight seasons, Gregg Popovich has led the franchise to a winning record. Perhaps because it severed its own leg last summer by trading Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, then had another few chopped off when Manu Ginobili retired, Tony Parker left, and Dejounte Murray was declared out for the season before it began, this year seemed like a probable end to Popovich’s tear. Yet the Spurs regenerated with DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge, and an unlikely surrounding cast, and Monday, San Antonio clinched its 2018-19 winning record against Golden State, beating the defending champions 111-105. The Spurs now have an NBA-best nine-game winning streak and the fifth spot in the West. The conference’s most consistent team is doing it again, and they’re doing it without much public trust that the team will be able to continue their run in the postseason.

There are a couple of reasons to discount San Antonio’s playoff chances, despite two decades of evidence suggesting we should never do that, beginning with the reason 29 other teams are discounted: Golden State has a monopoly on public trust. The idea that the Warriors will win it all, no matter what, leaves little room for other teams to be believed in. And those teams that could* challenge the Warriors (*perhaps, maybe, if there’s an injury or locker-room drama or rabies) look nothing like the Spurs. The Rockets were the original worshipers of the 3-point shot; the Raptors and Bucks are pace-and-space conformists. Those squads were built specifically to counter the Warriors, and all three have a superstar superior to DeRozan, San Antonio’s best talent.

“It doesn’t matter; the Warriors will win it all” is as much an aphorism now as “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The former is Pop’s adversary; the latter is his choice of attack. San Antonio is winning because of the reasons a San Antonio team always wins: Common role players are blossoming into quality ones (shout-out Rudy Gay, Davis Bertans, Derrick White, and Jakob Poeltl), defense (the Spurs have the third-best defensive rating over the past nine games), and the last highly functioning midrange attack in the league, led by DeRozan and Aldridge.

San Antonio still thrives in the space dismissed by others as inefficient, shooting over 400 more attempts and counting this season from the midrange than the next highest team, Golden State. The Spurs have kept the zone and themselves relevant by converting these shots at the fifth-highest accuracy in the league (43.1 percent) despite the higher volume. DeRozan and Aldridge lead the NBA in midrange attempts with the same authority James Harden and Steph Curry do when it comes to 3s; they are the only two players to average over seven attempts a game. If this were the ’90s, they’d be gods. But it’s 2019, so they’re Spurs instead.

But even fully regrown, the Spurs have much to prove in their final 11 games. They’ll face the Rockets, Celtics, Hornets, Nuggets, Wizards, and Cavaliers on the road, where they’ve been indefensibly bad all season. Before the nine-game win streak, San Antonio spent its February getting barbecued on its annual Rodeo Trip, when it lost four straight, found temporary relief against Memphis, then lost another three—all on the road—because its defense couldn’t stop an NIT team (or the Knicks!). No team’s defending drops off from home games to away games like the Spurs’, dropping from ninth in defensive rating to 28th, especially where modern offenses attack best, from the 3-point line and around the rim. SB Nation’s Tom Ziller wrote that the “easy answer” to why San Antonio isn’t considered worthy of being in the same conversation as other Golden State opponents is “because when you get them on the road, they look like they don’t even belong in the vicinity of the conversation.”

Moving up another spot to the fourth seed isn’t unrealistic if San Antonio can hold its own on the road in the coming weeks. That would give the Spurs home-court advantage in the first round, and a greater chance of advancing. And it will give us an even greater chance that we’ll have to again ask why we ever doubted the Spurs. No matter how many players Pop’s team loses, the Spurs always regenerate.