The NBA offseason established a bunch of new story lines that require closer inspection. Throughout the next month-plus, we’re giving second thoughts to the most intriguing ones.
Today’s question: Are we sure the Spurs can make the playoffs … again?
There are two kinds of people: those who learn from their mistakes and those who keep banging their heads against the wall, convinced all the while that they’ll eventually even out the dents they’ve already made.
I’ve hit my head against the San Antonio Spurs so many times. Why not try one more time?
By December of last season, I was convinced that the Spurs were finally cooked. Almost simultaneously, they started winning games. Lots of them. So many, in fact, that San Antonio did what it always does and reached the postseason again. Along the way, my Ringer teammate Dan Devine helpfully reminded me on various podcasts (at every $#%! opportunity) how very wrong I’d been. Indeed, if not for a bizarre and uncharacteristic communication collapse in Game 7 of their first-round series against the Denver Nuggets, the Spurs might have even advanced in the postseason. I was so impressed by that effort that I waited weeks to wonder whether it was finally time for the Spurs to rebuild. And now here I am again, doubting them.
San Antonio is home to one of the NBA’s greatest franchises of all time. That has everything to do with Gregg Popovich, who will return for his 24th season. The Spurs have won five championships with Pop in charge, and they’ve made the postseason in each of the past 22 campaigns, which is tied for the longest streak in league history. Breaking the record won’t be easy, though.
Once again, the West is loaded. Anthony Davis and LeBron James play for the Los Angeles Lakers. Paul George and Kawhi Leonard teamed up to supercharge an already-good Clippers team that motored into the postseason and stole two games from the Golden State Warriors. CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard both got paid this offseason and return to a Blazers squad that made the conference finals. The Rockets hit the eject button on Chris Paul and his bloated contract and put Russell Westbrook in the copilot seat next to James Harden. The Utah Jazz upgraded with Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic. The Nuggets return Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, and a deep roster that was near the top of the West all last season.
The Sacramento Kings, Minnesota Timberwolves, Dallas Mavericks, and New Orleans Pelicans all have young teams on the rise. The Oklahoma City Thunder, despite mashing the reset button, might still be competitive(ish?) with CP, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Danilo Gallinari leading the way. And while the Warriors lost Kevin Durant, they still have Steph Curry, Draymond Green, and now D’Angelo Russell to hold them over while they wait for Klay Thompson to convalesce after his ACL tear. That’s a lot of meteors hurtling toward San Antonio and threatening to smash up this historic run.
There’s a reason Vegas oddsmakers are predicting that seven teams in the West will win more games than San Antonio this season. If that holds, that would leave only one playoff spot for the Spurs to claim. (I did the math.) The Spurs have some terrific young pieces—Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Bryn Forbes, and Jakob Poeltl are all 26 or younger—but the most important players from last season will all be 30 or older this season: LaMarcus Aldridge (34), Rudy Gay (33), Patty Mills (31), and DeMar DeRozan (30). Expecting those vets to keep up with conference competition that is deeper and more talented everywhere you look is asking a lot.
The Spurs have done a great job defying expectations for decades. San Antonio recently promoted longtime general manager R.C. Buford to CEO, a reward for a job well done that so far has yielded four titles on his watch. If he and Popovich figure out a way to keep the Spurs chugging along despite the mounting odds against them, it won’t surprise anyone. But this can’t go on forever, can it? At some point, all dynasties end and give way to something new. That’s what I keep muttering to myself each season. One day, if I repeat it long enough, it might even be true.