The Spurs reached the midpoint of their season on Thursday night in the heart of an enigma.
Only one team in franchise history, the star-crossed 2010-11 Spurs, matched the 35-6 record the 2015-16 Spurs attained when they scored their most meaningful win of the season by defeating LeBron James’ Eastern Conference leading Cleveland Cavaliers at the AT&T Center on Thursday night.
Yet instead of being five-and-a-half games ahead of the second-place team in the Western Conference, as were the 35-6 Spurs five years ago, these Spurs trail the Golden State Warriors by two-and-a-half games.
You don’t have to be a mathematician to discern that the Spurs are on a path to 70 wins, something only Michael Jordan and the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls have attained in league history. Meanwhile, you can make a bet in Las Vegas on whether or not the Warriors will surpass Chicago’s historic 72 wins in 1995-96. The Spurs? Merely 17-5 to win the NBA title, well behind the 7-5 Warriors and the 14-5 Cavaliers.
If the Spurs must be trapped in a conundrum this one is convenient. Gregg Popovich and his players never concern themselves with what other teams achieve. Their daily mantra never changes: Improve, day by day, with a goal to play their best basketball when the playoffs begin.
“If the Warriors go 80-2,” Manu Ginobili said, a few days before Golden State suffered its third loss, “it is what it is.”
Not even the most optimistic of Spurs would have predicted such a gaudy record at the halfway point; not after the off-season roster revamp that brought six new players to town, a dramatic reshuffling that included the most high-profile free agent signing in franchise history. The addition of big man LaMarcus Aldridge, the most prized of the available free agents, required a rethinking of the Spurs’ offensive dynamics. Tim Duncan, the 39-year-old team captain, would take a lesser role. Tony Parker, the four-time All-NBA point guard, would become less a scorer than facilitator. The offensive emphasis would shift from a motion offense, with an emphasis on ball movement, to more of an inside-out attack similar to the days when Duncan and David Robinson formed the most potent post tandem in the league.
Adjusting would require a process for newcomers and veterans alike, and Popovich insisted it would not reach fruition until April.
Expectations were tamped down, which is how the Spurs prefer things. Then the Warriors won their first 24 games and hijacked the league’s hype machine. NBA-TV altered its schedule to make sure every Warriors game was available for viewing. Prolific Warriors scorer Steph Curry was declared the runaway favorite to repeat as Most Valuable Player before a third of the season had passed.
The Spurs became an afterthought, a footnote to potential NBA history, thrilled to fly under the radar.
Their franchise-best tying record after 41 games?
“It’s hard to be better than this,” said Ginobili, the most grounded of Spurs. “We talked a lot early in the season that there were still a couple of games where we didn’t execute well down the stretch, a few mistakes, but 85% (winning percentage) is incredible. So if you take into consideration record, we are great. Basketball-wise, we are very good.”
The Spurs are 35-6 because they have played historically good defense, comparable to the stifling 1998-99 and 2004-05 championship teams. If Curry has established himself as a heavy favorite to repeat as MVP, Kawhi Leonard already is an even stronger favorite to repeat as Defensive Player of the Year. He has made offense miserable for most of the league’s most prolific scorers, from Carmelo Anthony to Paul George, James Harden to LeBron James. Along the way he has managed to lead the league’s No. 2 team in scoring, elbowing his way into serious consideration for MVP votes.
Charles Barkley, the Hall of Fame player who now amuses and bemuses as a studio commentator for TNT’s telecasts of NBA games, declared Leonard the league’s best player even before he helped the Spurs beat the Cavaliers on Thursday. Even San Antonians outraged by his indelicate descriptions of some of the city’s calorically challenged ladies nodded their heads and smiled.
Leonard’s effect on the Spurs’ historically good defense can’t be quantified. His individual defensive excellence allows Popovich’s intricate team defensive scheme to operate with maximum efficiency because the system rarely has to be altered to account for double-teaming the league’s best scorers. Leonard is like a great NFL cornerback who can defend the likes of Odell Beckham Jr. without help from a free safety.
The Warriors might have the league’s best record because they are the NBA leaders in points per game, but the Spurs have the greatest point differential, whether measured by the old-school points scored vs. points allowed measure (plus-13.9), or the more analytical measure of offensive efficiency (points scored per 100 possessions) vs. defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions) – an outrageous plus-14.7.
Golden State is a mere plus-13.6 in the analytical measure.
“As we’ve said many times, defensively, we have been better than expected,” Ginobili said. “Offensively, we are catching up now.”
The notion of the Spurs’ offense catching up to its defensive efficiency should frighten the rest of the league, including the Warriors, but Spurs fans should accept this reality: Matching the 35-6 first half of the season isn’t likely. The schedule gets much tougher, with 23 road games and only 18 at The AT&T Center, where they have yet to lose. The eight-game Rodeo Road Trip begins on Feb. 9, in Miami, and does not end until Feb. 27, in Houston. The Spurs play the Warriors four times, beginning with a Jan. 25 game in Oakland next week. There are three more with the Oklahoma City Thunder and two more against the Clippers.
Plus, as the playoffs approach Popovich is apt to rest veterans more and more. Leonard, easily the team’s MVP of the first half, may even be asked to sit out a game or two. On some of these occasions winnable games may be lost. A 70-win season is not as simple as multiplying 35 times 2, something the 2010-11 Spurs discovered. That team lost eight of its final 12 games and finished at 61-21.
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Still, there is something special about this team and the process of discovery that continues. The best first half of a season in franchise history portends the best record in club history. If that’s not enough to leapfrog a Warriors team on a path to NBA history, it is what it is.
*Top Image: The San Antonio Spurs 2015-2016 Roster and Coaching Staff. Photo by Scott Ball.