The Spurs’ early struggles could mean trouble in the future
The Spurs are not closing the year well and their struggles might carry over to 2015.
The San Antonio Spurs traveled to New Orleans to face the Pelicans on the second game of a back-to-back on Friday, trying to get back to their winning ways after a painful loss against the Thunder on Christmas day. The result was another defeat to a Western team looking to make its way into the playoffs, as Anthony Davis led the Pelicans to a win with a 22-point, 12-rebound, five-block performance. The loss was the Spurs’ seventh in the past 10 games and they are now only two games ahead of the ninth-seeded Pelicans and three up from the Thunder.
There’s an easy explanation for the Spurs’ struggles: They have been decimated by injuries all season long. First Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter missed the majority of preseason with an eye infection and a calf strain, respectively. Then Tony Parker suffered a hamstring injury, leaving the Spurs with Cory Joseph as the only healthy point guard in the roster, since Patty Mills is still out after having shoulder surgery over the summer. Leonard recently suffered a hand injury that is keeping him out indefinitely. As a result the Spurs have used 18 different starting lineups in 31 games and their most used unit from last season has only been on the court together for eight minutes.
Despite the injury woes the Spurs have looked great at times, logging victories over the Mavericks, Warriors, Clippers and Grizzlies. Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili are looking spry, relative to their age, and Danny Green and Cory Joseph are playing better than ever. An optimistic perspective indicates that San Antonio will be one of the best teams in the West soon, as Mills is scheduled to return in January at the latest and Parker has been in and out of the lineup mostly as a precautionary measure. Splitter is finally healthy. The Spurs have faced a killer December schedule. It’s possible there’s nothing to worry about.
Yet there are some signs that indicate the struggles might be lasting and the damage they have caused permanent:
The Spurs have lost winnable games
San Antonio has losses against the Nets, Jazz and Lakers. Those are exactly the type of games contenders need to win to pad their win total in the competitive West. Even the losses to Sacramento and New Orleans (twice) could come back to haunt the Spurs. December has been brutal. In their last seven games, the Spurs have faced the Grizzlies, the Trail Blazers (twice), the Mavericks, the Clippers, the Thunder and the Pelicans.
Yet the Spurs strength of schedule is right in the middle of the pack because they have also already faced some mediocre and bad teams. The road does get easier in the next couple of months and a healthy Spurs team would have won at least some of the close games they have been losing. But it might be too late to climb all the way to homecourt advantage in the first round.
The injury woes could get worse
Looking at the number of games some of their key players have missed, it would seem like the Spurs have had the worst possible luck when it comes to injuries. Yet Duncan and Ginobili have not missed any games so far other than for rest reasons. Duncan has been durable the past few seasons but he is still a 38-year-old player with a chronic knee condition.
Ginobili is a lock for at least one injury every season. Parker’s hamstring injury could be healed soon or could become a nagging issue. And Gregg Popovich recently said that the hand specialist that looked at Kawhi Leonard’s injury had not seen anything like it in the past. That means the Spurs’ four best players could not be healthy at the same time for a while.
The West is unforgiving
The combination of unexpected losses and health problems has resulted in a record that is below what was expected of San Antonio. Having to re-integrate players and figure out lineup combinations could prevent the Spurs from showing their true level until later in the season. How late that happens will be instrumental in determining where they land in the West playoff picture.
It’s not out of the question for the Spurs to finish the year outside the top eight. If that happens, the rest of the season will be an uphill battle that might force Gregg Popovich to play his key players more than he would normally be comfortable with. San Antonio has traditionally been one of the teams that saves itself for the playoffs but because the West is so insanely competitive, this year they might not be able to do that.
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The season is still young and a couple of wins in the next few games would change the Spurs’ outlook dramatically. At some point the teams above and below them will suffer some unexpected losses. Doubting the Spurs is always a risky proposition anyway. It’s still fair to wonder if San Antonio will be able to get everyone healthy and in sync in time to reach the superlative level from last season while staying true to their process or if the need for wins will put a wrench on the Spurs machine.