In a season in which they were presumably going to start fading into obscurity, the San Antonio Spurs are on the verge of becoming as relevant as ever.
A decade ago, after Tim Duncan had turned 30 and began the second-half of his career, Gregg Popovich would say he planned on following his superstar out the door. It was an understated nod to Duncan’s greatness and importance to the winning culture in San Antonio, but also an out. He’s got plenty of interests beyond basketball.
Popovich’s coaching tenure started with the tank job that helped land Duncan over 20 years ago after he came down from the front office, so the fact he’s still on the sideline is amazing. Duncan is gone, unlikely to change his mind and make a cameo in this or any future season. The Spurs have been lying in the weeds, always lurking in the background, steadily consistent.
Now as we approach mid-March, they’re being led by the MVP candidate everyone is talking about, have themselves a medical situation to be concerned with and are on the verge of surpassing Golden State as the team with the NBA’s best record. The boring Spurs, scourge of the uninformed basketball fan who can’t appreciate the game at its highest level unless there’s dunking involved, again command everyone’s attention.
The most recent odds from the Westgate LV Superbook have San Antonio at 13/4 to win the West and 6/1 to win an NBA title. Only the Warriors and Cavs are heavier favorites, and both are currently struggling mightily. Dire circumstances helped make the NBA an easy target over the weekend when one of the most anticipated games on the league’s schedule was foiled by injuries and a desire to rest players. San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard found himself stuck dealing with the league’s concussion protocol, while Saturday morning brought news that LaMarcus Aldridge was suffering through a heart issue that would keep him out indefinitely.
Despite the absence of their top two scorers, the Spurs not only ended up a double-digit favorite over a Golden State team playing without its best five, they won by 22. Back when they won a title that they followed up with a 73-win regular season, the Warriors adopted “Strength in Numbers” as the team motto. They had t-shirts made up that were worn as warm-ups. Fans held up signs. From MVP Steph Curry to the last guy on the bench, everyone mattered.
Making moves to incorporate Kevin Durant eradicated that dynamic, which is ironic since it can now be most associated with the Spurs, who enter the week just one-half game behind Golden State for the best record in the league. San Antonio is 9-1 in its last 10 and has reached this point, about 80 percent into the regular-season, as the favorite to overtake the Warriors for the NBA’s top record and the homecourt advantage it carries with it. Only Golden State has a better home winning percentage than the Spurs have managed at the AT&T Center, where they’ve won 80 percent of their games thus far entering Monday’s date with Atlanta.
Although Aldridge is dealing with what is being termed a “minor ailment,” a statement that sounds like an oxymoron considering we’re talking about his heart, he’s expected back despite the uncertainty. The issue is an arrhythmia, an irregular heartbeat that will require monitoring, so there’s no telling how long he’ll be out. There won’t be any rushing back. These are, after all, the Spurs we’re talking about. They exercise caution when dealing with an ingrown toenail, so they’ll know for sure Aldridge will be fine before he’s back in the mix, which provides comfort that he’ll be good to go when he does return.
Fortunately, since Pau Gasol was coming off the bench after returning from a broken hand, he’s available to step in, although David Lee, who worked his way into the rotation while Gasol was out, could also get the nod. Dewayne Dedmon will continue to start at center. See, strength in numbers.
Head coach Gregg Popovich expressed hope Leonard would be able to return for Monday’s game against the Hawks, but concussion protocol is a different animal and he’ll be cleared when ready. He sounds close though, so the Spurs should have him back sooner than later to lead the way at both ends of the floor. Leonard’s well-rounded excellence has him in the MVP race, as his first four games this month saw him 33.8 points, 8.5 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 3.3 steals, culminating with a head-to-head takedown of James Harden’s Rockets.
Kyle Anderson has started at small forward in his absence. Although Leonard largely leads through his play instead of vocally, the Spurs still have Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili as anchors, an advantage that should become obvious over the next month. With Duncan and Kobe Bryant out of the league, Parker and Ginobili, both now well past their prime, have won the most titles ahead of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and James Jones, joining Wade as the only active guys to do so over two different decades.
Although neither is still consistently great, they still show flashes of brilliance and can take over for short stretches. On a team that lacks many outgoing personalities, they’re the vocal leaders too. The Spurs have a lot of guys who know what it takes to get 16 wins come postseason, which makes them a serious threat if the road to the Western Conference title ends up going through San Antonio instead of Oakland.