The San Antonio Spurs were one of the most dominant NBA champions of all-time in 2013-2014. They went 62-20 in the regular season, needing just five games to win the NBA Finals, topping LeBron James and the Miami Heat with an average margin of victory of 18 points per game. A season later, the defending champs are finding it difficult to compete in the Western Conference.
With just six weeks remaining until the playoffs, the Spurs haven’t looked like the team that reached the NBA Finals in each of the last two years. San Antonio’s 36-23 record gives them a winning percentage above .600 for an 18th consecutive season, but they are on pace to tie their worst regular season during that time.
“Nothing seems to be easy for us this year,” veteran guard Manu Ginobili said in January, via The Washington Post.
The Spurs returned the same core of players that helped them win the franchise’s fifth ever championship. Those same players, though, have not been as productive as they were a year ago. Tim Duncan has been every bit as good, making a bid to win the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award, but other star players have struggled.
Kawhi Leonard is the team’s leading scorer, but the 2014 NBA Finals MVP has seen his shooting percentage decrease significantly. He's missed 18 games, half of which the Spurs have lost. Ginobili has played all but seven games, but his age is showing, and the 37-year-old is making just over 42 percent of his shots.
Tony Parker is five years younger than Ginobili, but he’s played more combined regular-season and playoff games than most active players. He’s battled a hamstring injury for much of the year, and though he’s been able to play through the pain, Parker hasn’t been nearly the same player.
"I've been through a lot of tough challenges in my career," Parker told Marc Spears of Yahoo Sports. "Right now, this is up there."
Parker continues to be bothered by the ailment, missing an unusual amount of easy shots and playing a much less aggressive style of basketball. The point guard’s 13.8 points, 1.9 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game are all his lowest totals since his rookie season in 2001-2002. Parker says he’ll continue to work until the injury gets better, but the Spurs could be in serious trouble if the problem lingers until the postseason.
“If he’s not the Tony Parker of past years,” head coach Gregg Popovich told the San Antonio Express-News last month, “we’re not going anywhere.”
Defensively, San Antonio remains one of the best teams in the league, ranking fourth and allowing 99.8 points per 100 possessions. But with a hampered floor general and an aging core of scorers, the Spurs are finding it more difficult to put up points, ranking 12th in offensive efficiency. The team’s 103.5 points per 100 possessions is their worst mark since the 2007-2008 season.
Popovich has been able to keep his players fresh for the postseason by giving them sufficient rest throughout the year. Even if the team’s veterans are at full strength in the playoffs and Parker is mostly healthy, it might not be enough for the Spurs to overcome the hole they’ve dug themselves. The Spurs had home-court advantage in every postseason series last year, but they aren’t likely to get it at all in 2015.
In a historically deep Western Conference, San Antonio’s record has given them the No.7 seed. They aren’t likely to be caught by the No.8 seed Oklahoma City Thunder, because of injuries to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, but the Spurs won’t have an easy time moving up in the standings. San Antonio is on track to have a first-round matchup with the Memphis Grizzlies, who have the NBA’s third best home and overall record.
Teams that haven’t had home-court advantage in the first round of the postseason have found it nearly impossible to reach the NBA Finals. The last team to do it was the 1999 New York Knicks, who were beaten by the Spurs in the lockout-shortened season.
San Antonio has won two games in a row, but they recently concluded a historically bad stretch of games for the franchise. In every season since 2003, the team has gone on an extended road trip because of the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo. Their Feb. 28 win over the Phoenix Suns gave the Spurs four wins in nine games, marking their worst record ever on their annual “Rodeo Road Trip.”
Despite their struggles and the challenges they will continue to face, the Spurs are still considered among the favorites to win the NBA Finals. Oddsmakers have given only four teams better championship odds, and San Antonio’s constant success has many believing that they will be left standing when all is said and done. In the Eastern Conference, the Spurs would be the No.4 seed, trailing the No.2 Toronto Raptors by just one game in the loss column.
The Spurs remain hopeful, but they know that time is running out to start playing like a championship-caliber team.
“We played at a really high level (last year). We are still not quite there yet," Ginobili told reporters a few weeks ago. “We don’t have everybody at their best as we were in the playoffs and we’re not as sharp. We know we can do it. It’s just not easy and things aren’t going our way.”