The Spurs' standard of excellence the past decade is dissolving before our very eyes.
Signs of their apocalypse are everywhere, most notably through their 3-14 record against the seven other Western Conference teams currently in playoff position. After compiling the NBA's best road record over the past decade, they are under .500 (10-11) away from home this season and face an NBA-high 20 more road contests.
And the latest sign of the Spurs' demise came Monday night against a Lakers team that was without Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum. L.A. thrashed the visiting Spurs 101-89 to put San Antonio at 29-21, three games behind the worst record compiled by a Gregg Popovich/Tim Duncan team at the 50-game mark.
But forget the numbers for a moment and just watch the games. Duncan, the most reliable player in the league over the past decade, was dominated down the stretch by Pau Gasol on Monday, evoking memories of when Dirk Nowitzki and then Carlos Boozer unleashed similar beatings on Duncan and the Spurs in back-to-back games in mid-November.
Make no mistake: We're picking on Duncan to dramatize San Antonio's dire straits, because he's clearly been its best player this season. For handier scapegoats, try swingman Richard Jefferson, who, since coming over from Milwaukee in an offseason trade, looks as though he's intimidated by the franchise's legacy. Or blame Popovich, one of the game's premier coaches, for not allowing a team with four newcomers among its top eight in minutes to establish set roles and rotations. Popovich's constant tinkering reflects his increasingly exasperated attempt to retrieve that familiar Spurs magic from past seasons. Synergy, swagger, chemistry, execution -- whatever it is, the Spurs have yet to find it this season.
By the numbers, the Spurs are among the league's top 10 in both offensive (eighth) and defensive (10th) efficiency. According to Basketball-Reference.com, the Spurs' Pythagorean record -- the won-lost record that should result from their compiled stats -- is 33-17, four wins better than their actual standing. That means San Antonio is either very unlucky or failing at enough crucial, game-altering moments: The interior rotation is a split-second too late to deter an opponent's drive to the hoop; the wide-open three-pointer on the kick-out pass to the corner rims out. (And while we're on the subject of corner treys, isn't Bruce Bowen missed much more than expected at both ends of the court?)
The dynastic Spurs had a killer instinct. Led most recently by Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, they made aggressive but generally wise gambles, and then voraciously fed on their own momentum when those gambles paid off. They were resourceful and resilient, a team you didn't feel comfortable counting out even when trailing by double digits in the second half.
This year, San Antonio is plus-3 points in average first-quarter margin, the third-best total in the league, and plus-1.1 points in the second quarter (No. 8 in the NBA). But in the second half the Spurs barely break even, registering a net zero in third-quarter scoring margin (15th in the league), and then edging their foes by plus-0.4 points in the fourth quarter (13th). The thrilling comebacks of the vintage Spurs are much less common.
Two years ago, the Spurs were indomitable while beating the second-seeded Hornets in a seventh game on the road in the second round of the playoffs. But they went out meekly in the next round against the Lakers, much as they did in last season's playoffs, losing four out of five in a first-round elimination against Dallas. They look older and slower now, their undersized frontcourt beside Duncan (13-year veteran Antonio McDyess and rookie DeJuan Blair) inadequate in defending the paint. If the season ended today, they'd be the sixth seed in the West and would likely have to defeat Utah, Denver, the Lakers and the East-leading Cavaliers, each time without home-court advantage, to win a championship. With a brutal road schedule still to come, and a mere two-game cushion over the current ninth seed, it's more likely the Spurs will miss the postseason altogether.
The Spurs are one of five teams with winning records in the Southwest, making it the league's most competitive and arguably most entertaining divisional race (the clubs are separated by only 5½ games). Here's how each team's playoff hopes look as the All-Star break and trade deadline near.
Dallas MavericksThey have the deepest roster, the best record and a proactive owner -- all reasons to consider them the divisional favorites. But after making staunch team defense a cornerstone of its identity early in the season, Dallas has been allowing points in bunches recently, falling out of the top 10 in defensive efficiency. The main culprits are Jason Terry (one of the loudest adherents to a defense-first mind-set back in November) and Josh Howard, whose horrible shot selection and discontent have made him the source of numerous trade rumors, including one involving Washington's Caron Butler. The center platoon needs to get healthier (Erick Dampier) and play smarter (Drew Gooden) to shore up the paint. Nowitzki has been marvelous, and if not for Steve Nash's ageless antics, everyone would be talking about Jason Kidd's best season in Dallas.
San Antonio SpursYou can't discount a team that has Duncan, Ginobili, Parker and Popovich, but the Spurs are not the title contenders we all imagined them to be on opening day, for reasons detailed above. Sooner or later it might be time for Popovich to give Roger Mason, last year's clutch-shooting guard, the minutes now taken up by Jefferson and GeorgeHill. Pure speculation on my part, but if former Spur and current Wizard Fabricio Oberto has enough mileage left to help San Antonio's interior defense, why not dangle a stand-up locker room guy like veteran Michael Finley to help change the toxic cloud hanging over the Wizards in D.C.?
Houston RocketsDespite a brutal schedule, Houston has remained in the playoff hunt because of quality production from point guard Aaron Brooks and sixth man Carl Landry, as well as bruising defense from 6-6 center Chuck Hayes and wings ShaneBattier and Trevor Ariza. If they can find a way to flip Tracy McGrady's monstrous expiring contract for more talented pieces, the Rockets will be the first-round opponent nobody wants to face.
New Orleans HornetsWatching Chris Paul sincerely cheer on Darren Collison during his 18-assist performance in a win at Memphis recently convinced me that Paul really wants to stay in the Big Easy. But his knee surgery was announced a few days later, an obvious jolt to the Hornets' fortunes. In his place, Collison is quick -- both mentally and physically -- but a tad too fearless. He'll win and lose games for New Orleans in about equal measure, a ratio the Hornets would gladly accept. Coach Jeff Bower has done well since taking over for the fired Byron Scott, slotting forwards James Posey and DariusSongaila in the rotation to provide maximum flexibility in defending bigs and wings. For the Hornets to stay in the playoff race until Paul returns, they'll need a steady diet of jumpers from David West, more flashes of offense from the aging Peja Stojakovic and justification for the $70 million or so remaining on Emeka Okafor's contract.
Memphis GrizzliesThey join Oklahoma City as the feel-good franchise stories this year, but of all the teams in the Southwest, the Grizz appear most likely to falter. Their bench is thin and, of the starters, only Marc Gasol seems committed to improving the team's No. 24 defensive efficiency ranking. It's impressive that Gasol and Zach Randolph power a team that scores a league-best 52 points per game in the paint and holds the largest positive rebounding differential. But Memphis also permits a league-worst 49 points per game in the paint, and point guard Mike Conley, while improving, still isn't adequate on either end of the floor. Conley was the defender roasted by Collison's 18 assists last month, and he's also missed free throws and committed unforced turnovers during crunch-time situations over the past few weeks. It's also not certain he can dole out touches in proportions that will keep ball-centric scorers Randolph, Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo happy at the same time.
During David Kahn's meeting with the media Monday, I asked the Timberwolves' GM how firm he was in his statement that he wouldn't part with any of his redundantly talented big men (Al Jefferson and Kevin Love are both best at power forward) between now and the Feb. 18 trade deadline.
"Firm as firm can be," Kahn said. "We will not move any of the big people in the next 10 days. It would be a mistake of epic proportions."
Later, I followed up and asked if the period before the deadline wasn't a good time for the Wolves to make a move and exploit a situation in which other teams are trying to create salary-cap space for the bountiful free-agent market this offseason.
"Provided that we wanted to add somebody that is a very high-salaried person to fill up our [cap] room," Kahn said. "And surely we think about that all the time -- I think about it daily -- but at this point I am not at all tempted."