I can make a ton – a ton, I tell you – of excuses of why I haven’t posted in about a month. The Holiday season is a difficult time to write (sure). My family demands increase dramatically this time of year (absolutely). My job demands also revolve around the beginning and end of school semesters (that’s a good one too). But here’s the truth: the unfortunate, sad reality to which I have finally succumbed about the last 4-5 weeks of Spurs basketball. The Spurs are just a really hard team about which to write. Like me over the Holidays, the team doesn’t have a lot of rhythm right now. The difference was I didn’t have to write; they still had 18 games to play. I’m glad the Spurs are more dependable than I am.
I really feel for the beat guys for the Spurs right now for the Express-News and MySA.com. Jeff McDonald, Dan McCarney, and Mike Monroe have to fill tons of copy about a team that is clearly working through a host of issues. Part of the fun of sports writing is taking what we see on the court (or on the screen) and watching all of the other teams, then extrapolating out what the results might be. Even if you are not doing a traditional Power Rankings or any other comparative analysis, there is still a part of writing that wants to look at what is seen and imagine the finished product.
That may be especially true where the 2014-15 San Antonio Spurs are concerned. We’ve seen a finished product, with this exact same group of guys, sans SloMo – Kyle Anderson – of course. And we saw that finished product play to near perfection in last year’s playoffs. Starting with Game 7 in San Antonio against the Mavs, that was one of the most impressive runs of pro basketball I’ve ever seen.
And what we are seeing now looks very little like the finished product from May and June. There are glimpses of it, sure, such as the 4th quarter against the Suns, most of the Wolves game (Austin Daye!), and most of the Wizards game from last week. But those glimpses have been pretty few and far between this season. And there are major reasons for that:
There’s no denying who is the most irreplaceable Spur right now. And as much as I love me some Timothy Theodore Duncan, it’s not him. It’s Kawhi. If there’s one position on the floor where there is no player with a backup, it’s Kawhi. I know the Spurs have gotten by with some combination of Danny Green, Marco Bellinelli, and Manu Ginobili there, but that’s not ideal. The first two guys are simply shooting guards playing the 3 and I’d argue that Manu is in the “Dr J playing shooting guard” portion of his career now as well. Simply put, there is no replacement for Kawhi and the team is going to suffer defensively everytime he is off the floor.
But it’s not just the Kawhi injury. Tony has missed significant time; Tiago missed the first 20-odd games of the season; Patty made an earlier-than-expected return; and Tim already has a number of DNP-Old game listings under his belt this year. The result is a lack of continuity that manifests itself on the floor in sloppy play.
How inconsistent has it been? Well, NBA.com lists the 3 most used lineups (in terms of total minutes this season) all including Kawhi Leonard, who has only 22 games. Cory Joseph figures prominently in the 3 of the top 6 most used lineups this season, usually playing with guys he has not played with much prior to this season (i.e. other starters). Marco and Baynes are in there a lot with the starters as well. Every coach in the league will tell you: consistency matters. Guys know where other guys are cutting and how they play off the ball when they play together. The injuries this season have taken a toll on consistency and that shows up in turnovers, where the Spurs are just outside the top 10 in TOs per game. How many times this year have you seen someone throw a pass that another player was just slightly off on where they were standing? Or not expecting the ball at all?
December was brutal. A lot has been made about how this was the first month in years that the Spurs had a sub-.500 month. Yes, they did. And just about any other team in the league would have done so as well, in a month with 18 games, 5 OT games, 7 back-to-backs, and 2 3-OT games. Especially when you throw in the injury plague mentioned above. I’m not going to add much to this already verbose discussion, except that I’ve been watching the NBA for almost 30 years now and I can say, I’ve never seen anything like this past December. When the Spurs finish with a 3 or 4 seed in April, we will all be able to point back to December as the reason why.
I suspect there is a little Horry-itis going on right now with the Spurs. I don’t see it in everyone and I don’t see it every night. But there are glimpses.
What is Horry-itis? Do you remember the 2005 Finals, when Timmy, at the podium after the famous Game 5 win, totally threw Robert Horry under the bus for coasting through the regular season and only showing up and playing hard for playoff time? That’s Horry-itis at it’s most evident.
I think there’s a little Horry-itis going on with this team. Boris, occasionally, looks like a guy not playing as hard as he did last season. Tony has had a few games where he seemed a bit disengaged, although that could have also been easing back into play from injury. And there have been a few games this season where Pop has left in the bench players, because they were outperforming the starters.
Truthfully, it would be hard not to have a little Horry-itis, after having been through 2 consecutive Finals appearances and winning last year. If your brain isn’t saying looking ahead to April just a little, you’re probably not fully human. And I’m not sure a little Horry-itis, in November and December, is a bad thing. But now that the calendar has flipped to 2015, I fully expect the Spurs Death Machine to get re-engaged, in all its glory. Horry-itis is so 2014.
Everything about what the team does now comes down to health. If Kawhi can come back healthy and we can maintain healthy minutes for everyone, I expect you’ll see the consistency to return. Add to that the fact that the Spurs have already played more games against the West than any team in the league (meaning more East games to follow) and the Spurs we loved watching last year rise to the surface. I don’t expect any trade deadline deals, unless there’s a team that wants Cory Joseph so bad they can’t wait for the end of the season. Everything now is about getting the rhythm back, stringing together some wins, and trying to rise in the standings. I’m not sure we can catch Golden State or Portland in the standings, but Houston is the current three seed with only a 4 game lead. With 44 games to go, that seems doable.
So, I’m back in the saddle now for this ride through the remainder of the season. I’ve gotten over my own case of Horry-itis, recovered from watching the equivalent of 19 games in December, and am ready to watch this team make its run. It’s hard to come up with new things to write about the Spurs right now; until they get healthy and find some rhythm, we don’t know what we have. But I’ll find my own rhythm over the next 3 months as well. See you next Monday for the next part of the journey.