The NBA’s most stable franchise is suddenly in uncharted territory

  • The San Antonio Spurs are in 10th place and in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since 1997.
  • The Spurs have been hit by injuries this season, namely to star forward Kawhi Leonard, who has played just nine games this season.
  • The Spurs have an uphill battle ahead, with 12 of their next 15 games coming against above-.500 teams and several opponents who stand in their way of making the postseason.

With just 15 games remaining in their season, the San Antonio Spurs are in unusual territory – the draft lottery.

After a 109-93 loss to the Houston Rockets on Monday, the Spurs fell to 37-30, and because of tiebreaker rules, into 10th place in the Western Conference. They have lost 11 of their last 14 games.

Now, with the season winding down, the Spurs are in a sprint to climb back into the playoff hunt to avoid missing the playoffs for the first time in 20 seasons.

The Spurs have been the NBA’s model of consistency over the past two decades. They haven’t missed the playoffs since the 1996-97 season and came into this season with an 18-year streak of winning 50-plus games.

But injuries, an ageing roster, and a collection of possibly overburdened role players have threatened to derail the Spurs this year. Star forward Kawhi Leonard has played in just nine of 67 games this season because of a quad injury and has reportedly been at odds with the Spurs over his injury management.

LaMarcus Aldridge has produced an All-Star season, but around him are ageing stars like Tony Parker (35), Manu Ginobili (40), and Pau Gasol (37). Offseason addition Rudy Gay has played well when healthy but has also missed over 20 games. Role players like Patty Mills and Danny Green have seen their roles expand this season while promising second-year guard Dejounte Murray has been thrown in the fire as the team’s starting point guard and has predictably played up and down.

Not the Spurs we’re used to seeing.

The Spurs’ defence has kept them alive, as they currently rank third in defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions). But their crisp offence, built on ball and player movement, has fallen off this season, currently ranked just 18th in the league. They have also seen a drop-off in shooting, with Gasol, Mills, and Green ranking as the only players who play over 20 minutes per night and shoot above 35% from three-point range.

Since February 1, the Spurs rank last in point differential in “clutch” situations – the final five minutes of a game with the score within five points. Some of that is because of a lack of a go-to scorer or shot creator, but interestingly, their defence has fallen off of a cliff in the final moments of close games, allowing 140 points per 100 possessions.

A few different bounces of the ball, however, and the Spurs might be sitting in a different position. Since February 1, they have five losses by five points or less.

“Since I’ve been in the league, I’ve made eight conference finals, five NBA Finals,” Parker said after Monday’s loss. “We’ve been winning a lot. But this year, there’s been a lot of injuries. We just have to find a way to try to qualify for the playoffs.”

There may be hope on the horizon. Leonard is reportedly expected to return on Tuesday or Thursday. Just his presence alone gives the Spurs more depth on the wing, and if he’s fully healthy, he gives them an elite defender, shot-creator, and floor-spacer.

It’s an uphill battle.

Still, the Spurs are facing an uphill battle. It’s unrealistic to expect Leonard to return to his near-MVP form from last year after missing so much time. Leonard, at even 50% of himself, would be a big help for the Spurs, but he won’t come out looking like one of the league’s five best players again. Aldridge is also battling a sore knee and has missed two games in March.

The schedule won’t offer many breaks, either. 12 of the Spurs’ next 15 games come against teams above-.500, including some massively important games against foes like the Oklahoma City Thunder, Minnesota Timberwolves, New Orleans Pelicans, Portland Trail Blazers, Los Angeles Clippers, and Utah Jazz. Throw in the Spurs and ninth-place Denver Nuggets, and there are eight teams fighting for six playoff spots, all separated by just four games.

The Spurs would have to go 13-2 the rest of the way to maintain their 50-win-season streak, so it seems likely that at least one of their impressive streaks will end this season. To maintain the bigger one, making the playoffs, it’s a stretch to say that the Spurs will need some lucky breaks in the final month.

Said Gasol: “We’re in a position now where we’ve dropped. We’ve lost a few in a row, and now, there’s no margin for error anymore. Before, it was slim. Now, there is none. So now we’ve just got to go out there, and compete and win.”