So that just happened. Forty-two games are in the book, the NBA season’s official midway now in the rear view, and the Spurs are exactly where everyone thought they’d be.
San Antonio, Texas.
But their league standing? Not even the most optimistic or delusional of fans could have seen this start coming. An improvement? Sure. The San Antonio Spurs ranking amongst the top handful of teams? Absolutely. A little good fortune on the health front and the added bonus of some actual continuity with a returning roster largely intact, surely the Spurs would be improved and avoid the type of start that plagued their 2009-10 campaign. But 36-6? Let me repeat that: 36-6? Yeah, that just happened.
Coming into the 2010-11 season, a reasonable expectation—and a tad optimistic for some—would have been a Western Conference finals appearance or even a loss to the eventual Finals participant. If the Spurs could just manage to stay upright and keep their pieces on the floor, the talent was certainly there for them to hold their own against any team in the league. But they had a ceiling.
The Spurs weren’t a team deemed by most to be championship-caliber, not without a move or two anyway. Few if any believed them to be on the same level as the Lakers or Celtics or even the talent taken to and amassed on South Beach. For all intents and purposes, this Spurs team’s title aspirations were on life support, a ventilator being the only hope for one last championship breath. They were the old guard. The elite of the league, well, they had passed them by. Someone apparently failed to notify the Spurs, though. Or, maybe they’ve just benefited from a sort of selective amnesia—placebo’s are all the rage, just ask George Hill about his extraordinary bracelet.
After the official midway of last year’s NBA season, the Spurs had used sixteen different starting lineups. Let that sink in … 16 (17 and another loss would come in the next game). Their 25-16 record—the worst start for any team during the Duncan era—was good for 8th overall. They ranked 10th in points per game (101.0) and 27th in free throw percentage (.737). A record of 17-7 was the best they could muster in their first twenty-four home games and the road treated them to the tune of 8-9. The Spurs would play twelve more games before the All-Star break and finish with a record of 30-21, a point differential (average margin of victory) of 4.7.
Just one year later and with essentially the same roster, the Spurs are both the league’s best home team (23-2)—currently riding a 16-game home winning streak; the longest since winning 16 straight during the 2004-2005 campaign—and road team, posting a record of 13-4 away from the friendly confines. The Spurs rank 5th in points (104.7) and 6th in assists (23.2) per game—the former marking their highest output since 1994-95 (106.6) and the latter of which being their highest since 1995-96 (24.9). Their .396 three-point percentage is good for 2nd overall and the Spurs’ .778 free throw percentage is good for 10th, seventeen spots better than a year ago. And their point differential? A healthy 7.98, more than 3 points better than this time last year. The team’s SRS (Simple Rating System: margin of victory and strength of schedule) is currently 7.97, more than one point better than both Miami (6.90) and Boston (6.78) and more than two points better than the defending champion Lakers (5.78)—the Spurs have averaged an SRS of 7.24 in their championship seasons. The Spurs are putting up numbers that a stat-based basketball analyst simply can’t ignore.
And the more you look at the historical significance of this current team’s statistics and record, it’s hard not to shake your head a little bit in disbelief. Only six teams have started off with a better record than 36-6, a mark ranking as the 4th-best 42-game start of all-time? The last time the San Antonio Spurs had an 8.5 game lead in their division was 1980? Over the Kansas City Kings?
Whether it’s the Spurs’ franchise-best start of 35-7 … them besting their 7-0 road start set during the 2006-07 campaign by one (8-0) … their flirting with the team’s all-time high for three-point percentage of .407 (.396) … becoming aware of the fact that only the 1980-81 76ers can boast to also having two separate win streaks of twelve and ten in their first 28 games … or whatever other statistical accomplishment you’d like to point to—and we’re really just scratching the surface here—it’s just hard to believe these Spurs are those Spurs. A team seemingly on the brink, falling further and further away from championship yesteryear with each passing day. But Popovich and Co.’s patience was rewarded— instead of pulling the plug, they gave their team the time and means to find a way to breathe on its own.
Rudy Tomjanovich’s “Don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion!” worked because it was weighted in truth, as is the case with anything that becomes cliché. Once a player or team has had their game tempered and hardened, exposed to the extreme pressure and scrutiny of a championship run, a confidence and belief is instilled that can never be taken away. And in much the same way, one should never underestimate the pride of a professional—a team of professionals.
Richard Jefferson and Antonio McDyess. They were supposed to be the reinforcements needed to immediately catapult the Spurs back into title contention. Some even went as far as to suggest the Spurs were their favorite to take home the 2009-10 Larry O’Brien. That sentiment and belief wasn’t something foreign to those in the Spurs’ locker-room, those expectations were their own. The players arriving via trade or free-agency were there for a purpose. They had a job to do. They were there to help the Big Three finish up one last project; professionals take too much pride in their work to just leave it incomplete.
“… Losing in the playoffs like we did against Phoenix, 4-0, you know, this is not the history of this franchise,” said McDyess. “So, we were going to do whatever we can to improve. And we came in with a different attitude this year.”
Health may be the biggest reason for this year’s turnaround—both theirs and their opponent’s lack thereof—but the team’s pride isn’t a distant second.
Put succinctly, the Spurs failed last year. Something that’s never an easy pill to swallow. But in doing so, they lost expectation and gained hunger, fire. Complacency and monotony was replaced with drive and urgency.
The Spurs had gone stale in the two years following their 2007 championship. They were no longer chasing or being chased, but instead trying to keep pace—conserving energy and biding time in hopes that their warhorses would be healthy and at the ready to endure an extended playoff run.
Meanwhile Boston was putting together a Big Three of their own, only consisting of stars that had never been able to get it done. Pierce, Garnett and Allen had been unable to achieve any real significant post-season success as their team’s No. 1 option. They were players humbled by their years and more than willing to accept each other’s help. They were united by failures and galvanized through hunger—they were starving for a championship. The Celtics weren’t looking to pace themselves, but set the pace. Likewise, Kobe Bryant had become virtually irrelevant in terms of title contention after O’Neal’s departure. Kobe had heard all of the whispers and criticism and knew full well sharing a starting five with the likes of Smush Parker, Lamar Odom, Brian Cook and Chris Mihm wouldn’t allow him to silence them. Kobe and the Lakers were desperate to regain their perch atop the NBA once again. They, like the Celtics, were chasing—as were younger stars trying to live up to the hype and/or create their own championship legacies. They had the eye of the tiger—the Spurs needed a beat down via Clubber Lang and a little bit of Apollo Creed’s inspiration to step back into the ring.
A 4-0 loss to the Suns became the Spurs’ Clubber Lang. A defeat so unsettling and jarring the players and coaches had to look within, internally. The aftermath left in its wake gave way for Popovich to play the role of Apollo Creed. He had his team taken out of the same, comfortable gym and exposed to a different setting; a new style and technique. He got them back to basics (and someone’s going to have a field day if video of a slow-motion beach race exists to be found).
What resulted was a renewed dedication to the regular season. An added sense of urgency permeating players and coaches. The mindset of recent years changed, no more was the sole purpose to prevent the team from breaking down. The Spurs have remained smart, limiting minutes and erring on the side of caution with injury, but not overly cautious. Forty-two games have been played and the starting lineup’s yet to change once—7 back-to-backs have been played in the process and not one DNP due to rest. Turns out, what they needed all along was to be broken down to be built back up—the mind’s health is the body’s wealth. There may be no more preventative measure than a properly conditioned mind.
Health and professional pride have the Spurs back in the fight. Alone atop the league, the Spurs breathe on their own.
Follow Nick Kapsis @Kap10Jack