Just two weeks into the 2022 NBA season the league feels a little off. The Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics, and Atlanta Hawks are at the top of the Eastern Conference. That’s believable. In the West is where things get weird. Leading the way are the Portland Trail Blazers and Phoenix Suns at 5-1, and the San Antonio Spurs and Utah Jazz behind them at 5-2. Wait. Are the Spurs a playoff team?
At the end of October last year, all but one of the Western Conference teams that had a winning record went on to make the playoffs. The only exception was the Los Angeles Lakers. In the Eastern Conference, the New York Knicks and the Washington Wizards started 5-1, only to finish outside of the play-in cutoff. It was similar trends in the 2020-2021 season too, with the exception being that the pretender in the East was the Orlando Magic, while the New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings missed the playoffs in the West after each started 3-2.
There are still 75 games to go, but there’s enough of a reason to believe.
Strength of Schedule
A team can only play the teams in front of them, and that is exactly what San Antonio has done. Through seven games, the Spurs have played two playoff teams from a year ago. In those games, they are 4-1, defeating the Chicago Bulls and Philadelphia 76ers, and taking two of the three games against the Minnesota Timberwolves. San Antonio entered the season with the toughest schedule in the association and was projected in the preseason to finish with the worst record. With a talent-depleted roster due to various transactions, nobody was counting on the Spurs to win games. Well, nobody outside of the locker room at least.
The first stretch of games hasn’t been a cakewalk, featuring three games on the road, including two consecutive contests in Minnesota. Still, the silver and black rank seventh in the NBA in both points per game (118) and three-point shooting percentage (39.4 percent). What’s more, they’re doing it with one of the youngest rosters in the NBA at an average age of 23.84 years old, trailing only the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder. They’re doing it without any All-Stars or top-five picks too.
In November, the Spurs will see the Bucks, Golden State Warriors, Denver Nuggets, Memphis Grizzlies, Los Angeles Clippers, Lakers, and Pelicans. That will allow fans to gauge whether the second-hottest starting streak in franchise history is a trick or a treat.
How Are the Spurs Winning?
Youth in professional sports can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, a young squad lacks experience and features raw talents. On the other hand, however, a young team is of little else but potential and, oftentimes, a lot of energy. It wasn’t long ago that criticisms about San Antonio were that the team was too slow to get up and down the floor, and the offense could stagnate. The 2022 iteration of the team couldn’t be further from those past critiques.
Per 48 minutes, the Spurs are third in scoring, pushing the pace for 91.6 shot attempts. They’re scoring 118 points on average in regulation, trailing the Indiana Pacers and Grizzlies by less than a point. That means they’re also ahead of high-octane offenses like the Warriors and Hawks. The pace of play hasn’t robbed San Antonio of its pass-heavy identity, however, as the team leads the NBA in assists per game at 31.1. According to StatMuse, that is Showtime Lakers-level ball movement. Leading the way for the Spurs is the duo of Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell, two former first-round picks who are getting the room to shine.
In seven games, Johnson is averaging 23.9 points per game and averaging 43.5 percent from the perimeter, attempting nearly nine per game. Despite playing in just four games, Vassell is right behind him with averages of 19.8 points per game and shooting 39.4 percent from deep on eight attempts per game. They are two of four players shooting above 39 percent from three-point range and averaging more than five attempts per game, joined by veterans Josh Richardson and Doug McDermott. In short, they are shooting the ball a lot and connecting, particularly from deep.
So, Can They Keep Up This Record?
San Antonio has gone through a lot of adversity over the last eight months, some of it self-inflicted. Their hot start could be a young group of professional players refusing to be counted out. With the “old guard” officially gone as the team moved on from Dejounte Murray and Derrick White who played alongside Spurs legends, the pressure of expectations feels gone internally as it is externally, given the aforementioned projections.
Healthy, the Spurs are a tough matchup for many rosters across the NBA. They have a lot of size between 6’4” and 6’9”, with 13 players fitting inside that range. Only Tre Jones is an outlier on the shorter end of the spectrum, measuring 6’1”. This gives San Antonio a lot of versatility to compete at all five positions without compromising athleticism or length. The team is playing well given the recent knee injury to Vassell, and releasing Josh Primo does them no favors either
The Spurs’ wins through seven games have come against top talents in Joel Embiid, James Harden, DeMar DeRozan, Nikola Vucevic, Karl-Anthony Towns, Rudy Gobert, and Anthony Edwards. Still, deeper teams are on the horizon with the world-champion Warriors and contenders like Ja Morant’s Grizzlies and Zion Williamson’s Pelicans. One would have to assume too, that those three teams and the Lakers will correct their season trajectories. A loss here and there against these teams is more than excusable – it’s a long season. The real test will be how San Antonio fares in facing these superstars night in and night out, and prevent one loss from quickly becoming four or five.
Are the Spurs a Playoff Team?
While recent trends might give hope to the prospect of San Antonio playing in the postseason and winning a round, the makeup of the roster is more similar to the tricks rather than the treats the last couple of years. Simply put, the Clippers (2-4), Warriors (3-4), and Dallas Mavericks (3-3) have better days ahead of them.
As it stands now, with the roster and brand of basketball San Antonio is playing, the Spurs are a playoff team – really. Injured, they made the adjustments necessary against a healthy Minnesota squad in a three-game series, showing they could win a play-in series. Still, it is hard to see them winning in seven, necessary to advance past the first round. Though the future looks bright, San Antonio still feels like it is missing that dominant third option behind Johnson and Vassell, provided they really are who they appear to be so far. Rookie Jeremy Sochan shows a lot of promise to fit that mold, though he may just be too inexperienced right now.
To be a playoff team isn’t enough, and though fun, this roster doesn’t have the makeup of a contender. San Antonio would be stuck in the same rut that it has been for the last few years. The team also has to decide if they want to invest in bringing Richardson and Jakob Poeltl back next year, or move them now for draft picks. San Antonio needs a jolt, and the front office knows it. Expect them to tighten the purse strings and be active “sellers” at the trade deadline in hopes of title pushes and not just playoff appearances in the years to come.
All player stats, team records, and playoff data are from NBA.com.