Unreasonably Great Expectations

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Photo courtsey: Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

If you are not impressed by what the Spurs have accomplished this year, it is time to lower your expectations.

For any other team (except the Warriors), losing a serious MVP candidate means bracing for a losing season and hoping for a high draft pick. The Spurs, however, are on pace to win 50 games without Kawhi Leonard.

It’s a credit to Gregg Popovich’s ability as a coach, LaMarcus Aldridge’s improved play, and the role players around him. This group has salvaged a lost season, and by some miracle, they sit at the three seed in the Western Conference.

Sure, the results have been sub-par by Spursian standards to this point. They’re 13-16 on the road, 13-16 against teams with a winning record, and have flat out struggled to put the ball in the hole for long stretches. Who cares?

It should be fairly obvious to any thinking person that most of San Antonio’s struggles on the court this year are a symptom of Leonard’s frustrating injury. This team cannot be fairly or properly evaluated without their best player.

Saturday night’s game at Golden State revealed that there are many in Spurs Nation that simply don’t grasp this concept. Kawhi was out, along with Rudy Gay, Tony Parker, and Dejounte Murray.

Golden State is the NBA equivalent of the Avengers, and there is a very short list of teams that have rosters talented enough to compete with them. Those teams are the Cavaliers, Celtics, Rockets, Spurs, and maybe the Timberwolves and Raptors, *WHEN HEALTHY*.

No basketball team ever assembled could be reasonably expected to win a game in Oracle Arena without their best player, much less four key players. And yet, the Spurs built a double-digit lead in the first quarter behind LaMarcus Aldridge and Kyle Anderson, who finished with a career-high 20 points.

San Antonio deserves credit for moving the ball so crisply against one of the league’s best defenses and holding the Warriors’ explosive attack in check during the first half. Anyone with any sense knew that Golden State would eventually pull away against the Spurs’ lineup of (very good) role players, and they did.

So why did some view the inevitable loss as concerning? Did they forget that Kawhi Leonard is a top-five talent in the league? No, probably not. Most people that think the Spurs should be performing better are ironically many of the same people that thought (not without merit) that Kawhi should have won the MVP.

Leonard scored over 25 points per game last year while playing defense at the highest level. The entire Spurs offense centered around his ability to score with the ball in his hands. San Antonio has had to completely change their entire scheme with Leonard on the bench.

Popovich’s Spurs have enjoyed one of the highest levels of sustained success for any professional sports team in a 20-year period. He will be the first to tell you that he wouldn’t have been able to accomplish everything he has without the great players that have come through the organization.

San Antonio has always been the home of stars under Pop, from David Robinson to Tim Duncan to Manu Ginobili to Tony Parker to Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge. Pop is largely responsible for bringing those stars in and developing them, and his in-game coaching is second to none, but even he will struggle without his best horse.

Another factor in these unreasonable expectations is the way San Antonio has attained this high level of success. The team-first culture has been talked about ad nauseum for years. Basketball fans all over the world have rightfully celebrated the Spurs’ ethos that it’s not about one player.

Critics of this year’s Spurs will be quick to tell you that basketball is a team sport. While factually correct, this statement ignores the simple reality that the team sport is played by individuals, and some are more talented than others.

Popovich lost a freak athlete who is widely regarded as one of the best players in the world on each end of the floor, replaced him with a career reserve best known for being impossibly slow, and has his team on track to win 50 games anyway. If that doesn’t impress you, you aren’t paying attention.

Success breeds expectation, and great success breeds great expectations. The Spurs have done so well for so long that some of their fans can no longer accept anything less than stellar results, even if there is an easy explanation for temporary struggles.

Spurs fans have plenty of things to be frustrated about this season, but the results on the floor are not among them. The results are a byproduct of circumstances that the team really can’t control. The cornerstone of their franchise is hurt, and they are wisely taking time to make sure he’s healthy.

When the silver and black take the floor in Utah tonight, they will do so without Kawhi Leonard, Rudy Gay, and LaMarcus Aldridge, who is out with a sore right knee. Parker and Murray are questionable. The Jazz are a four-point favorite, and they should be.

If the Spurs win, it will be because Pop patched together a lineup of role players with duct tape like basketball MacGyver, and they made it work. If they give it the old college try and lose, it will be because three or more of their best players did not play. It’s frustrating and unfamiliar for Spurs fans, but not that complicated.

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