For the past two decades, the San Antonio Spurs have been an ever constant fixture in the NBA postseason. Gregg Popovich’s team have been a beacon of basketball excellence and have set the standard of consistency and success that all others have been measured by.
However, this season something has changed in San Antonio. The Spurs sit at 40-30, seventh in the crowded Western playoff race, looking nervously over their shoulders. The Spurs have only lost over 30 games once in the Popovich era and have not missed the playoffs since the master coach's first season with the team.
Popovich has long been linked with the USA national team job, so could we be witnessing the beginning of the end of his historic tenure in San Antonio?
Could the Spurs miss the playoffs?
With Golden State and Houston having secured the top two seeds long ago and Portland’s recent good run probably securing the Blazers a playoff spot, it looks to be a seven-team battle for the final five playoff berths.
The Spurs will have to fend off competition from the improved Clippers and an exciting young Nuggets squad to ensure they feature in the postseason. However, San Antonio’s remaining schedule is brutal as the only play two games against teams who have a losing record. This gauntlet sees them face Golden State, Washington and Utah in the coming week, which will play a big part in their bid to finish in the top eight in the west.
They may be coming off an important win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, but if the Spurs continue on their current trajectory, the unthinkable could happen - we could see a Spurs-less playoff for the first time in 20 years.
A huge part of the Spurs struggles this season have been down to the mysterious injury of Kawhi Leonard. Leonard missed the Spurs pre-season with a quadriceps injury but was expected to be ready to go for the start of the season.
However, he has missed almost the entire season and it doesn’t seem like he is coming back until the 2018/19 campaign. Reports have surfaced that Leonard and the Spurs have clashed about his injury rehab and that Leonard feels that his injury has not been managed properly by the Spurs medical team. For a team that prides itself on excellence in all aspects of its organization, this is a very serious accusation.
The Leonard situation was further muddled when Spurs guard Tony Parker was asked if Kawhi was taking part in three-on-three drills. Parker answered: “I have no idea, he’s not practicing with us." That not even Leonard’s teammates seem to know what is going on with him speaks to a complete breakdown in the relationship between player and team.
We are not used to seeing this kind of drama associated with the Spurs, a team who usually handle their business with a minimum of fuss, and yet this story has rumbled on for most of the season. Leonard’s contract is up in 2019 and he will probably be eligible for a lucrative super-max deal.
ESPN's Stephen A. Smith has reported that it is Kawhi Leonard’s uncle, who recently took over managing Leonard’s career, that is the root of the problem between to the two parties. If this is the case, then it may well be that the relationship cannot be repaired. If Leonard looks to move on, there will be no shortage of suiters.
A broken collective
In Leonard's absence this season, the Spurs have relied heavily on LaMarcus Aldridge and a collection of role players and aging greats.
For the first half of the season, Popovich seemed to be working his usual magic and coaxing exceptional performances out of his supporting cast. The Spurs sat third in the west at the halfway point of the campaign with no player averaging over 20 minutes per game, a testament to Popovich’s coaching genius. Yet, in the second half of the season the mask has slipped and the smokescreen and mirrors approach has been exposed. San Antonio’s aging stars in Parker, Manu Ginobili and Pau Gasol are looking their age, while role players like Danny Green are failing to inspire.
For years, the ability to be a collective that was far greater than the sum of its parts was what defined the Spurs. This has not been the case in 2018, and they have looked like a one-man team carried by Aldridge. In this unusual season for the Spurs, this trend has perhaps been the most concerning.
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