SAN ANTONIO — What can we expect from the Spurs as they enter the last part of the season?
Many call the All-Star break the halfway point of the NBA regular season, but in reality the Spurs have already played 72% of their schedule. This is the home stretch, and in an ordinary year San Antonio would set their sights on finishing strong and pushing for the postseason.
This is no ordinary year, however.
San Antonio hasn't won a playoff series since they had Kawhi Leonard in 2017-18. They got bounced in the first round the next two years with LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan leading the team. They won less than half of their games in each of the next three seasons, making and losing the play-in tournament as the tenth seed twice.
It's been almost a decade of steady decline since the team's last title in 2014, and over the past few seasons management has leaned more and more into a full rebuild. GM Brian Wright traded away veterans DeRozan, Thad Young and Derrick White for future-focused packages before fully committing to the reset button and dealing Dejounte Murray last offseason.
Sending away the team's only All-Star for picks put the extremely young Spurs on a path toward a tough year, but also toward a great position in the lottery for one of the best drafts in some time. Vegas pegged their win total around 22 games in the preseason.
This scrappy San Antonio squad surprised fans and opponents in the early going with a 5-2 start. Since then they've won just 17% of their games, dealing with injuries, inexperience and poor play. They rolled into the All-Star break on a historic losing skid, having lost 14 in a row – the longest such streak ever for the franchise – and 19 of their last 20.
In the midst of that streak they traded two of their best veterans in Jakob Poeltl and Josh Richardson, getting back a first-round pick, six second-round picks and Devonte' Graham. Those moves will make it even harder to win games this year, and as tough as it's been hard for the players and the fans, it's not a bad situation for a team in San Antonio's position.
The Spurs are currently 14-45, putting them a whopping 15 games behind the 10-seed Thunder at this point. That means San Antonio could win every single one of their 23 remaining games and still have a lower winning percentage than OKC has right now.
They haven't been mathematically eliminated from the postseason just yet, but that's basically a formality at this point. Flip the standings upside-down, however, and the Spurs are in the running for a coveted prize.
San Antonio has fewer wins than every team in the league except the Houston Rockets, who have 13. The Pistons and Hornets are close behind in the race to the bottom, and the winner of that race guarantees them a top-five pick in a stacked draft. The second-worst record guarantees a top-six pick, third gets a top-seven and so on. The three teams with the worst record get the best possible odds at the top three picks: 14%, 13.4% and 12.7%, respectively.
Victor Wembanyama and Scoot Henderson are the consensus top-two picks, and both should become cornerstones for whatever franchise selects them. The board after that is up for debate, but there's plenty of talent after those two extremely high-level prospects.
27.4% may not sound like a lot, but consider that there probably isn't a team in the league with a better chance of winning the championship this year. San Antonio's title chances are functionally non existent, but they should have better odds at landing a player who can change that than anyone. Watch some highlights and go for a spin on Tankathon.
All the losing has been a bitter pill to swallow, but the hard part of getting it down has already been done. The medicine will be most effective if the Spurs lose as many of the remaining 23 games as possible, especially an upcoming back-to-back against the Rockets in early March. If the Spurs are favored in either of those games, it will probably be the only time they're favorites for the rest of the year.
It will be cathartic and important for morale when this losing streak eventually comes to an end. The players on the court are obviously trying their hardest to win, and Gregg Popovich isn't going to tell them to lose. He doesn't have to. This team is losing a lot because this roster was designed for developing the young players and building for the future—not winning right now.
In the last game before the break, Pop even lit into his guys for their defensive struggles and urged them to play harder and execute better on that end.
“Yeah they’re young, and blah blah blah… but that young thing is getting old. It's the same mistakes: giving up middle, not blocking out, not getting back in transition,” Popovich said after a 120-110 loss in Charlotte.
“Inexcusable, youth’s got nothing to do with it. At some point you’ve gotta take pride in what you’re doing execution wise and competitively, and that starts with defense. We really suck, and that's on me. When I think we're starting to improve on it we go back two steps, so that's something I'm gonna have to think about, figure out how to motivate them better, to make them understand that they have to take pride in that. We have no one on the basketball team who sets the example for anyone else on the defensive end,” he said. "You don't want to lose? Start playing some defense, that's the deal."
Pop knows better than most that the team has limited personnel in that department after their three best defenders got shipped out in the past year, and he knows that it would behoove the Spurs to continue losing, but he still can and should still demand improvement from his players. They may be rowing a sinking boat, but the captain is always going to demand good effort and proper technique that will make his guys stronger and better for when they get back to land for repairs.
With that in mind, here's a detailed look at each player's strengths and areas for growth for the home stretch of the season.