For sports fans, the principal focus of Christmas Day—well, besides it being the birthday of the Savior of the human race—is that a wall-to-wall day of NBA TV games mark it sort of secondary opening day. For those who aren’t diehard pro hoops fans, these five games are the first time the NBA really splashes onto a radar that’s been otherwise preoccupied with college football and the NFL.
So the first question we’ll ask is this—do the San Antonio Spurs have what it takes to repeat? Fans who sit down to watch the Spurs play the Oklahoma City Thunder on Christmas (2:30 PM ET, ABC) may not have seen Tim Duncan & Co. since they were dismantling the Miami Heat and ending LeBron James’ four-year South Beach run in disappointment. These Spurs don’t look like that same team.
San Antonio is playing reasonably well so far this year, but in the rugged Western Conference, they’re staring up at several teams, most notably the Golden State Warriors, Portland Trail Blazers and Memphis Grizzlies.
We know there’s a long way to go in the season and that the Spurs can’t be ruled out from title contention regardless of where they are in the bracket. We also know though, that the NBA is as one-sided it’s ever been, with arguably the top eight teams in the league all in the Western Conference.
Given how hard it is for road teams to win Game 7s in this league, particularly in deeper rounds, I’m sure the Spurs don’t want to try and test their luck and going the path of the 1995 Houston Rockets, who won a repeat title from the 6-seed.
To get a grasp on what kind of trouble San Antonio may or not be in, let’s compare them to the three teams in the West that are off to blazing starts, in Golden State, Portland and Memphis. Here’s a breakdown of several key statistical categories and where each team ranks in the 30-team NBA.
Golden State: 5th
Golden State: 1st
The efficiency numbers, which adjust points to tempo, show that San Antonio is still playing pretty good basketball, especially on the defensive end. They’ve been a genuinely outstanding defensive team each of the last two years, which have seen them win one title and lose one crushing Finals, so this core foundation of success still remains.
Golden State: 13th
Golden State: 14th
The outlook gets better here. Rebounding and turnovers are the ways to increase your possessions and the Spurs are, for the most part, already playing at a higher level than the hotter teams ahead of them. You have to think this shows up on the win-loss column as we get deeper into the season.
3-Point Shooting (%)
Golden State: 6th
3-Point Shooting Defense (%)
Golden State: 4th
Here’s where you can see why Golden State is setting the pace in the NBA in the early part of the schedule. They shoot a lot of threes with Steph Curry and are only narrowly behind the Spurs in percentage. More important, the Warriors are defending the perimeter while the Spurs are not. That needs to change if you’re San Antonio head coach Gregg Popovich.
Overall, I think the situation in San Antonio calls for urgency, but not alarm. Urgency, because this conference is just so tough and you don’t want to dig yourself too deep a hole. But not alarm, because the underlying indicators are still good. This team still plays mostly good defense, save for the three-point line and they rebound.
Individually, Tim Duncan still looks sharp (16 points/11 rebounds per-game average), Kawhi Leonard is playing well (15/8), as is Tony Parker (16 points/5 assists). In the meantime, Manu Ginobili is playing, but he did play the postseason last spring with a hairline fracture in his leg and I would imagine we’ll get his best play further down the road. Patty Mills, the point guard and three-point shooter who was so good last year is out until after the first of the year with a shoulder injury suffered over the summer.
Having a veteran team that’s put on a lot of mileage over the years, the last two in particular with the intense runs to the NBA Finals, presents a big challenge for Popovich, as he tries to balance the need for wins with the need for rest. I’m not saying it will be easy, but from this vantage point, the Spurs still look like the team to beat.
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