The Spurs are 38-30 through 68 games.
In the last week they have fallen from 4th in the tightly-contested Western Conference to 7th.
Since Gregg Popovich took over, the Spurs have only lost more than 30 games one time, when they finished the 2009-10 season at 50-32.
Not that there haven’t been hiccups along the way, its just that during this stretch of consistency there have been a core of players to steady the ship and maintain season to season.
But all good things must end.
Duncan is retired. Parker will be soon, so will Ginobili.
General Manager RC Buford has maneuvered well again and again, and/or Pop has chiseled diamonds out of nearly everything he’s been handed. Think Maxwell, Elie, Kerr, Horry, Rose, Diaw, Gary Neal, Matt Bonner, Stephen Jackson, George Hill and Danny Green.
But players inevitably age out, and once-in-a-generation talents like Tim Duncan are just that, and despite the incredible fortune of having seemingly stole another one on draft day in Kawhi Leonard, the injury bug has bitten, and every year that passes will be another year removed from the Duncan/Pop glory days, and another year closer to a roster with no more championship pedigree.
The amazing thing about the Spurs is that for 20 years they have been among the favorites to win it all entering every single postseason. In that time, they have won the NBA Finals five times, in 1999, 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2014. In the same span, the L.A. Lakers have also won 5 Finals, first by winning three straight from 2000-2002, then by winning back to back in 2009 and 2010.
But the Lakers have also missed the playoffs 5 times since the three-peat in ’02.
The Spurs have lost more games this season than in all but one of the 20 seasons with Gregg Popovich as head coach, and have also won at least 50 games in all of Pop’s seasons except for one, when the Spurs finished a strike-shortened season 1998-99 season, Tim Duncan’s second, at 37-13, a .740 winning percentage in 50 games that projects to 60-61 wins in a full season.
And in that same season, Popovich won his first NBA Championship as head coach.
Popovich and Duncan went on to win four more together, losing only once in the Finals, to LeBron James and the Miami Heat in 2013, a series they were within 10 seconds of winning before Chris Bosh and Ray Allen snatched victory with an offensive rebound and kick-out three sent Game 6 into overtime.
They have also handed LeBron his two most resounding Finals defeats, an easy sweep in 2007 and a five-game victory in 2014 in which the Spurs won Games 3, 4, & 5 so handily that they raced to a 30-point lead in the second quarter of each game and won the series by an average of 14.4 PPG, an NBA Finals record.
Leonard is the key. An league-wide oversight who the Spurs acquired in a trade on draft day, Leonard has improved dramatically every year, to the point of being a perennial MVP candidate.
He fills up the stat sheet and also transcends it with his disruptive ability on the defensive end. He has played through two Finals, shining in both, and with their best player having a link to the departing regime and still entering his prime, the combination of Leonard and Lamarcus Aldridge should be formidable enough to carry the torch.
But Leonard has suffered through injuries, and has missed most of this season with a strained quad. In his prolonged absence, rumors have swirled about Leonard being frustrated with his treatment and a potential disconnect between he and the Spurs organization.
Leonard has insisted that he wants to finish his career in San Antonio.
And without him, this season is setting up to present a swift dose of what’s to come if the rumors prove valid. Between the 3rd and 9th place positions in the West there are only 3 games, which means that even for the Denver Nuggets, sitting 9th, there are not just playoff ambitions, but home court in the first-round ones.
It also means that for the San Antonio Spurs, one losing streak could see them on the outside looking in.
And anyways, more importantly, with the Houston Rockets and three-time defending Western Conference Champion Golden State Warriors sitting the top of the conference, a dozen games in front of everyone else, it also means that for the first time in 20 years, nobody is afraid of the Spurs.
A week removed from #InternationalWomensDay, there is also the silver lining in San Antonio.
This is that if/when Popovich’s time in San Antonio is approaching an end, his successor on the sidelines may very well end up being Spurs assistant Becky Hammon.
The Spurs’ assistant coach is the NBA’s first female assistant coach, and of all the coaches who have come under Pop’s wing, Hammon seems to have become the only real protégé poised to take command of the ship.
She has even coached the Spurs summer league team, winning a league title, and Popovich has likened her to Warriors coach Steve Kerr.
As the sun sets on the illustrious Gregg Popovich era in San Antonio, a new sun may also rise, and like every rising sun, it could signal a brand new day in the National Basketball Association.
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