The Struggles of the Spurs

The San Antonio Spurs have been on a slide since the All-Star break, and they slipped again on Wednesday night in Portland, losing another game in the second half and suffering their fourth straight loss.

During the Gregg Popovich-Big Three era, the team has had their fair share of regular-season hiccups, but doubting the postseason potential of the Spurs has always been considered a foolhardy endeavor given their prolific history. Even this year, San Antonio is still clinging to the seventh seed in the Western Conference playoff chase at 34-23.

This time, however, San Antonio’s struggles haven’t been anecdotal––those 23 losses are already more than the team suffered all of last season, and with just a two-game lead on the rumbling Oklahoma City Thunder, the Spurs haven’t been able to snap out of their funk despite the increasing urgency.

As the playoffs approach, many are starting to abandon the usual “They’re the Spurs; they’ll be fine” rhetoric and are seriously questioning this team’s chances to make waves in the playoffs. Are their struggles really that real?

As with the struggles of most contending teams, San Antonio’s issues started with injuries to key players. Point guard Tony Parker has been ailing from a nagging hamstring injury, while forward Kawhi Leonard suffered a torn ligament in his shooting hand in December. Neither player has been the same in the wake of their injuries, especially Parker, who shot 1-of-8 with four turnovers against the Blazers and is currently going through one of the worst stretches of his entire career.

Parker is shooting just 46 percent this season, his lowest mark since 2003-04, and even more troubling, the point guard hasn’t been able to get to the rim and finish as effectively. According to NBA.com, he’s shooting 57 percent in the restricted area this season compared to 60 percent last season, and he’s taking the ball to the rim less than ever. Just 28 percent of Parker’s shot attempts have come at the rim this season, compared to last year’s 38 percent clip. His free throw rate has fallen for the second straight season, and his turnovers have risen. Simply put, he has been a far less threatening and less efficient offensive player this season, despite the major uptick in his three-point shooting.

It’s not surprising, then, that Parker’s on-off numbers for this season are painful to look at. The Spurs have a 103.5 offensive rating this season, according to NBA.com, which is about league average. The team has been worse with Parker on the floor, and better when he’s not: 101.4/104.0 offensive and defensive rating splits when Parker hits the hardwood, compared to 105.2/97.5 splits when he’s riding the pine.

Those numbers paint a dire picture, and Parker himself has admitted frustration publicly, acknowledging that his hamstring issues have hampered him not only physically, but mentally as well. This has caused undue stress and uncertainty for a player who typically plays with no holds barred on the floor.

The Spurs have insisted that their troubles go beyond Parker. While that idea isn’t wrong, the troubles certainly start with Parker, who is the catalyst for the usually well-oiled offense.

Without a player to initiate the attack and force the defense to react and bend, ball movement isn’t as potent a weapon, and Parker’s inability to get into the lane with the same kind of potency as before has left San Antonio without a table-setter. As a result, other players have found it harder to feast this season: Leonard, Manu Ginobli, Danny Green and Boris Diaw have all seen their three-point and overall shooting percentages fall this season.

This is a bit of a chicken-versus-egg scenario, in that Parker’s struggles have clearly resulted in diminished opportunities for others, but guys like Ginobli and Leonard have struggled in trying to replace Parker’s ability to create shots for themselves and others. Manu’s performances have always ebbed and flowed during the course of his career, but it’s entirely possibly that his age is finally catching up with him at 37. Given Ginobli’s track record, Leonard’s struggles are more concerning, although there’s no doubt his hand injury has affected his play.

Leonard’s usage percentage has jumped from 18.3 percent to 22.5 percent this season, and he has struggled trying to find a more assertive offensive role. According to SportsVU, Leonard is attempting almost twice as many drives per game this year, 5.0 compared to last year’s 2.6 per game. His efficiency has cratered, however, and his shooting percentage on said drives has fallen from 54 percent to 37 percent. Even his pull-up percentage has fallen a full six points on an added attempt per game.

That’s not to rain on the development parade of Leonard. The Spurs surely hoped he would be able to come into his larger role naturally, picking and choosing his spots and learning how best to attack in a slow, steady increase. Unfortunately, given Parker’s lack of effectiveness, Leonard has been thrust into that role much sooner than the team hoped for, and as a result, he has struggled to adjust to an accelerated learning curve. Again, this is at least partly a result of his hand injury, but San Antonio must have hoped for more encouraging results from the reigning Finals MVP in a contract year.

Without their team leader and do-it-all forward at full strength, the Spurs’ offense (or lack thereof) has become the biggest impediment to a potential repeat. Without their two most threatening perimeter scorers, San Antonio’s pass-heavy offense has been rendered relatively tedious. The eye test has not been kind to the team in recent weeks, backed up by just a 100.6 offensive rating in their last 10 games, according to NBA.com.

Until this team is down and out, trying to second-guess any Popovich team will always feel treacherous, especially when health is a factor. Sadly, though, these injuries seem like they will continue to linger, meaning the defending champs will have to find a way to fix their offense or find themselves in danger of a potential first-round exit.

Offense might win games and defense might win championships, as the saying goes, but at a certain point, you have to be able to put the ball in the basket, as teams like the Memphis Grizzlies and Indiana Pacers have proved in recent seasons. No matter how much San Antonio can buckle down on defense, it was the flawless offense that carried them to a championship last season. Until they can right themselves on that end––starting with the team kick-starter in Parker––the Spurs won’t be able to generate enough difficult points during the grind of the postseason, meaning this could be the beginning of the end for this era of Spurs basketball.

Now that that’s been written, surely San Antonio will turn it all around and win another one. With this team, we can’t be sure until it’s over.

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