2021 Midseason Report

2021 Midseason report: San Antonio Spurs

NBA.com takes stock of the San Antonio Spurs after the first half of the 2020-21 season.

The Spurs could be headed back to the playoffs after a one-year absence.

First half summary: The world saw the end of an era when San Antonio’s record-tying run of 22 straight postseason berths ended after a spirited fight in the NBA bubble. But it appears the Spurs could be quickly reviving their tradition, thanks to a stylistic change that began during the team’s time in Orlando. Nobody expected the Spurs to rebound so quickly. But here we are at the start of March with San Antonio sitting just a half game behind the fifth-place Portland Trail Blazers, despite starting the season missing key players Derrick White and Keldon Johnson due to injuries.

San Antonio went 9-7 in January and finished February at 6-3 after a COVID-19 breakout sidelined the Spurs for nine days. The team’s March 1 overtime loss to the Brooklyn Nets marked just the second game back since the hiatus, and the Spurs played without White, Johnson, Rudy Gay, Devin Vassell and Quinndary Weatherspoon, as all were unavailable due to the NBA’s health and safety protocols. San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich definitely deserves mention in the Coach of the Year conversation, considering how he successfully navigated the Spurs’ drastic stylistic change, injuries, and a young roster, not to mention the challenges of drawing up competitive lineups in the face of players sidelined due to the pandemic. The first half of the season also saw a role change for seven-time NBA All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge. Aldridge missed nine games due to various injuries, and in the three games since he’s returned, he’s been coming off the bench. Popovich hasn’t said whether the move is permanent, but it’s definitely a major adjustment for a high-usage player that has averaged 34.2 minutes over his 15-year career.

Biggest question going into the second half: Can San Antonio handle the intensity of the second-half schedule? The NBA shoehorned in five make-up games from the first half of the season that were postponed due to COVID-19 protocols, putting San Antonio into the position of facing a whopping 40 games over the last 68 days of the season. Like the Memphis Grizzlies, the Spurs also have to play a league-high 11 back-to-back sets in the second half of a schedule that doesn’t provide for any more than just one day’s rest. Headed into the March 2 matchup against the New York Knicks, the Spurs were the NBA’s only winless team (0-4) in the second game of a back-to-back. Complicating matters is the fact that 23 of the Spurs’ last 40 games will be on the road.

Luckily San Antonio now fields a fairly young and deep roster. Ten of the team’s players are 26 or younger, with underrated star DeMar DeRozan, Aldridge, Gay and Patty Mills representing the Spurs in their 30s. In the past, San Antonio stacked so many victories early in the season that it could afford to rest players as the postseason approached. That won’t be the case for this incarnation of the Spurs, as they’ll likely play crucial games all the way to the end. San Antonio’s stamina will be tested from May 12-16 in closing the regular season with four games in five nights.

Playoffs or lottery?: The extensive road schedule in the second half would normally be cause for concern, but San Antonio’s road record is actually better than its record at home. The most pressing concern is whether the Spurs can deftly navigate the rigors from such a challenging schedule to close the season. That’s where Popovich’s leadership and basketball acumen come into play, along with the franchise’s well-established track record for ensuring players receive plenty of time for proper rest and recovery. This won’t be easy, but it’s doable.

So, San Antonio should ride back into the postseason after a one-year absence. They’ll likely go in as a six or seven seed, but the Spurs are not quite ready to flex any staying power in the playoffs; especially against the higher seeded teams in the West. There’s a possibility San Antonio might surprise everyone and take its first-round opponent to seven games. But the Spurs will likely endure a first-round exit. Still, that’s major progress for a team nobody expected to be there in the first place.

— Michael C. Wright