At 44-16 and second place in the Western Conference, the Spurs' inconsistencies have been pretty well masked on the surface. This is old hat, after all: San Antonio being near the top of the standings as the NBA begins its stretch run has been as certain as a sunrise during the Tim Duncan era.
The 2013-14 season has been weird, though. By early March we usually have a solid feel for what the Spurs are, but that's not the case thus far despite their typical gaudy record. We've seen a team that's played musical chairs with its starting rotations and endured an injury bug the size of a hippo. In fact, the Spurs are just now fully healthy again for the first time in nearly two months, which has restored some type of order after a season's worth of imbalance.
Here's a quick rundown of the ebbs and flows of San Antonio's first 60 games:
- Gregg Popovich has deployed 24 different starting lineups this season. That's as many as the Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder — the three teams ahead of the Spurs in the standings — have used combined, and only the Los Angeles Lakers have used more (29).
- Out of the eight most used Spurs in terms of minutes per game, five of them — Tony Parker, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Manu Ginobili and Tiago Splitter — have combined to miss 67 games. Those five players missed 65 games total last season.
- The team's preferred lineup of Parker, Green, Leonard, Duncan and Splitter has started just 16 games and played a total of 162 minutes together this season, and it's still the Spurs' most used lineup. For perspective: The Blazers' top lineup has played in 55 games together for a total of 1,117 minutes.
- San Antonio has employed 18 different players at various times this season; only three — Malcolm Thomas (not with team anymore), Austin Daye and Matt Bonner — have not started at least one game for the Spurs.
So what do we know? Not a ton at this point of this season, but we do have an idea of what they are in theory. It's a 14-man roster that's had to integrate just three new faces, and that's including the recently acquired Daye, who arrived in San Antonio via trade at the Feb. 20 deadline. Beyond that, it's got a core that's been playing basketball together for more than a decade, so re-acclimating to each other's tendencies shouldn't take terribly long.
But the same old Spurs are back together, just in time for the most exciting stretch of the regular season. It felt like a foregone conclusion that the Thunder were going to walk away with the top seed in the West, but now that's anything but certain. San Antonio has re-emerged in the conversation — or perhaps Oklahoma City has fallen back into it — just a game back of first place in the loss column, and its starting lineup is reassembled for the first time since New Year's Eve.
It's been a crapshoot for Gregg Popovich, who's strung hundreds of different lineups together this season in an effort minimize the impact of the injury rash. At one point, Splitter, Green, Leonard and Ginobili were all inactive at once, and each was out because of various injuries, with timetables of anywhere from three to five weeks. Popovich has started Nando De Colo, Othyus Jeffers and Shannon Brown at different points this season due to necessity, and not one is still on the team today.
Still, after all the inconsistencies in the rotation and all the bodies in and out of the trainer's room, they find themselves fully healthy and just one game behind the semi-banged-up Thunder with about a quarter of the season remaining. Things are about to get really interesting in the Western Conference, and if the Spurs can re-establish the identity they left behind in Miami last June, don't give the West to Oklahoma City just yet.
But we can only analyze what we've seen, and despite the return of so many key players, San Antonio is still left talking about the losses. The Spurs remain 3-11 against the top six teams in the league, and the word 'confidence' is brought up as a topic of conversation (mostly by media folk) in the locker room.
The 44-16 record, their place in the standings, the return of full health — these are all gigantic reasons for optimism. But the fact remains: That preferred lineup still hasn't found enough of its offensive rhythm — it's scoring 91.4 points per 100 possessions this season — to back up the stifling defensive numbers (92.5 defensive-efficiency rating). Health is absolutely the most important aspect of San Antonio's potential success, but consistency will soon become paramount for a starting offense that's had major spacing issues.
Regardless, a healthy Spurs team makes the race for top spot in the West really fun. On Tuesday, San Antonio scored 13 points in the first quarter against the Cleveland Cavaliers and fell behind by 12 early on. Popovich's team went on to score 109 points over the final three quarters and register 39 assists on 43 made baskets in what became a masterpiece of basketball.
We say we don't know who the Spurs are right now, but I kind of think we do, don't we?
Statistical support courtesy of NBA's media stats page.