Can The San Antonio Spurs Survive a Stacked Southwest Division?
By Matt Graber
Six games into the 2014-2015 NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs find themselves in an unfamiliar spot: the bottom of the standings. At 3-3, the defending champions are currently sitting tied at 5th in the Southwest Division, two and a half games out of first place.
While it may seem like a foregone conclusion that the Spurs will quickly rebound and climb back to the top of the standings, it’s won’t be that simple. Based on what we’ve seen so far, there is a genuine concern that the Spurs may not be able to win their 8th division title, which could hurt their playoff seeding.
This is not an overreaction the Spur’s 3-3 record. The team has been battling injuries, particularly Kawhi Leonard’s eye infection, and they’ve already began resting Duncan and Ginobili.
The slow start isn’t a big deal; the focus for now is getting everyone healthy and making sure Duncan and company will be playoff-ready down the stretch. The concern is an external factor that’s out of the Spurs’ control: the Southwest Division is really, really good.
The first place Houston Rockets are off to an incredibly hot start at 6-1. Before their loss to the Golden State Warriors, the Rockets were undefeated with a margin of victory over 10, including a dominant win over the Spurs.
Houston’s two stars have been playing extremely well. Dwight Howard’s 32 point, 16 rebound thrashing of the Spurs served as a reminder that he’s still arguably the top center in the NBA.
For all of James Harden’s defensive warts, he’s a brilliant offensive player, averaging 25.4 PPG, 7.1 APG and 6.7 RPG with a PER of 26.2. Even when Harden’s not shooting well, he excels at attacking the basket, and he can get to the free throw line seemingly as well.
The Rockets are more than just a two-man show though. Trevor Ariza is a great perimeter defender, and his presence has helped the Rockets limit opponents to 90.9 points per game, the second-best mark in the league. Patrick Beverly and Isaiah Caanan are a solid point guard duo, Terrence Jones has improved, and Kostas Papanikolaou is developing into a nice playmaker on the wing.
The Memphis Grizzlies also sit at 6-1, as they continue to fly under the national radar. Dating back to January 1st of last season, the Grizzlies have quietly put together the best record of 2014 at 43-16. Their bruising, no-frills style of play has never looked better.
Marc Gasol is putting together the best season of his career (19.1 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 1.71 BPG, 1.4 SPG), serving as both an offensive fulcrum and a defensive anchor, while Zach Randolph (17.4 PPG, 10.4 RPG) remains a double-double machine.
The difference has come from the perimeter. Courtney Lee is averaging 15.2 PPG while shooting 55% from the field, adding some much-needed scoring punch and pairing with the perpetually underrated Mike Conley to form a strong backcourt. If they can get solid contributions from guys like Vince Carter and Quincy Pondexter, they’ll be a tough out come playoff time.
It was always a matter of when, not if, Anthony Davis would truly breakout and become a legitimate top-5 NBA superstar. It looks like that time has come, as Davis (24.4 PPG, 12.8 RPG, 4.4 BPG) has pushed the Pelicans into the playoff conversation.
Davis already possesses a smooth offensive game, and his freakish length and athleticism makes him a destructive force on defense, especially paired with a quality rim protector like Omer Asik.
While the trio of Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans and Eric Gordon has always looked better on paper than it has on the court, they look like they may be starting to figure things out, as Evans is putting up huge numbers and Gordon is starting to adjust to his role as fourth option.
If the Spurs’ season opener was any indication, the Dallas Mavericks will once again be a serious thorn in their side.
The trio of Dirk Nowitzki, Monta Ellis, and Chandler Parsons will give the Mavs one of the strongest offenses in the league, while the return of Tyson Chandler will bolster the defense.
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If the trio of Devin Harris, Jameer Nelson and J.J. Barea can provide competent point guard play, Rick Carlisle will guide this squad into the playoffs once again. If last year was any indication, this is not an ideal matchup for the Spurs.
The Spurs are the defending champions for a reason, and they’ll definitely be a huge factor in the division.
Barring a huge setback, they will win at least 50 games, and their experience and continuity will make them especially dangerous later in the season, but, playing in a loaded division with five potential playoff teams will take a toll, and if they continue their pattern of resting multiple players at a time, it could come back to haunt them, as they can’t really afford to accept losses anymore.
Don’t count the Spurs out, but don’t count on an easy road back to the Finals. The West, and the Southwest in particular, is better than ever.