Where do the San Antonio Spurs stand in what may be the NBA’s strongest Western Conference ever?
As the 2018-2019 season approaches, there will be questions requiring some answers. One of those questions is where do the San Antonio Spurs stand in the mega-strong Western Conference? I don’t use that terminology lightly, as this could be the strongest Western Conference we’ve ever seen. Some sites have begun to release early Power Rankings and playoffs predictions with variations as to where the Spurs might end up, including ESPN:
This season's projected playoff teams don't include the new-look Lakers. pic.twitter.com/TeqYtD3or6
— ESPN (@espn) August 3, 2018
ESPN developed their own playoffs prediction trying to make sense of this madness as you can see from the tweet above.
Is ESPN Insider Kevin Pelton wrong for leaving out the Spurs? It’s courageous – given the fact the Spurs haven’t missed the playoffs since before Jordan’s flu-game ever existed, and while the movie Titanic was running rampant in the box office, but it’s not necessarily a terrible prediction.
Before we get started with this exercise, let’s just eliminate those teams that don’t stand a chance of smelling the playoffs in the conference.
The Sacramento Kings are not making the playoffs. No further analysis is required. Well, let’s do it. The Kings employ a young talented core, but their best players are Buddy Hield and Zach Randolph.
For them, that’s not enough to make a run. They were average defensively, but they were second to last in offensive rating (OFFRTG) last season (101.1), and they didn’t do anything to change that this offseason. (If the Kings make the playoffs I’ll buy breakfast tacos for the entire city of San Antonio).
The road is also tough for the Phoenix Suns, Dallas Mavericks, and Memphis Grizzlies. They simply don’t have the developed talent required to compete this season. Yes, the Suns’ future seems bright (with Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton), but they’ll have to wait a while (Phoenix was dead last in OFFRTG last season with 100.8).
And Memphis, well, they just…
They’re led by Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, as well as former Spur Kyle Anderson, who might be their third best player. The team will certainly grit and grind, but a playoff berth seems unlikely (they ranked 27th in OFFRTG and 24th in defensive rating last season).
The NBA belongs to the Golden State Warriors, they are no doubt the best team on paper or on anything else for that matter (ranked 1st in OFFRTG and 9th in DEFRTG). They will likely remain in the top of all Power Rankings throughout the season barring any injuries.
They also added another superstar to their mix in DeMarcus Cousins. However, the rest of the conference is wide open, and any team can virtually take over the second seed.
Currently, CBS Sports has the Spurs at No. 6 in the entire NBA in their Power Rankings released a few days ago, just below the Warriors, Celtics, 76ers, Raptors, and Rockets. Third place in the West is not bad, but is it a realistic prediction? Yes, and no.
There are ten teams in the conference competing for seven playoff spots in the West. At this point, any of those ten teams could finish next season with home-court advantage during the first round.
It’s difficult to say where the Spurs will land, and what their place in the West will be. There has been analysis suggesting that the Spurs played last year without their perennial All-Star and 2017 MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard and were still able to compete in the conference for most of the season – an analysis normally followed up by the advantage of placing DeMar DeRozan in what was an otherwise empty spot.
ESPN just gave Rudy Gay some extra motivation Spurs fans…… ??
— JeffGSpursZone (@JeffGSpursZone) August 4, 2018
However, it’s also true that the defense worsened by trading the best two defenders, not only on the team, but arguably the best two wing defenders in the league. With their departure, Dejounte Murray is now the team’s best defender, as he garnered NBA All-Defensive Second Team honors last season for his pesky defense.
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Yes, Coach Popovich excels at engineering team defenses and they’ll probably end up in the top five or top ten defensively (Spurs ranked 4th in DEFRTG last season, just below the Celtics, Jazz, and 76ers without Kawhi), but the team still employs below average individual defenders.
The other obvious minor flaw in the Spurs game will be 3-point shooting. The Spurs’ best players (DeRozan and Aldridge) are two-point specialists with strong midrange games.
The team’s best players haven’t always been 3-point shooters, but the team usually carries a bigger 3-point arsenal than what currently exists. The Spurs will rely heavily on Marco Belinelli (38 percent), Patty Mills (37 percent), Davis Bertans (37 percent), and Bryn Forbes (39 percent) for long-range support.
Having highlighted those weaknesses, it’s important to note that Coach Popovich always finds a way to get the best out of his players. Don’t be surprised if one of the newcomers in DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, or Walker exceed expectations immediately – or perhaps all of them.
So, what makes this season the strongest Western Conference in NBA history? It’s the competition – it’d be hard to find a year in which eleven teams were vying for a playoff berth, with ten having equal chances of getting there to start the season.
Each of those ten teams with the exception of the Clippers (they still have a solid team) has at least one superstar at their disposal while surrounded with excellent rosters. The league has never been this abundant with talent, and most of it lies in the West.
Will the Spurs miss the playoffs? No. They should earn home-court advantage in the first-round, but – I wouldn’t place city-wide breakfast tacos on it.