The San Antonio Spurs are fighting for a historic playoff record

By Andrew Zahnd
SAN ANTONIO, TX - JUNE 18: The San Antonio Spurs during The San Antonio Spurs NBA Championship Celebration on June 18, 2014 in the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photo by D. Clarke Evans/NBAE via Getty Images)
SAN ANTONIO, TX - JUNE 18: The San Antonio Spurs during The San Antonio Spurs NBA Championship Celebration on June 18, 2014 in the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photo by D. Clarke Evans/NBAE via Getty Images)
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The 2019-2020 season will bring a challenge unlike any other for the San Antonio Spurs as they chase a record setting playoff birth in a jam-packed Western Conference. 

The Western Conference has loaded up and the 2019-20 San Antonio Spurs may be outside of the playoff picture for the first time in decades. For the past 22 seasons, the Spurs have made the postseason, tying an illustrious record set by the Syracuse Nationals that began in 1950.

NBA Hall of Famer Dolph Schayes and his Syracuse Nationals embarked on a season that would result in their first NBA Finals appearance in the same year that Gregg Popovich was born. After blowing past the Philadelphia Warriors and New York Knickerbockers in the 1949-50 playoffs, the Nationals faced the Minneapolis Lakers in the NBA Finals.

The Lakers, led by center George Mikan, got the best of the Nationals. Despite the loss, this was the start of something special for the Syracuse Nationals, who would change their location and name to the Philadelphia 76ers in 1963. They went on to appear in 22 consecutive postseasons – a record that still holds as the most in NBA history.

However, the Nationals/76ers don’t sit alone atop the throne for this record anymore. After an up and down 2018-19 season, San Antonio reached the playoffs for their 22nd consecutive time – tying the previously unconquerable record.

The Spurs have failed to make the playoffs only once since David Robinson made his rookie debut in the 1989-’90 season. The year they missed out (1997), Robinson played only six games due to injury and the Spurs lost a dismal 62 games. Dominique Wilkins, in his sole season in San Antonio, was the face of the Spurs in ’97. In his return to the NBA after a professional playing stint in Greece, Wilkins led the Spurs in scoring.

The Spurs bounced back strong the following year. Gregg Popovich began his first full season as San Antonio’s head coach and Tim Duncan was honored as the NBA’s Rookie of the Year. This sparked an improbable 22-year run for the Spurs where missing the playoffs was not an option.

This organization became heralded as one of sports most dominant franchises, garnering five NBA championships during the 22-year span. That playoff streak is still alive and is now in grave jeopardy.

Recently, several NBA win totals were released, and many of the odds project the Spurs to miss the playoffs. Westgate’s over/under is set at 46.5 wins for the Spurs. ESPN’s Kevin Pelton is projecting 38.5 wins, Bball Index shows 38.9 wins and FiveThirtyEight has the Spurs finishing the season with a lousy 37-45 record.

Projections and statistics have never been able to capture the true identity of the Spurs, but in aggregate, the four projections provide an average record of 40 wins and 42 losses. Despite being four points and one clock management mishap away from taking down the No. 2 seed Denver Nuggets in last years playoffs, the new projections show the Spurs missing this year’s postseason altogether.

In order for the Spurs to find a 23rd straight playoff appearance, they must overcome a crowded Western Conference. A few teams have held their ground atop the West and several more made offseason moves that catapulted them into serious contention for the conference title.

After trading for the ever-so explosive Russell Westbrook in the offseason, the Houston Rockets will have a dynamic pairing in the backcourt. There may be some early season struggles, but once polished, the Westbrook/Harden duo will be as high-powered as it gets.

The Denver Nuggets are ready to compete, especially in the regular season. They may not have the star duo and strength to win a title this year, but they have the potential to make a deep playoff run.

After a wild offseason where the Clippers acquired Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, anything less than a Finals appearance will be a disappointment for the new Los Angeles-favorites.

The Jazz upgraded their roster with the additions of Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic. With Rudy Gobert coming back strong and Donovan Mitchell vying for his place among the elite guards of the West, Utah will be good, and possibly even great.

The Warriors made the move from Oakland to San Francisco, but don’t expect them to move away from playoff contention. The Stephen Curry-led Warriors are still a solid playoff contender and won’t be an easy matchup come April and May.

LeBron James and Anthony Davis are ready to go in Hollywood. The Lakers had a roller coaster of an offseason. Despite the reality show atmosphere with cameras, speculation, and drama – the Lakers are a legitimate threat.

Portland is going nowhere. Damian Lillard and company are ready to follow up their Western Conference Finals appearance with another run at a title.

Dallas has missed the playoffs in each of the previous three seasons. Now, with an undeniable duo in Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, the Mavericks are young, fun and ready to leap back into the playoff hunt.

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The Pelicans drafted 19-year-old phenom Zion Williamson and New Orleans is due for an exciting season. Even if the team isn’t able to break into the playoffs this year, the future is very bright in the Big Easy.

Meanwhile, the Sacramento Kings were the best non-playoff team in the league last year. With further development from its young core, the Kings will be playing with a ferocious tenacity as they battle for a playoff spot.

Even teams like the Thunder and T-Wolves will be pushing towards the postseason. In a conference with fifteen teams, the Spurs find themselves among the handful of teams that will be fighting for the final few playoff spots in the conference. Only eight teams can make it, and as it stands now, the Spurs may not be one of the top eight teams.

The Western Conference arms race picked up the pace in the same season the Spurs have a record on the line. Surely, the Spurs’ challenges won’t mirror the same ones the Syracuse Nationals faced back in 1950. Now, the Spurs have an entirely new test in front of them.

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Are they ready to overcome the difficulties, the battles, the projections and the slew of fiery teams looking to make a push into the playoffs? Only time will tell, but if we know one thing, it’s that the Spurs cannot be overlooked, underestimated or counted out.

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