Times are changing and the power dynamics of the Southwest Division are shifting, leaving the San Antonio Spurs stuck in mediocrity.
Between 1998 and 2014, the San Antonio Spurs finished every season with at least the second-best record in the NBA’s Southwest Division. In that span, San Antonio earned its spot in the playoffs without question and powered through some hard-fought battles en-route to five championships and six Finals appearances.
However, the days of San Antonio’s Big Three are no longer, and a new iteration of the Spurs claw at the playoff picture with three Southwest opponents ahead of them and one catching up from behind. For the first time in this millennium, it’s looking like the Spurs are bound for the lottery as the rest of the division passes them by.
Even in the height of the Southwest’s competitiveness, when the Spurs were feared. There were extraordinary players and teams in the division, but the Spurs still reigned supreme. Whether it be the Dirk Nowitzki-led Mavericks, feisty Houston teams with Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming, the grit-and-grind Memphis Grizzlies or Chris Paul‘s New Orleans Hornets, the path to success down south has never been easy.
Now, the Spurs are faced with a brand new mountain to climb. Although Houston has been at the top of the division for three of the last five seasons and revamped their roster with the addition of former-MVP Russell Westbrook this offseason, they’re still struggling to maintain the composure they’ve shown in recent years. Only half a game separates them and the sixth-seeded Mavs, who’ve suffered injuries to both of their star players in Luka Dončić and Kristaps Porziņģis over the course of the season.
Houston is poised to make another trade at the deadline, but mortgaged their future for a win-now move in acquiring Westbrook and his massive contract. They’re running out of bargaining chips and their stars are getting older, so the Rockets’ control of the Southwest could come to a close sooner than we thought.
The main reason for this, besides getting ahead of themselves and making questionable financial decisions, is the talent that’s brewing below them in the standings.
San Antonio was once the team to watch in the Southwest, dicing the opposition up with methodical ball movement and stylistic play. They’ll be back to that, or a new form of that, eventually, but the competition around them is way steeper than it’s been and it’ll take a new-look Spurs team to get back into serious playoff consideration.
Next: Memphis' rebuild happened way quicker than expected
Memphis’ rebuild happened way quicker than expected
Last season marked the official end of an era, as the Grizzlies shipped off franchise cornerstones Marc Gasol and Mike Conley in an effort to take a hard reset. With a 33-win season and a few young studs working their way up the rotation, Memphis stumbled into a godsend: the No. 2 overall pick in a loaded 2019 NBA Draft that handed them their star of the future in Ja Morant.
Coming out of Murray State, Morant was an athletic freak of nature with uncanny ball-handling skills and an IQ to match. He’s the ultimate modern point guard with unquestioned three-level scoring and an unselfish, team-first demeanor. The Rookie of the Year frontrunner is at 17.5 points, 7.1 assists and 3.4 boards while recording a 52.2 effective field goal percentage this year.
For reference, only two rookies have ever posted averages of 17 and seven with an EFG% better than 50 percent: Ja and Magic Johnson.
So yes, the Grizzlies seem to have the biggest star in their franchise’s history beginning his story, but he’s not alone in his efforts. Morant is one of five players averaging at least 12 points for the Grizz this season, and he’s one of 12 players on the roster with an EFG% at 50 percent or higher. Memphis is playing an efficient style with the fifth-highest pace in the league.
The prodigal son of a former Spur, second-year power forward/center Jaren Jackson Jr. is leading the Grizzlies in points, blocks and three-pointers this season in only 28 minutes per game. Like Morant at his own position, Jackson is a reality-check for the Spurs as the lengthy rim defender has excellent handles for a player of his size and loves to put up efficient shots from outside.
They have stable veterans to help solidify their efforts, the 2019 Summer League MVP in rookie Brandon Clarke, a consistent scorer who seems to improve every day in Dillon Brooks and, most importantly, no pressure at all. The Grizzlies weren’t supposed to be this good this early, so whatever happens from here is just more experience for their rising core.
San Antonio lost two of three meetings with Memphis and gave up an average of 115 points per game in those games. They have one more chance to even out the season series and bump the Grizzlies out of the playoffs, but it’s evident that they’ll be a thorn in the Spurs’ side for years to come.
Next: Luka is next-up in the NBA hierarchy
Luka is next-up in the NBA hierarchy
When the Mavs traded for Atlanta’s No. 3 pick in the 2018 Draft, I knew the Spurs were in trouble. Watching him dominate the Euroleague and just about every stop along the way, it was evident that Luka had arrived and he was here to do one thing: Get buckets.
Standing at 6-foot-7 with advanced passing vision and unmatched technique, Doncic is already an All-Star starter at 20-years-old and by the looks of it, he’ll only get better. Through 43 games this season, Luka is at 28.8 points, 9.5 rebounds, 8.7 assists and a steal per game on an average of 20.5 shots including 9.5 three-point attempts.
Mavs owner Mark Cuban is prepared to give Luka everything he needs to take the reins and bring a championship to Dallas, which he proved by taking initiative, trading for a rehabbing Porzingis and extending his contract nearly immediately.
San Antonio was tied to Porzingis from early on in his career, but ultimately he landed with the rival and will likely remain with them for the next five seasons. Though they’re still figuring out how to fit next to each other, Porzingis is finally getting back to his old ways with Doncic sidelined due to an ankle injury and once they begin to truly gel, it’ll be a deadly combination.
Like the Spurs, Dallas has been grooming role players for years up to this point in preparation for the next playoff contender, and esteemed head coach Rick Carlisle is putting them in place to be great. The Spurs lost both of their games against the Mavericks so far this year, but both came in close finishes.
Just like the Grizzlies, this Mavericks team is going to raise hell in the Southwest Division for the foreseeable future, so the Spurs need to hold on tight and hope for the best.
Next: New Orleans isn't quite there yet, but they're progressing
New Orleans isn’t quite there yet, but they’re progressing
For as much as the New Orleans Pelicans fought against it, there was no way they were going to be able to keep Anthony Davis in town past last season. He was simply tired of losing, and it was becoming clearer that the Pelicans couldn’t formulate the right team around him in time to keep him.
Then, they stumbled into something even greater: The most exciting prospect to enter the league since LeBron James himself. Writhing from the loss of a generational talent in AD, New Orleans won that fateful draft lottery and landed No. 1 pick Zion Williamson himself, whose been utterly spectacular to watch so far in his young career.
It’s a ton of pressure to put on the equivalent of a college sophomore, but Zion is already becoming one of the faces of the sport. His high-flying antics are matched by an accelerated understanding of the game and a work ethic that’ll allow him to reach every height he sets.
Honestly, I could gush about Zion for hours, but that’s not why we’re here. San Antonio thwarted him in his debut after he erupted in the fourth quarter with a barrage of triples to cut the Spurs’ lead, but a minutes-restriction saved the silver and black from a horrible fate.
He’s not the only player that the Pelicans have to be excited about, as the AD trade returned a massive haul from the Los Angeles Lakers. Forward Brandon Ingram is a near-lock for the Most Improved Player award, with Miami’s Bam Adebayo being the only real competition in my eyes, and former No. 2 pick Lonzo Ball has shown signs of growth when healthy this year.
The Pelicans have come along as of late, winning six of their last 10 for a 20-30 record. However, they have the core that hoops mastermind David Griffin envisioned set. Time will tell how far they’ll go with this group, but the size and athleticism poses a threat to the Spurs and the rest of the basketball world moving forward.
Zion has arrived, and San Antonio needs to be ready.
Next: Implications for the Spurs moving forward
Implications for the Spurs moving forward
As you can see, the Southwest has a lot of rising talent that the Spurs have to deal with. Even with two former All-Stars in place and head coach Gregg Popovich continuing his storied career, San Antonio can barely dig itself out of fourth place in the division, or 10th in the conference. They’re 3-4 against the division so far this year with a handful of games left to go in a rigid schedule.
The Spurs have a lot of different types of playstyles to combat. Memphis is fast yet balanced, New Orleans is athletic and craft, Dallas is star-driven with quality perimeter contributors and the Rockets run Morey-ball. Even though the Spurs are getting younger themselves, they’re becoming the outdated team with a mid-range heavy game plan and a blatant lack of defensive intensity.
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Regardless of what happens to the Spurs this season, they need to acquire and groom more talent to have any chance to compete with the division moving forward. The likelihood that Harden is going anywhere is slim, and the rest of these teams control the future of their rising stars. Barring unforeseen circumstances, every team has a clear outline of what comes next except for San Antonio.
Of course, the young guys give hope for the next generation of Spurs basketball. Their rising guard trio is coming along slowly but surely while the next set of help – Luka Samanic, Keldon Johnson and Quinndary Weatherspoon – develop their skills with the G-League affiliate in Austin.
While we don’t know what comes next for DeMar DeRozan and his impending player option, LaMarcus Aldridge is guaranteed one more year after this and after that, the Spurs are free to explore their options.
Whatever comes next, just know there’ll be solid inner-division competition to test the strength and character of these future Spurs teams.