Yet, here they are, winners of nine straight games, sitting with a top-three record at 14-3, just a game behind last year’s two NBA Finals teams, the Warriors and Cavaliers.
A look at the league-wide standings reveals a top tier of four teams – the Spurs, Clippers, and the aforementioned Warriors and Cavs all have four losses or less – while as many as 10 are battling it out in the next rung.
The Spurs have been getting it done thus far with experience, depth and some impressive resilience on the road. Kawhi Leonard has picked up where he left off last year, showing off his trademark defense and a more polished offensive game. The bench has shined, with Patty Mills and David Lee making the difference in close games (Davis Bertans
hasn’t looked too bad, either). And while they’re just 4-3 playing in the AT&T Center, San Antonio’s the only team yet to lose on the road (10-0).
The big question now for these Spur: do they belong in that same elite conversation as the Warriors, Cavs and Clippers?
The optimistic answer: maybe? The other three ‘elite’ teams all do one or more things exceptionally well. The Clippers have terrific chemistry in their starting lineup and some top-level talent. The Warriors are an offensive juggernaut, scoring almost 118 points per game. The Cavaliers have LeBron James and two other very good players playing some of the best ball of their careers.
The Spurs’ identity? It’s much harder to say. Last year’s team boasted a historically-dominant defense that set the tone each and every night. Previous teams overwhelmed opponents with beautiful ball movement, or had offenses built around Tim Duncan’s post game and, in later years, Tony Parker’s ability to create. The 2016-17 Spurs have a middle-of-the-pack defense (13th in defensive rating) that’s still trying to figure out how to hide an aging Parker and a flat-footed Pau Gasol.
Offensively, they’ve looked sharper (6th in offensive rating) but are still unsure how much to feature new face-of-the-franchise Kawhi Leonard. Gasol has found his bearings most nights, but is borderline-unplayable against teams with smaller, rangier big men. The 34-year-old Parker has looked great as of late, but Gregg Popovich has sat him to close out games in favor of the better shooter in Mills.
In short, this team remains a work in progress. Pop will continue to tinker and see what lineups work best and what players need to see the floor more, all with the yearly goal of peaking at the right time – not in November, but in April, May and (who knows?) June.
But, for now, the wins are great.
Wins weren’t meant to come this easily for San Antonio this early in the season. The team had too many new pieces, plus a Hall of Famer’s retirement to mourn and a handful of injuries to key players to deal with.