In all likelihood, the San Antonio Spurs’ path to the Western Conference playoffs goes through the play-in round. The Spurs are currently 30-29, which is good for the ninth seed in the West. In the aforementioned play-in round, the Spurs will likely see a combination of one to two of these teams: Portland Trail Blazers, Dallas Mavericks, Memphis Grizzlies and Golden State Warriors.
At first glance, getting through that path seems daunting for the Spurs, as their competitors have either star power or a handful of talented young players. With that said, the Spurs have plenty to lean on themselves and could be a team’s worst nightmare in newly crafted way to get into the NBA postseason.
Here are three reasons why the San Antonio Spurs can ambush the Western Conference play-in round.
1) Improving Youth
Generally speaking, this is a young Spurs team but one that’s fundamentally sound with some compelling players, specifically in their backcourt rotation.
Derrick White and Dejounte Murray get more productive and impactful with age. The pair of guards are each averaging in excess of 15 points per game this season. They’re getting to the rim off the dribble and serving as vital sources of offense. Meanwhile, Murray is hitting the boards at a high level for a guard and finding the open man, as he’s averaging 6.9 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game.
Keldon Johnson picked up steam in the NBA bubble last year and it has been smooth sailing since. The Kentucky forward is a legitimate two-way player. He’s a respectable defender who hits the boards, attacks off the dribble and is an indispensable piece to the puzzle for head coach Gregg Popovich’s rotation.
A career that began in flux is now becoming one with a bright future for Lonnie Walker. Once near the end of the bench, Walker has been a reliable scorer for the Spurs offense this season, averaging 10.9 points per game while shooting a passable 35.5 percent from beyond the arc.
Center Jakob Poeltl has come into his own as a reliable starting big man, finishing in the paint and defending the rim being his strong suits. He’s averaging 8.5 points, eight rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game. Rookies Devin Vassell and Tre Jones bring capable skill sets to the table, as the former is a “three-and-d” wing and the latter is a composed ball-handler.
This is a deep and balanced core.
2) Veterans that score
Every young core needs a veteran presence for support, and the Spurs have precisely that.
DeMar DeRozan remains one of the league’s best swingmen. He’s the leading catalyst for Popovich’s offense, scoring in isolation and off the dribble while holding his own on the other end of the floor. He’s the Spurs’ motor.
Rudy Gay remains a considerable scoring threat. He has been instant offense off the bench, averaging 11.0 points per game while shooting 37.5 percent from three-point range. Like DeRozan, Gay brings a wealth of experience in high-leverage playoff situations to the table.
Spurs royalty Patty Mills is his same old self: a gritty guard who sticks jump shots from distance. Mills is averaging 11.6 points per game while shooting 38.3 percent from three. The Spurs also have rotation players like Trey Lyles and recent signee Gorgui Dieng providing front court depth. Drew Eubanks has recently emerged as a force off the bench as well.
DeRozan, Gay and Mills can come through in crunch time. They’re spread out across the Spurs rotation. DeRozan is who the youngsters can lean on for a pivotal bucket; Gay can pick up the slack for the offense, if need be and Mills has thrived in his role for the better part of the last decade.
3) This Spurs core has gradually improved over the last year
The Spurs entered the 2020 NBA bubble as a long shot to reach the playoffs. Ultimately, they came up short. At the same time, they went 5-3, it was impressive that they were even in that position to begin with.
A 30-29 record with a team that recently moved on from LaMarcus Aldridge and doesn’t have much star power doesn’t invigorate a great deal of fear into teams. But when delicately assessing this team, it becomes evident that they can be a problem in any playoff format.
The play-in series is cutthroat. All you have to do is win one to two games and you advance to a best-of-seven series, depending on the seeding. Anyone can win back-to-back games in the NBA. Let’s keep in mind the Spurs are the ninth seed in a loaded conference with superstars and powerhouses all around them. The teams in the Spurs’ vicinity are all beatable and/or marginally better than them.
Dallas has been up and down all season. Golden State has struggled to get their feet beneath them. Portland can be streaky and Memphis is a young team.
The San Antonio Spurs have next to nothing to lose. The pressure is on the teams around them. They’ve been hanging around in the 6-to-11 range all season as it pertains to the standings and they could strike while the iron’s hot in the playoffs. This team has what it takes to be a hassle in the early rounds of the Western Conference playoffs.