Jan. 1, 2018 - Source: Getty Images North America
The San Antonio Spurs have been in the playoffs for the past 20 years. Their current run is 10 years better than the next streak of 10 years belonging to the Atlanta Hawks. It seems like the Hawks’ streak will end, but is this the year that the Spurs’ streak will end too? Before you stop reading this article because you think I'm crazy, let me give you the reasons that I have a sneaking suspicion this could be it.
The first is the Kawhi Leonard situation. The rumor is that Kawhi Leonard could return at any moment. However, that does not seem to be a definite and without Leonard the ceiling of the Spurs changes somewhat drastically. The Spurs have played 50 games without Leonard and he was everything for them last season. Re-introducing Leonard into the lineup will take time and the Spurs have made a point of playing through LaMarcus Aldridge more and it is unclear if that will mesh with Leonard. There is also no reason to believe that Aldridge could revert back into the player he was in last year's Conference Finals. A scorer that could not take advantage of the smaller Warriors and seemed to shrink from the moment.
The next factor to consider is the schedule. There are various metrics to rate strength of schedule, but according to Basketball Reference (you will find it under Team MISC) and ESPN, the Spurs rank is 29th in the league. Up to this point they have played an easier schedule and their final 23 games of the season are going to be tough. Among their remaining games, 18 of them are against teams with winning records. They have road games against the Cavaliers, Nuggets, Warriors, Rockets, Clippers, Bucks, Pelicans, Thunder, and Wizards.
The Spurs have also struggled against the teams in the Western Conference Playoff Race. If we accept that the playoff race is 10 teams deep including the Spurs. The Spurs have gone 7-12 against those teams. Fourteen of their remaining 23 games will take place against those teams.
This is the point where we look at records and although the Spurs are in sole possession of the three seed, they are not out of reach. Only five games separate the Spurs from the 10th seeded Utah Jazz. What this means for the final stretch of the season is that the majority of games within the Western Conference just became do or die games every night. This could lead to a number of teams with the same record. Thinking about this leads me to the fact that in the event of tie-breakers the Spurs would be at a disadvantage, similar to their 2015 season that saw them drop from a potential top 3 seed to the 6th seed due to a regular season finale loss to the Pelicans. Although not the same situation, the Spurs could find themselves on the outside looking in when it comes to the playoff picture thanks to their struggles against their Western Conference rivals.
The Spurs currently hold the advantage over the Clippers and Nuggets, are at a disadvantage to the Pelicans and Jazz, and are tied up in the season series with the Timberwolves, Trail Blazers, and Thunder. They have three games remaining against the Pelicans, which could become an advantage for them. In addition, they have the third and final games coming up in their season series with the Timberwolves and Trail Blazers that become vitally important.
At the end of the day, suggesting that the Spurs might not make the playoffs could be considered lunacy. However, there is some reason to believe that this could be the year that the Spurs cannot overcome the adversity. The question of Kawhi Leonard is a huge shadow over the Spurs. His return changes their odds of making the playoffs dramatically. The other interesting thing to note is that if the Spurs are able to secure a playoff spot as the 7th or 8th seed and Kawhi has returned and is healthy, the first round just got very exciting in a Spurs/Warriors or Spurs/Rockets matchup.
I believe wholeheartedly in the Spurs and Coach Pop, but there might be too much in these final 23 games for the Spurs to overcome. Not seeing the Spurs in the playoffs would be quite strange, but all streaks have to end sometime.