For much of November and December, the unbelievably poor luck Oklahoma City suffered with injuries was the talk of the NBA. Grantland’s debut television hour was devoted to whether or not the Thunder would even make the playoffs, and bloggers around the country debated how OKC would fare making it out of the West as a severely overqualified No. 8 seed in April — if they were that fortunate.
But since their 4-12 low mark, the Thunder are 13-4, led by Russell Westbrook’s invigorating 27 points, seven assists and 31.74 PER over his first 20 games back. Kevin Durant has been on and off the floor since his debut Dec. 2, but the Durantula is averaging a cool 25 ppg on 55 percent shooting over 11 games. What was once described as a lost season is anything but now, as Oklahoma City might be the scariest team in the West, and with the playoffs more than three months away, it is almost impossible to imagine the Thunder finishing the season in just the 8 spot.
Much has been written about how the eight playoff teams in the West may already be decided; while New Orleans and Phoenix kick around the bottom of the playoff picture, there is little doubt that Oklahoma City will eventually put them out of their misery. Perhaps the fanfare was for naught, and the same eight teams will make it back to the postseason in the West for a second consecutive year.
But December was extremely unkind to another West powerhouse, as the defending champion San Antonio Spurs are fighting through adversity on many fronts heading into the new year. San Antonio posted an 8-10 record in December, the first losing December in the Tim Duncan era of the franchise. That stretch included a pair of triple-OT losses against Memphis and Portland, the first time in NBA history a team has lost back-to-back triple OT contests. Including Saturday’s victory against Washington, the Spurs have played 11 straight games against winning teams over the past 19 days.
Even professional athletes have a limit, and it’s possible the Spurs — an organization that has competed in more than 100 games each of the past two seasons — are approaching a breaking point in the gun fight which is the Western Conference. This is before considering the age of many of the team’s most important pieces — Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili are Christopher Plummer in Beginners right now — and the many injuries that have disrupted San Antonio’s typical tactic of restricting minutes and benching starters.
Tony Parker, despite the impressive performance from backup guard Cory Joseph and the long anticipated season debut of Patty Mills, has been greatly missed as he recovers from a pesky hamstring injury. The Frenchman, who was on track for his greatest shooting season in November, has missed double-digit games. Center Tiago Splitter has played just 13 games as an ailing back forced him to miss the beginning of the season. A third starter from last year’s championship team, and arguably their most pivotal, Kawhi Leonard, has been M.I.A. and no one really knows what the rest of the season looks like for him.
Leonard told reporters last month his hand injury is “not as bad as it sounds,” but as coach Gregg Popovich explained to ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, one of the team’s doctors has never seen this particular injury in 40 years of work. So, yeah, Leonard is going to be out a little while longer. Leonard, who won the NBA Finals MVP in large part because he out-dueled LeBron James mano e mano, needs to be on the floor for San Antonio to be in full gear.
This isn’t a groundbreaking observation. In fact, Popovich’s hesitancy with bringing Leonard back early speaks volumes. The West is daunting; the Spurs recent cold spell has them in seventh-place, three losses out of the No. 6 seed. For all of the reasons the basketball universe began fussing over Oklahoma City’s playoff chances during the peak of their injury bug, we are all wondering how long San Antonio can hold on before the likes of the Suns, Pelicans and Thunder make their push to jump them in the standings.
But Leonard isn’t going to come back until he can use those alien hands of his, which means Popovich is going to need to lean heavily on his other starters, and namely Duncan, who played 34.5 minutes per game in December. While starters all over the league exceed that figure, there truly isn’t another case like Duncan — a 38-year-old power forward who still has the username and password to the skills he employed at 25, but whose body needs a bit more maintenance than it used to.
The Spurs allowed 104 points per 100 possessions during December, a below-average mark, and one that is dangerously low when trying to stay afloat in the West. They had an offensive rating of 105.2 over that same stretch, which is good but not great, and alarmingly low for a team that scored 108.2 points per 100 possessions last year, sixth-best in the NBA. These numbers are going to be depressed without Parker and Leonard, that much is unavoidable. But San Antonio, which hasn’t been a lower seed since 2010 when it upset the No. 2 seed Dallas Mavericks, is facing a disappointing finish in the crowded West standings if the team doesn’t turn things around. With the ten-team depth of the conference, San Antonio may have picked the wrong year to loosen their grip on home court advantage throughout the postseason.