In make-or-break January, positive history on San Antonio Spurs’ side

San Antonio Spurs Patty Mills (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images)
San Antonio Spurs Patty Mills (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images) /

The San Antonio Spurs aren’t accustomed to playing must-win games in January. But in their biggest upcoming stretch of the season, trends of the past offer hope.

To continue their run of playoff appearances, the San Antonio Spurs will have to get things done earlier than usual and pay close attention to winning time.

What is winning time? In the heart of his prime, Hall of Fame point guard Magic Johnson often referred to the final four minutes of up-for-grabs games as “winning time.” It’s the point of the game where — regardless of the peaks and valleys of the first 44 minutes — experience and instincts kick in and it’s time to do what needs to be done to leave with a victory.

More from Hoops Habit

Should the Spurs intend on playing must-win games late into the spring for a 23rd consecutive season, they’ll need to draw a similar inspiration from the unlikeliest of sources.

Fortunately for them, history backs them up.

Over the last two articles, we’ve briefly taken a look into what the Spurs “system” pertains to. After 33 games and 19 losses this season, the Spurs somehow own eighth place in the Western Conference standings. Growing pains were to be expected; the 2019-20 Spurs have an average age of 26.3, the youngest of any team Gregg Popovich has ever coached.

With the exception of the mid-range-heavy philosophy, nothing feels vintage about this year’s team. Sure, some of those same familiar faces of old still roam the AT&T Center, through grey hair that was once black. But finding on-court similarities has been more problematic.

The Spurs have seemed to lose some of that luster they once carried, but the one thing it hopes hasn’t turned its back on them, is history.

Here’s what we can confirm: the San Antonio Spurs have historically been able to up the ante once the calendar strikes the new year.

In the Popovich era — from 1997-98 to now — the San Antonio Spurs have played in 675 post-January games. By the graces of having the Tim Duncans, Tony Parkers and Manu Ginobilis of the world, it generally hasn’t mattered what the day, week, or month is. You put three Hall of Famers on the floor together, and success feels as close to a sure thing as one could ask for.

Even so, San Antonio has been able to find that extra gear later in the year, a treasure this season’s Spurs will be hoping to dig. To put a number to that:

Spurs win-loss records in the Popovich era:

  • Pre-January games: 468-207 (69.3 percent, equals a 56-win team)
  • January games: 210-107 (66.2 percent, equals a 54-win team)
  • Post-January games: 527-221 (70.4 percent, equals a 58-win team)

The first takeaway has to be… well, wow. To the same effect of a Russell Westbrook triple-double or a James Harden 40-point game, it’s easy to become desensitized to this level of sustained greatness. And for the Spurs to sleepwalk into 50-plus win averages year-to-year, looking at numbers like this rarely get old.

Those numbers correlate to the same conclusion in Duncan-only era. From 1997-98 to 2015-16, Spurs teams anchored by their five-time NBA champion went 381-154 in pre-January games (a 58-win team), 181-90 in January games (a 54-win team), and then turned on the bazookas after January, turning in 473 wins over 656 games (which averages out to a 59-win team).

If you’ve fallen victim to number overload, fear not. Here’s a graph that helps to put that perspective.

All of this is special, and draws us to an idea we probably already knew. Those Duncan-Popovich Spurs, they might have been pretty good. Just maybe. As a for-the-heck-of-it fun fact, they own two of the 14 biggest winning streaks in NBA history, both coming during the back half of the season.

But what about the new regime? There’s quite the dichotomy between the two, but here’s how they pan out:

Spurs win-loss records in the Aldridge-Leonard regime:

  • Pre-January games: 87-53 (62.1 percent, equals a 51-win team)
  • In-January games: 29-17 (63.0 percent, equals a 52-win team)
  • Post-January games: 54-38 (58.7 percent, equals a 48-win team)

In every way possible, the last three seasons have been more-or-less a mixed bag. Since 2016-17, the Spurs have actually gotten worse after January, but there’s at least a little bit of a silver lining.

If the “Jekyll and Hyde” Spurs can trend upwards into a 48- to 52-win team — something they not only have been in the past, but also something experts pegged them as — it should be enough to at least help them contend for a seed that helps them avoid either of the two Los Angeles teams in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.

All of this positivism feels within reason; then again, this is a team that just lost to a 10-23 Cleveland Cavaliers team at home, after a six-day, in-season vacation. This is also a team that just needed an extra five minutes to defeat a 9-26 Golden State Warriors team. Positive thoughts, positive thoughts: at least they held the Splash Brothers scoreless.

Jokes aside, a portion of the struggle this season feels as if it can be dismissed. The Spurs have never had this many moving parts. Take a look at the Spurs’ most-heavily used players. Shooting guards DeMar DeRozan and Derrick White have only recently played their 100th games in Spurs uniforms; starting center Trey Lyles is just 522 minutes into his hoorah in the silver-and-black.

Of the Spurs nine most-played players, five of them are under the age of 26. Flow and chemistry take time. But for the Spurs, the only time that matters now is “winning time.”

The good news is that while the cast has changed, and the producers aren’t having as much fun filming, this is at least a movie we’ve seen before.

A season ago, the Spurs entered the new year with a 21-17 record. By the end of January, they’d walked the distance — a whole nine games above .500. Weeks later, they peaked with a 42-29 record that had them just six games out of first place and 1½ games out of fourth place and potential homecourt advantage (why does this feel so long ago?)

With the rest of the West having no choice but to take notice, interviews with Spurs players read to a similar script in the second half of the year: “We’re starting to figure it out.” 

Don’t look now, but while the Spurs aren’t on the road to a championship, they are beginning to turn a few corners. From Dec. 2 to Jan. 2, the Spurs have defended teams at the No. 7 rate in the NBA.

The offense hasn’t lagged too far behind at No. 14 with welcome developments such as LaMarcus Aldridge channeling his inner Dirk Nowitzki62.5 percent on 4.0 3-point attempts over his last four games — and even DeMar DeRozan dipping a toe in the water, taking 14 of his 19 3-point attempts this season in the month of December, and hitting those at a 35.7 percent clip.

We’ve been waiting on pins and needles for this year’s Spurs to put it all together and if nothing else, they’ve given themselves some momentum.

Why does January’s history matter for the Spurs future?

If nothing else, if I were a Spur, I’d be praying to the basketball gods that even though these are nothing like the Spurs of old, that some of the trends can piggyback into this next regime. The biggest reason being? The unforgiving, bloodbath of the schedule the Spurs are faced with in the month of January. Here are a couple of notes from that slate:

  • Of the Spurs’ 15 games, eight of them are on the road. This isn’t necessarily abnormal, until you piece a few numbers together. Early in that January schedule, they’ll be away from home to play the Bucks, Celtics, Raptors and Heat. Those four teams have combined to go 59-10 at home this season. Even being ever the optimist, it feels tough; the Spurs are 35-62 on the road since 2017-18.
  • And then, there’s the “other four.” San Antonio also has road games against the Suns, Pelicans, Grizzlies and Bulls. With your father’s Spurs, you could count those as wins when the schedule came out in August. Not so when these Spurs, who’ve won just 10 of 19 games against teams with losing records as of Jan. 3.
  • The Spurs will also have two “rest-disadvantage” games. This means there will be two games in which the Spurs will have had to play a back-to-back while the opposing team did not.
  • All told, the Spurs will have battled teams with a .569 winning percentage (an average of a 47-win team per night).

To say that the Spurs need to not only win those “easy” games, but also kickstart the month on a hot note, feels like a major understatement. The consequences of not doing so could essentially decide the season.

To explain it to the everyday man, we can think of it through a situation many of us have been in before: you’ve lost the remote to the television, and out of desperation, you start to search around the TV, pressing random buttons in search of the right button. The Spurs are in a similar situation: they don’t have a remote — they aren’t in control of much right now.

But those early-season Aldridge/DeRozan trade rumors that negatively permeated the start of the year have been quieted after the Spurs found the button on the TV to turn the volume down, even if they haven’t muted it yet.

That’s basically an unnecessary, roundabout way of saying: all it takes is a few losses strung together before the noise begins again. And as San Antonio has learned oh-so-unfortunately, the only thing worse than losing, is losing and having trade chatter follow.

With all the ups and downs this season has brought, it almost feels like a lie to say that the San Antonio Spurs are actually in eighth place in the Western Conference right now. Through 33 games, they’ve walked that tightrope of being not too incompetent to take advantage of this down year in the West, while not being competent enough to feast on the bottom feeders.

As a reference point, per John Hollinger of The Athletic: since 1997, the average win total for No. 8 seeds (subscription required) in the West is 45.4. In most years, the Spurs (on pace for 36 wins), wouldn’t even be enough to finish ninth (an average of 42.8 wins_.

Watching the likes of heavyweights-turned-featherweights like Portland, San Antonio and Memphis trade punches — or maybe punches is too strong a violent word … no, slaps — in their battle for the No. 8 seed feels eerily similar to that famous episode of The Three Stooges, where Curly, cross-eyed, confused and probably under the influence of something creative, beats anyone within striking distance with the ringside bell.

more spurs. Will Carroll's lack of opportunity hurt San Antonio?. light

Unable to compose himself, he flips the bell into the air and he too ends up cold-cocked in the ring, victimized just like the rest.

Like Curly, the Spurs have been in their own way, fighting for a No. 8-seeded crown no one seems to want badly enough. But on a team with two perennial All-Stars and some of the more gifted role players in our league, it feels history will allow the Spurs to channel into that winning time with the clock ticking.

Next. Each franchise's best duo. dark

And if not, they’ll be on the “clock” for the 2020 NBA Draft earlier than any of us could have ever suspected. If that day comes, I too, am going to find the nearest ringside bell and put myself down for the count.