None of those hold a candle to the 22-year active playoff streak of the San Antonio Spurs.
Not surprisingly, the streak started in 1997-98 during the first full year of Gregg Popovich’s tenure, having replaced former coach Bob Hill 18 games into the previous season. The Spurs have since made the Western Conference Finals 10 times, appeared in the NBA Finals six times and come away as champions five times. The streak is now on the verge of ending.
San Antonio started the season hot with four wins in five games but has since gone on a seven-game losing skid, their 10th loss in 12 games. None of their wins have come against teams with a winning record. The offense is solid, scoring 111.4 points per 100 possessions, the fifth-best mark this season, but the defense, a hallmark of Popovich’s system, is surrendering 114 points per 100 possessions, the third-worst effort of 2019-20 and the worst performance in franchise history relative to the league average.
“All in all, if you score 132 points, you should probably have a pretty good chance to win a game. The bad news is, if you give up 138, you are not going to win,” Popovich told reporters after Wednesday’s 138-132 loss to the bottom-feeding Washington Wizards. “I’m a really smart guy. I’m figuring that’s logical. I could be wrong. … There’s not much else to say.”
The defensive slide has been in progress for a few seasons but the biggest drop off, from third in 2017-18 to 19th in 2018-19, coincided with the limited play of five-time all-defensive player and two-time defensive player of the year Kawhi Leonard (he played nine games in 2017-18) and subsequent trading of him to the Toronto Raptors in the summer of 2018.
Now the Spurs are picked apart in transition (126.2 points allowed per 100 possessions, worst in the NBA per Synergy Sports) and in the half court (99.0, fifth-worst). Opponents are producing a 60 percent effective field goal rate on spot-up shots (second-worst), shooting almost 73 percent from the field on cuts to the basket (fourth-worst) and scoring more than half the time in the post (55 percent, worst). Just one of their starters, point guard Dejounte Murray, ranks in the 50th percentile or better among NBA defenders. Three others, small forward DeMar DeRozan, power forward Trey Lyles and shooting guard Bryn Forbes, all rank in the 24th percentile or worse. Center LaMarcus Aldridge is just on the cusp of being an average defender, allowing few enough points to place him in the 48th percentile.
There are other issues. Reintegrating Murray into the offense has been challenging, too. Murray’s playing time is limited following a return from a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Popovich only plays him for a few minutes at a time and never in back-to-back games, resulting in an average of 22.5 minutes this season. That has prevented Murray and Derrick White, the team’s presumptive backcourt of the future, from playing more than seven minutes together total this season.
When Murray shares the court with San Antonio’s two stars, Aldridge and DeRozan (208 minutes in 2019-20), the Spurs are outscored by almost 12 points per 100 possessions. That improves by five points per 100 possessions when Aldridge and DeRozan are on the court and Murray is on the bench. The improvement can be traced back to Murray’s lack of three-point range (he is averaging one three-point shot per game and shooting 21 percent) and poor performance almost everywhere else on the court.
Turnovers are also a big problem for Murray. His turnover rate (20 percent) is the 12th highest among guards playing enough minutes to qualify for the scoring title and hampers the team’s ability to be productive offensively.
Lonnie Walker IV, named to this year’s NBA Summer League Second Team after averaging 30.0 points, 4.0 rebounds and 1.5 steals in 27.3 minutes in Las Vegas, hasn’t been able to get traction during the regular season. Popovich said the Spurs second-year guard “played horribly” during a loss to the Clippers and Walker has allowed 15 points on 16 defensive possessions in eight games.
It’s a tough spot for Popovich, at 70 years old, to be in. According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, he was expected to sign a three-year contract in April that will keep him as the highest-paid coach in the league, yet losing isn’t a proper swan song for the all-time winningest coach in NBA history. But if anyone can turn this ship around, it is probably him, though it won’t be easy. Basketball Reference’s Playoff Probabilities Report gives the Spurs less than a three percent chance of qualifying for the postseason and the projections at FiveThirtyEight are more pessimistic at less than a one percent chance.
“It’s a long season. We are worried about now. It’s not like we are 50 or 60 games in. It’s still early,” DeRozan told NBA.com. “Just as we are on this bad streak, we can start a positive streak as well.”