The Spurs Have Something Brewing

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With a 65-78 record over the previous two seasons as the backdrop, the San Antonio Spurs entered the 2021-22 campaign with the most modest of expectations. That was a strange reality for one of the model franchises in the NBA universe, but without obvious star power and a general uncertainty of direction, the oddsmakers in the desert assigned the Spurs with an over/under win total of 28.5 victories. That placed the Spurs in the bottom tier of the league and, through the first 17 games, San Antonio was just 4-13 and “living up” to those modest expectations. Quietly, though, San Antonio has awakened since then, winning eight of the last 13 games and remaining frisky in the chase for the play-in.

Since Thanksgiving, the Spurs own the sixth-best net rating (+4.7) in the NBA with wins over Boston, Golden State, Denver, Utah, and the L.A. Clippers. The victory over the Clippers arrived in dominant fashion on Monday, with San Antonio throttling L.A. by a 24-point margin on the road. That singular performance may not be indicative of future performance for the Spurs, but 25-year-old guard Dejounte Murray was brilliant and that was a reminder of just how effective his level of performance is in 2021-22.

Murray put together a 24-point, 13-assist, 12-rebound triple-double in the win over the Clippers and, for the season, he is averaging 18.1 points, 8.6 assists, and 8.5 rebounds per game. Those counting numbers place Murray in rarified air and, while his box-score production has been similar during San Antonio’s uptick, he has improved his three-point shooting to 37.7 percent since Thanksgiving. Murray’s presence on the floor has also led to success for the Spurs, with a +2.1 net rating when he plays and a less impressive -3.5 net rating when he heads to the bench.

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It’s not as if Murray is alone, as the Spurs have seven players averaging double-digit scoring through the first 30 games of the campaign. However, he is clearly the No. 1 option for a team that is jockeying for position in the Western Conference playoff chase, and that is notable for a player who is still flying under the radar.

Following this 13-game onslaught, San Antonio’s statistical profile suggests this team should hover around the .500 mark. The Spurs are six games under .500 for the season while out-scoring their opponents by 0.2 points per 100 possessions. That may not correct itself over the next 52 games, but there is some reason to believe that San Antonio’s 8-5 stretch may be more indicative 0f what this team is than their 4-13 start.

It should be noted that the Spurs play one of the league’s five toughest schedules, at least by winning percentage, for the rest of the season, and they likely can’t afford an injury to Murray. Still, it is likely fair to say that, at the moment, San Antonio is better than the team they were widely projected to be and, as usual, Gregg Popovich seems to be pushing a lot of the right buttons.

Where does that place the Spurs in this week’s DIME power rankings? Let’s see.

1. Golden State Warriors (25-6, Last week — 1st)

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The Warriors got smoked in Toronto over the weekend and, without a closer look, that result seems weird. Golden State basically didn’t take its entire core to Canada, though, and the Warriors are rolling otherwise. The offense hasn’t been quite as dominant as it was early in the year, but Golden State’s defense is holding up and the metrics are outstanding.

2. Phoenix Suns (25-5, Last week — 2nd)

It was another perfect week for the Suns, capped off by an 18-point road win over the Lakers. Devin Booker is back as well, and Phoenix did a magnificent job weathering his absence. Phoenix could reasonably be ranked No. 1 right now, and that is a very strong compliment given what the Warriors have done.

3. Utah Jazz (21-9, Last week — 3rd)

Utah might’ve earned a dip with two home losses this week, but the profile of the Jazz is just better than the rest of the teams on the list. Utah is scoring four more points per 100 possessions than any other team in the league, and the Jazz are right up there with the best offenses of all-time, even in a league where scoring is down this season. We’ll see if that maintains, but Utah has almost the same point differential as Golden State.

4. Cleveland Cavaliers (19-12, Last week — 7th)

Like a lot of the league, the Cavs are battling COVID issues, but Cleveland hasn’t lost since Dec. 6. The Cavs have six straight wins and they’ve navigated a brutal schedule to the tune of a +6.1 net rating and the league’s No. 2 defense. It’s truly wild how good they’ve been, and it’s still happening.

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5. Brooklyn Nets (21-9, Last week — 4th)

Brooklyn’s last result, before three postponements, was a home loss to Orlando. The Nets basically used their third team in that game, though, and if we assume relative health, Brooklyn is still earning a top-five ranking. The Kyrie Irving dynamic will be interesting to monitor, but they’re holding up without him, at least before the rash of COVID-related absences.

6. Chicago Bulls (19-10, Last week — 9th)

The Bulls bounced back from a two-game hiatus (and two losses before that) to sweep a home back-to-back on Sunday and Monday. Chicago remains No. 6 in the NBA in net rating, out-scoring opponents by 3.3 points per 100 possessions, and the Bulls are 18-8 in games when DeMar DeRozan plays.

7. Milwaukee Bucks (19-13, Last week — 5th)

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The Bucks are good when their top guys play. I mean, the Bucks are good when basically any of their top guys play. This is basically too low given what expectations really are and too high for their season-long performance. Split the difference.

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8. Miami Heat (19-13, Last week — 10th)

Losing in Detroit is pretty rough. Alas, Miami should be graded on a curve with all of the absences they have, and the Heat have done an admirable job navigating a lengthy stretch without Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, and Tyler Herro. Even with the Detroit loss, Miami is 5-2 in the last seven games.

9. Memphis Grizzlies (19-13, Last week — 6th)

The Grizzlies dropped back-to-back games to end the week, explaining the drop from No. 6 to No. 9 overall. Memphis is still solidly out-scoring opponents for the season with a positive record, especially when considering how long Ja Morant is out. They have to figure out a middle ground between elite offense (early in the season) and elite defense (recently), but it’s been a strong overall start.

10. Denver Nuggets (15-14, Last week — 15th)

The Nuggets haven’t played since Friday, but Denver’s last result was notably impressive. Nikola Jokic and company went into Atlanta and absolutely blasted the Hawks on the road, winning a fourth game in the last six. Whenever Jokic plays, the Nuggets are dangerous, and that point is being made nightly.

11. Philadelphia 76ers (16-15, Last week — 11th)

With Joel Embiid back, the Sixers are in solid shape. Philadelphia is 13-7 with Embiid in the lineup, and the Sixers went into Boston and won on the road on Monday. That was an impressive win, and the 76ers have a rest edge and home-court when Atlanta comes into town on Thursday.

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12. Boston Celtics (15-16, Last week — 13th)

The bad? Boston is 2-5 in the last seven. However, the losses came to the Lakers (road), Clippers (road), Suns (road), Warriors, and Sixers. It would’ve been nice for the Celtics to steal one of those, but they did beat Milwaukee and those losses don’t really change the tenor in Boston.

13. Los Angeles Lakers (16-16, Last week — 12th)

With three straight losses, the Lakers are back to the .500 mark. That is not where anyone projected Los Angeles to be at this point, and the lengthy of absence of Anthony Davis won’t help. The Lakers also ran into a buzzsaw against the Suns on Tuesday, and that revealed, at least to some degree, that Los Angeles really isn’t in Phoenix’s stratosphere right now.

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14. L.A. Clippers (16-15, Last week — 8th)

The Clippers dip considerably this week after three straight losses. One of those defeats came in Oklahoma City, which isn’t great, and L.A. got walloped by San Antonio. Without Kawhi Leonard, a 16-15 start feels totally reasonable, so there’s that.

15. San Antonio Spurs (12-18, Last week — 18th)

San Antonio finishes up a west coast trip against the Lakers on Thursday before returning home for three in a row. It will be interesting to see where the true baseline is for the Spurs, but they really are playing competitive basketball.

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16. Dallas Mavericks (15-15, Last week — 16th)

Luka Doncic hasn’t played in almost two weeks, and the goal for Dallas is simply to hold the line in his absence. They’ve largely done that, including a win over Minnesota on Tuesday that avenged a previous defeat over the weekend. Nothing is exciting in Dallas right now — well, other than this — but perhaps they can find their stride when Doncic returns.

17. Minnesota Timberwolves (15-16, Last week — 23rd)

It’s been a Jekyll-and-Hyde season for the Wolves in many ways. Minnesota is 4-6 in the last 10 games, but that formed with a five-game losing streak, a four-game winning streak, and a reasonable road loss in Dallas on Tuesday.

18. Toronto Raptors (14-15, Last week — 19th)

This is a status quo week for the Raptors. Toronto had two postponements and a win over Golden State that was a lot less impressive than the scoreboard looks because of the players the Warriors didn’t bring to Canada. Alas, Toronto has a real opportunity with road games in Chicago and Cleveland this week.

19. Atlanta Hawks (14-15, Last week — 20th)

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It ended up being a two-game week for the Hawks due to a postponement on Sunday. Atlanta split its two games, but the second contest was a highly disappointing home loss to Denver. The Hawks’ defense has been a total mess for most of the season, and now Nate McMillan must face some period of time without Trae Young, Clint Capela, and Danilo Gallinari due to health and safety protocols.

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20. New York Knicks (14-17, Last week — 24th)

Tom Thibodeau’s team basically did the bare minimum this week, beating the Rockets and Pistons. That’s enough to make a bit of a jump, though, because a lot of the NBA is a mess right now. New York still has a lot of work to do to overcome a 3-8 record in the last 11 games.

21. Charlotte Hornets (16-17, Last week — 17th)

It’s not as if the Hornets had a terrible week, losing to a bunch of teams they are “supposed” to lose to on the road. Still, Charlotte slides under the .500 mark with three consecutive defeats, and the Hornets are finding it difficult to overcome the NBA’s worst defensive efficiency.

22. Washington Wizards (16-15, Last week — 22nd)

Washington had an awesome win over the weekend, knocking off the Jazz on the road. Why, then, did the Wizards stay in the same spot in the rankings? Well, Washington lost four in a row and seven out of eight games before that victory in Salt Lake City. We’ll call that a draw for now.

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23. New Orleans Pelicans (11-21, Last week — 26th)

The Pelicans have won three in a row, four of the last five, and eight of the last 13 games. That doesn’t erase the hideousness of the early-season struggles, but New Orleans earned this bump with a double-digit home win over Portland on Tuesday.

24. Portland Trail Blazers (13-19, Last week — 27th)

Portland’s road win in Memphis on Sunday was genuinely impressive when remembering how hot the Grizzlies were before that game began. Damian Lillard is also averaging 38 points per game in the last three, and there are some real positives. However, Portland is still 3-11 in the last 14, so they can’t climb too high.

25. Houston Rockets (10-21, Last week — 14th)

Reality is back for the Rockets. We acknowledged a week ago that Houston rising to No. 14 overall was something of a bit, but the Rockets are 2-5 in the last seven games again. Houston is No. 27 in net rating at -6.5 points per 100 possessions, and some of the magic from the semi-recent seven-game winning streak is long gone.

26. Indiana Pacers (13-19, Last week — 21st)

It might be unfair to drop the Pacers this far given the team’s statistical profile and a 4-3 record in the last seven games. On the other end, Indiana was absolutely throttled by the Heat on a night in which Miami didn’t have some of its stars. The Pacers’ only win this week came against the Pistons as well, and that victory isn’t moving the needle.

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27. Sacramento Kings (13-19, Last week — 25th)

Sacramento continues to flounder in a general sense. The Kings have lost five of the last seven games and, in those contests, Sacramento has allowed more than 1.16 points per possession. The two wins were solid enough, but Sacramento’s defense has been genuinely problematic for most of the season and there isn’t too much to get overly excited about.

28. Oklahoma City Thunder (10-19, Last week — 28th)

Things are trending up for OKC after back-to-back wins. The Thunder did lose to the Pelicans at home, keeping them in this spot, but OKC is a highly respectable 10-16 in games when Shai Gilgeous-Alexander suits up.

29. Orlando Magic (6-25, Last week — 29th)

Detroit’s shortcomings keep Orlando away from the No. 30 spot, but only by a small margin. The Magic are extremely shorthanded due to injury and protocols, but Orlando has two wins in almost five weeks. It’s really quite ugly, and they have to go to Atlanta and Miami in the next few days.

30. Detroit Pistons (5-25, Last week — 30th)

The Pistons finally won a game this week, outlasting a shorthanded Miami team to stop a month-long losing skid. Detroit promptly lost to the struggling Knicks by double figures on Tuesday, though, and the Pistons lost at home to Houston before the win over the Heat. At least Detroit has Cade Cunningham.

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