The Spurs, the Western Conference 'weapons race,' and our automatic 60-win expectations

The Spurs let Jonathon Simmons walk, and haven’t really improved their roster. (Getty)

As trade winds swirled and rumors hurtled down Twitter feeds, as players jetted cross-country and sometimes back, as the Warriors refueled and the Thunder re-stocked their arsenal and the Rockets further escalated what general manager Daryl Morey has described as an arms race, fellow Western Conference teams had a decision to make. Morey issued the challenge: “You’re either in the weapons race,” he said after pulling off the trade for Chris Paul, “or on the sidelines.”

Most teams were sucked into that arms race. The Timberwolves traded for Jimmy Butler. The Nuggets signed Paul Millsap. The Clippers paid Blake Griffin $173 million, then spent further to re-tool around him. But one team has been curiously quiet.

The San Antonio Spurs added Rudy Gay, but lost Jonathon Simmons — for relatively nothing:

They won’t have Tony Parker for half the season, and settled for Patty Mills instead of more glamorous point guard replacements. They may or may not have Manu Ginobili, and almost certainly will have an aging Pau Gasol, along with an unhappy LaMarcus Aldridge and an uninspiring Joffrey Lauvergne. The Spurs have stood still while those around them have forged forward. Last season’s second-best team might have even taken a step back.

And yet you can almost imagine Gregg Popovich, while the trades, rumors and players flew at breakneck pace, reclining in a fine leather chair, a glass of vintage Pinot Noir in one hand, an exotic Eastern European film on his living room TV, without a smidgen of concern.

These are the Spurs, after all. They’ll win 60 games in their sleep. Right?

It’s one of the most fascinating repercussive questions of the 2017 offseason, and will linger as a stumper all the way up until mid-October. After two weeks of free agency storylines that largely excluded San Antonio, the Spurs present a conundrum just as difficult to unpack as those of the Rockets and Thunder and their new acquisitions.

San Antonio has set the NBA standard in the 21st century, and nobody else has come all that close. The Spurs have won 58.7 games per 82-game season since 2000-01. They’ve been even better this decade, compiling a 60.8-win 82-game average since 2010-11. They won 61 games last year, and 67 the year before. The Popovich era has so far yielded five NBA titles, and there isn’t much to suggest it is backsliding.

But this year’s Spurs roster, in a vacuum, is underwhelming. A five of Mills, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Aldridge and Gasol just doesn’t measure up to Houston’s likely crunch-time five of Paul, James Harden, P.J. Tucker, Trevor Ariza and Clint Capela. It might not be better than Oklahoma City’s five of Russell Westbrook, Andre Roberson, Paul George, Patrick Patterson and Steven Adams, either. And San Antonio’s bench appears to be weak, with the hobbled Parker joined by post-Achilles tear Gay and a host of rookies and unproven youngsters — and maybe Ginobili. On paper, that’s not better than Houston’s, which features Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson (a starter, but not a closer) and Nene.

And remember, the Rockets are still making a strong play for Carmelo Anthony via trade, too.

The Spurs are, at best, the third-strongest team in the West. And even if they’re still on par with Houston, the gap between San Antonio and Golden State is wider than it was two months ago. The Spurs don’t look like they’ll be a legitimate factor in the Western Conference come late May.

On the other hand … they’re the Spurs. They have the best player development staff in the league. Their bench is full of X’s and O’s savants. Popovich, probably the greatest coach in NBA history, has built a machine that seemingly inevitably churns out successful seasons.

So how do we reconcile those two lines of thinking?

One potential answer: The Spurs roster won’t necessarily look different six months from now, but we’ll think about it differently. Dejounte Murray will continue his ascension that began after Parker’s injury in the playoffs. Rookie Derrick White will prove to be the steal of the draft that many believe he was. Popovich and his assistants will turn Davis Bertans into a useful stretch four. And Bryn Forbes will prove to be the Spurs’ latest hidden gem.

Or maybe none of that will happen. It’s not inconceivable that the Spurs slip, perhaps even into the 55- or 50-win range. Maybe the bench doesn’t develop, Aldridge proves to be a headache, Gasol’s decline continues, and none of Parker, Gay and Ginobili is effective. Maybe the lack of summer refurbishment proves costly.

A separate line of thinking is that the offseason passivity is actually patience; that a down year in 2017-18 could be part of a grander plan. The Spurs have just two players — Leonard and Mills — locked into contracts that will pay them more than $2 million in 2018-19. Aldridge, Green and Gay have player options. Parker will be an unrestricted free agent. Gasol’s situation remains up in the air. Coincidentally — or perhaps not coincidentally at all — next year’s free agent class is loaded. San Antonio was linked with Paul throughout this past June; could they make a big splash next summer instead?

But that’s beside the point. The point is that San Antonio doesn’t look anything like a team that will win 60 games in 2017-18. It looks somewhat depleted. But if you begin to make the argument that the Spurs are the fourth best team in the West, and that they’ll be swept aside in the second round of the playoffs, you’ll find that you’ll check yourself. Your mind will drift towards past years, before which similar thoughts crept into your mind, and after which you looked back on yet another season of Spurs dominance, dumbfounded. And eventually, your internal reasoning will arrive at a conclusion: Man, they’ll probably still win 60 games, won’t they?

That the Spurs always seem to challenge for 60 wins is not in and of itself a rational argument for another expectation-exceeding campaign. But there are countless reasons behind San Antonio’s annual success, and those reasons form the rational argument. Popovich and his supporting cast always seem to get the best out of what they have. There is no reason they won’t replicate past results this year.

So, 60 wins? Maybe, maybe not. But don’t expect San Antonio to slide too far — if, that is, they even slide at all.