BOSTON — For more than two decades, there have been two universal truths about the Western Conference playoffs: The Spurs will be there, and teams with losing records will not.
Both of those could change in 2020.
The Spurs might still find a way to extend their NBA-record streak of consecutive playoff appearances to 23 years in a row. They followed a win over the league-leading Milwaukee Bucks on Monday night with a 129-114 victory over the Boston Celtics on Wednesday to improve their record to 16-20.
“Our themes have been the same for, like, 23 years,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said after Wednesday night’s victory. “It doesn’t change with every game.
“Sometimes we do well, sometimes we don’t.”
This season, the “don’ts” have happened far more often than the Spurs are used to. More importantly, they’ve been more frequent than a team in the West can typically afford while still hoping to reach the playoffs. Even after the two blowout wins this week, San Antonio is still four games under .500. Yet the Spurs currently hold the eighth and final playoff spot in the West, demonstrating how different this year’s Western Conference playoff picture is shaping up.
The last time that a West team made the playoffs with a losing record was 1996-97, the same year Popovich took over as coach for a lottery-bound San Antonio team that went on to draft current Spurs assistant coach Tim Duncan with the top overall pick. That year, the LA Clippers snagged the 8-seed with a 36-46 record (and were swept in three games by the top-seeded Utah Jazz).
Since then, the 8-seed in the West has had an average winning percentage of .550, which equals a 45-37 record in an 82-game season. The conference’s ninth-best team has averaged 42 wins over 82 games.
“To see the dynamic of it change, it’s just crazy,” Spurs guard DeMar DeRozan said. “I’ve seen the league change so much. To see the Western Conference where it is now, it’s just another one of them things. Hopefully we can come out on top.”
The overall futility among the “contenders” for the eighth spot in the West means that plenty of teams that would normally be making vacation plans for mid-to-late April and beginning to gather lucky charms for May’s NBA draft lottery are instead still dreaming of making the postseason.
Some of them are playing better of late. In addition to San Antonio’s back-to-back wins, the Portland Trail Blazers beat the defending champion Toronto Raptors on a game-winner by Carmelo Anthony Tuesday night and the Memphis Grizzlies have won four of their last five games. Still, none of them are even close to .500.
Teams like the Sacramento Kings, New Orleans Pelicans and Minnesota Timberwolves have all seen lengthy absences for top players. De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley III have been out in Sacramento, Zion Williamson has yet to debut in New Orleans and Karl-Anthony Towns hasn’t played since Dec. 13 in Minnesota. Those teams seemed completely out of the playoff picture. Now, all three are within four games of the eighth playoff spot.
“There’s always a lot of time,” Spurs guard Derrick White said. “We didn’t overreact to the beginning of the year. “There’s still time to, at the end of the year, get to where we want to be.”
That hasn’t been the case in the past, at least in the West. The same can’t be said for their counterparts in the Eastern Conference, who have benefited from a weaker conference that’s repeatedly allowed worse teams access to the postseason.
Over the past 22 seasons, 12 teams have made the playoffs in the Eastern Conference with losing records, compared to none in the West. Meanwhile, there were three times — 2003-04, 2007-08 and 2014-15 — where multiple teams made the postseason with a losing record. This year, by the way, is on pace for that to happen once again.
The average winning percentage of the East’s eighth seed over that time period has been .494 percent — compared to the West’s ninth seed sporting a winning percentage of .513.
All of that has been fuel for the cries of changing the playoff structure, in order to try to get the 16 best teams in the postseason. The league has repeatedly insisted the balance between conferences is cyclical. This year, it appears they might finally be proven right.
The fact no team has been able to separate from the pack at the bottom of the West has allowed multiple teams to begin to sort themselves out. San Antonio looked left for dead two months ago. But now LaMarcus Aldridge is back to playing like an All-Star big, Lonnie Walker has been inserted into the rotation ahead of Marco Belinelli and Dejounte Murray has begun to round into form after missing all of last season with a torn ACL.
“We’ve been more consistent defensively helping each other, not making so many mistakes,” DeRozan said. “When we do that, when we rely on the defensive end to keep us in games it’s easier to find a rhythm.”
The Spurs aren’t alone. The Pelicans have won six of their past eight, a run that has coincided with Derrick Favors resuming his normal minutes load, which instantly shored up their defense. Now Williamson’s debut is on the horizon, which should bolster New Orleans even more. The Blazers have gotten solid production from Anthony while they continue to hang around and wait for Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic to deliver some much-needed reinforcements. The Grizzlies have seen their young core of Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke take immediate strides forward.
Perhaps, down the road, one of them will even manage to make it to .500. Until that happens, however, this season marks a new day for the Western Conference.
The question that remains is whether it will be just one — or both — of those universal truths that goes away by the time this regular season comes to a close.