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Jerit: A take on Texas’ NBA playoff aspirations

| Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Anyone who has been following the NBA during this off-season knows the Western Conference is seriously stacked this upcoming season, with at least 10 teams — if not more — slated to have a good shot at playoff contention this season. Almost all of these top teams are sporting All-Star or All-NBA duos to contrast years of superteams.

Apart from the Phoenix Suns and Memphis Grizzlies, every other team has at least a small shot of making the playoffs — even the Minnesota Timberwolves or New Orleans Pelicans could theoretically make the playoffs. However, only eight teams in the West can make the playoffs per year, meaning at least one or two well-deserving teams will be cut.

I am here to tell you the San Antonio Spurs, the Dallas Mavericks and the Houston Rockets are all guaranteed to make the playoffs based on previous trends with the state of Texas and the postseason. First, a brief background on each of the teams entering this season.

For the last 22 seasons, Gregg Popovich led the Spurs to a playoff berth, a streak which many members of the NBA media fear could end this season. There was speculation of his retirement this season after his wife passed away in April 2018, but he also signed a three-year contract extension at the end of the 2019 season. His tenure as head coach has been filled with much success, including five rings.

Despite the seemingly eternal success the Spurs have, the last two seasons have shown their recent vulnerability. They have finished seventh the last two seasons, holding a tie-breaker with the eighth seed in both instances. With how loaded the West is this season, some have begun speculating the Spurs will miss the playoffs, barring a major injury or trade. This last happened in 1997, the same year the first DVD player was released in America.

On the other hand, the Dallas Mavericks have not always been the bastion of success. To contrast the Spurs, the Mavericks missed the playoffs 10 times straight from 1991 to 2000, then made the playoffs 15 out of 16 times from 2001 to 2016 before missing it the last three seasons. Although they finished nearly last in the West last season, they did so with one of their two stars hurt and the other one only a rookie.

The Mavericks’ two stars Luka Doncic and Kristap Porzingis are young — about 10 years younger than the Spurs’ Demar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge, respectively. Though Porzingis remains a question mark from his ACL injury, his return this season, along with improvement from the Rookie of the Year Doncic could lift the Mavericks to a playoff berth.

Rounding out the trio of Texas teams, we have the Houston Rockets. Unlike the Spurs and Mavericks, the Rockets are not facing nearly as many questions about making the playoffs thanks to former MVP James Harden. The main question they face is how he will synergize with the ball-dominant, other-former-MVP Russell Westbrook, picked up in a trade this off-season. Still, the Rockets have been a top-four team in the West the last three seasons, and it’s unlikely the Rockets will miss the playoffs, barring an injury to Harden.

Now, what does the state of Texas’ playoff success historically have to do with its success this particular season? The answer is simple. There have been three teams in Texas since the expansion of the Mavericks in the 1980-81 season. In each of the decades that follow, all three teams from Texas made the playoffs 12 times — the Texas Triple Crown, or TTC for short. Here are the results by decade:

1980s (3) : 1985, 1986 and 1988

1990s (1) : 1990

2000s (5) : 2004, 2005, 2007, 2008 and 2009

2010s (3) : 2014, 2015 and 2016

Even though the sample size is particularly small, a couple patterns can be identified. First, most of these seasons tend to come in pairs or triples with the only single seasons being 1988 and 1990 — Dallas and San Antonio missed the playoffs in 1989. The next pattern would be the number for each decade. It starts with three, drops to one due to Dallas’s streak of losses, increases to five thanks to Dirk Nowitzki, then returned to three. Based on this pattern, the 2020s should only see the TTC happen one time.

To the joy of Texans everywhere, I propose that the TTC of the 2020s will happen this season. For starters, the first year of the 1990s was that decade’s only TTC, and while the individual years do not have to match up for the decade, I want to explore the possibility of 2020 being the TTC year for now before explaining further why 2020 is one of the likeliest years for the TTC.

Assuming the TTC does occur this season, that leaves five playoff spots left for Western teams to nab. The most obvious of these teams to make the cut are the LeBron- and AD-led Lakers, and the Kawhi- and PG-led Clippers. The remaining three spots to slot are tricky. Pick three from the Utah Jazz, Portland Trail Blazers, Denver Nuggets, Sacramento Kings and, oh yeah, the Golden State Warriors, not to mention potential outbreaks from the young Pelicans or Minnesota Timberwolves.

I personally see the Jazz and the Nuggets as most likely to make the playoffs once more, with the final slot going to Portland or the Warriors depending on injuries. The Jazz acquired my hometown’s point guard Mike Conley in the off-season, an acquisition which fits the defense-oriented team perfectly. Denver and Portland made less flashy moves but both finished near the top of the West without significant overhauls to their rosters.

The Warriors, on the other hand, have an uneasy season ahead of them. Will D’Angelo Russell mesh well with the Warriors? Will we see 2016 Steph Curry make a return? Will Klay Thompson be able to play in his previous form? They have arguably one of the three best duos in the West when healthy, but with their thin bench, we arguably won’t know if the Warriors are contenders again until after the All-Star break.

So a potential seeding of the West next year could be:

1-5: Lakers, Clippers, Jazz, Denver, Rockets (no particular order)

6-8: Spurs, Mavericks, Trail Blazers (no particular order)

9-13: Warriors, Kings, Pelicans, Timberwolves, Thunder (no particular order)

14: Suns

15: Grizzlies

Though this seeding may be a hot take to many of you, I would now like to return to why I believe 2020 will be the decade’s TTC. The main issue is the Spurs’ recent slump. In all 22 consecutive playoff appearances, 2018 and 2019 is the only consecutive instance of the Spurs being ranked five or worse.

Whereas Dallas is an up-and-coming team and the Rockets have their stars right in their prime, the Spurs are slightly older. With an aging Aldridge and Derozan having a player option at the end of this season, the Spurs’ eternal dynasty seems to be coming to a close after all these years. The identity of the team has been a bit scattered with the departure of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard the last four years. Popovich is the lone remnant of the long dynasty, and he too may retire within the next few years.

The Spurs also don’t play to analytics. In an era with Curry and Harden’s constant three-point barrages, the Spurs shot more mid range jumpers than most other teams in conjunction with the least number of three pointers last season. Despite this, they still made the playoffs, though as a tied seventh seed. The only younger player who has shown much development so far is Derrick White, who showed a lot of potential in the playoffs, but he has a long way to go before he could replace Aldridge or Derozan.

The Spurs find themselves in a jam after this season. Popovich and Derozan may both be gone in April, and they will need at least one or two more seasons at best to develop another star. Other teams like the Timberwolves and Kings have spent a decade trying to revitalize themselves. Though the Spurs have the ability to squeeze every ounce of talent out of their players, this talent might prevent them from getting better draft picks once they inevitably enter the lottery after the 2020 season.

In conclusion, NBA fans should get ready to cheer for the Spurs to fulfill the Texas Triple Crown and make the playoffs one last time, as we likely will never see one team nearly as dominant as the Spurs have been these last two decades. For Texas, the Rockets hope to continue their streak to eight seasons, the Mavericks hope to start once again and the Spurs hope to extend their streak to a record twenty-three.

After this season, we will say goodnight to an era of basketball. Thank you, Gregg Popovich for your leadership and for the machine of Spurs Ball.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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