It has become the stuff of local legend: a glorious annual stretch in the San Antonio Spurs’ season, during which the team will learn a lot about itself, catch its rhythm and build momentum for yet another successful playoff run.
Ever since the Spurs went 8-1 during their first Rodeo Road Trip in 2003 (and on the way to winning an NBA title), the run of games into the All-Star break has a special place in the heart of head coach Gregg Popovich.
Last year, he told Jeff Garcia at Spurs Zone: “It’s a time with fewer distractions and they have to depend on themselves more than ever; It’s kind of like being in the foxhole together.”
It’s a romantic notion, like going to summer camp or on a road trip with friends. There are moments of fun, stress, ups and downs, but when you come out the other side, there are memories you have made and trust you have built in your fellow travelers.
The 2019-20 season offers yet another opportunity as the Spurs get kicked out of the AT&T Center for the annual rodeo festivities. But things are different this time.
San Antonio is currently just 22-28 while sitting 10th in the West. This is the worst they’ve performed this far into the season during the past 20 years. And now, instead of hoping to build and keep momentum, they’re essentially searching for any in a bid to avoid missing the playoffs for the first time since 1996-97. (For what it’s worth, the Spurs have basically played .500 ball since December, but that’s an awfully shoddy silver lining for this franchise.)
The task is not simple. The Spurs are stuck among a group of teams that range anywhere from young and feisty, injured and desperate, putting the right pieces together, to dangerous on any given night. In addition to this, the stretch of nine road games this year are all against foes from the West, with only two being against teams with losing records (and they are part of the same “chasing pack” that the Spurs occupy).
They’ve already started out 0-2 (more on that in a minute) and continue with the Portland Trail Blazers tonight (Thursday) before seeing the Sacramento Kings, Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder twice. With the exception of the Kings, the Spurs are likely the underdog in every remaining matchup.
Tuesday’s 108-105 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers to begin the road trip wasn’t all bad. It was one of the few occasions this season that the Clips had every player healthy and in uniform, and yet the Spurs were still up in the game by more than double digits. LA pulled back in the third quarter, and it was touch-and-go for the home team until they eventually secured the narrow victory.
Popovich surely isn’t in the mood for moral victories this time of year, but at least the Spurs looked like they could translate against lesser opponents.
Unfortunately, the next stop along the line wasn’t really a stop at all. The Spurs stayed put in Staples Center to take on the Los Angeles Lakers. LaMarcus Aldridge had managed 27 points against the Clippers but got just 7 against the rotation of Lakers bigs Wednesday. Aside from a point or two here and there, that was essentially the ball game. San Antonio lost by 27.
That’s not really a momentum-building start to a trip…
This is not the first time the team is up against a list of strong opponents during their road trip, either. In fact, the first one they took saw the Spurs play against four teams that would finish the season with at least 50 wins in their own conference, as well as two teams from the East that would compete in the playoffs. So, the competition is not dissimilar to this season.
The personnel differences between now and then are stark, however.
David Robinson was the pre-Tim Duncan poster boy for San Antonio. In a city that takes a lot of pride in the military, the man they called The Admiral was always going to be loved. But when you throw in an MVP award, a scoring title, 10 All-Star and All-NBA appearances, a Defensive Player Of The Year trophy and eight All-Defensive team selections, plus spending an entire career with that one team, Robinson was more than just a talisman. He was the Spurs experience embodied in a single player.
Robinson’s experience counted for a lot to begin that first tough road trip—with two of the Spurs’ first three games taking place across the country against some of the best teams in the conference. He scored 12 and grabbed 9 rebounds in a win against the Indiana Pacers, then followed it up with 20 and 11 against the Orlando Magic to get journey off to a flying start. Popovich let him sit out a portion of the trip, but the 34-year-old Robinson had set the tone.
This helped Tony Parker, the sophomore point guard who was struggling to earn Popovich’s trust at that early stage of his career. In a season when he averaged 15 points and 5 assists, he increased these to 21 and 8 during the Rodeo Road Trip. Parker was still a few years from becoming the lead guy in San Antonio and was even benched during the closing stages of the last game during that year’s NBA Finals.
But the key piece was, of course, Tim Duncan. He secured 25 rebounds in one game, 20 in another, scored 36 points at one stage, blocked 23 shots during the stretch, and averaged more than 4 assists.
That team was built for success. They had the past and future of the franchise in sync. Throw in NBA rookie Manu Ginóbili, a young Speedy Claxton, the rising Stephen Jackson, defensive juggernaut Bruce Bowen and veterans Steve Kerr and Steve Smith, and it’s clear they were built for a several-year run of greatness.
That is quite the contrast to the current Spurs roster, even as it features Duncan among the assistant coaching staff.
With no disrespect to Aldridge, his peak never came close to what Robinson managed. It is unclear whether Dejounte Murray, Derrick White or Lonnie Walker IV will match Parker’s or Ginóbili’s rise, though they have shown flashes of hope. DeMar DeRozan is a productive player but far from being the NBA’s best, (even if he probably did get robbed of an All-Star spot this year).
Recent seasons have spoiled the fabled success from Rodeo Road Trips of the past. The team went 2-4 two seasons ago and 1-7 last season to bring their total record since 2003 to 97-50.
But even the last two year’s Spurs iterations were still in the playoff field when they hit their snags. There was some margin for error, and they just happen to use it, unfortunately. That’s not the case this year as the team seemingly continues to skew younger and less developed each season.
Nonetheless, even after dropping the trip’s first two tries this year, the Spurs can still take positives away from the challenge.
Though they’re typically quiet at the Trade Deadline, San Antonio has plenty of decisions to make again this offseason.
They will be on the road (which includes the All-Star break) until February 26. If this span doesn’t end with the positive record of Spurs days gone by, then maybe it will give Popovich and his front office the chance to really hone in on which players are on hand to compete for the franchise’s next title. Or, rather, which ones aren’t.
Huw is a TBW staff writer who grew up in Wales and currently lives in England where he coaches a local basketball team. He loves all sorts of basketball: men’s, women’s, wheelchair, international, good and bad. He has bylines with the NBA/WNBA’s UK broadcast rights partner Sky Sports, has featured on Sporting News covering FIBA events and is a Lead Writer with UK-based basketball website and podcast Double Clutch. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram @coach_huw where he often posts about how Tim Duncan was the best player of his era.