How the San Antonio Spurs are staying afloat in the Western Conference

Despite last night’s 102-91 loss to the Houston Rockets, the San Antonio Spurs find themselves sitting comfortably as the third seed in the highly competitive western conference.

How is this possible? The odds are stacked heavily against them.

Kawhi Leonard is sidelined with a quad injury and doesn’t have a timetable on his return. The team is in transition at the point guard position as Dejounte Murray is now the starter, while 35-year-old Tony Parker moves to the bench. Lastly, their third leading scorer in Rudy Gay, continues to recover from a right heel injury.

The answer is the system. Head coach Gregg Popovich, more specifically. Similar to Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots, Popovich has created a “next man up” environment in San Antonio where players can be interchanged and the flow of the team is not interrupted.

This is arguably his best coaching job considering the players he has to work with. Despite wanting to be traded last summer, LaMarcus Aldridge has finally bought in. He appears more comfortable as the primary option for the silver and black.

He’s averaging 22.4 points, his highest as a member of the Spurs, and 8.5 rebounds per game. Aldridge’s performance earned himself an All-Star nod, and will play for Team LeBron in the annual exhibition game later this month.

While he isn’t the same player from his Los Angeles Lakers days, Pau Gasol is still making a healthy contribution, averaging 10.8 points, 8.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game.

Murray is playing at an incredibly high level in his sophomore season. He has nine games with 10-plus rebounds this season, the most double-digit rebounds by a point guard in a single season in Spurs history, according to MySA.com.

“We need a scorer. We’re offensively challenged,” Popovich said sarcastically during last night’s game.

While the Spurs may be struggling offensively, their bread and butter is on the defensive end. San Antonio has the No. 1 defense in the league, despite having their best defensive player out for the majority of the season. They also own the best home record in the NBA.

Popovich has inspired this group to give a maximum effort on a nightly basis and play selflessly as they hold a 1.5 game lead over the Minnesota Timberwolves for the third seed in the western conference.

With Leonard’s return unknown at this point, can Popovich continue to motivate his team to maintain their position?

More than likely. The Spurs’ remaining February schedule includes the Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets twice, the Phoenix Suns and the New Orleans Pelicans, shorthanded without Demarcus Cousins. Their most difficult matchups will come against the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers.

According to TNT’s David Aldridge, the Spurs are among the list of playoff teams interested in signing Greg Monroe after he clears waivers today.

San Antonio’s success has been one of the silent surprises in the league this season. If Leonard and Gay can get healthy, this team may be able put together a long playoff run.