Are Tony Parker's Injury Issues a Brewing Playoff Problem for San Antonio Spurs?

Stephen BabbFeatured ColumnistApril 9, 2014

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The San Antonio Spurs looked like a team that can ill-afford to play without Tony Parker during Tuesday night's 110-91 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Parker might not have made the difference on Tuesday (the Spurs were out-rebounded by a 52-37 margin), but it doesn't take an advanced metric to tell you how pivotal he'll be when the playoffs roll around. The question is will he be ready and—just as importantly—in rhythm.

According to the San Antonio Express-News' Jeff McDonald, the answer to the first question is yes. He writes that Parker "should be healthy enough to return at some point before the end of the regular season."


That seems consistent with Gregg Popovich's assessment. Per McDonald, Pop said, "I don't think it's that serious. He got a (painkiller) shot in there, and he's got to let it calm down. For sure this week, the next couple of games, he's not going to be able to go."

The first of those missed games was Tuesday in Minneapolis. The next will be Thursday in Dallas.

After that Parker's status is anyone's guess. 

The 31-year-old point guard left Sunday's game against the Memphis Grizzlies after straining a spinal ligament in his back. His fate now lies in the hands of Spurs' doctors. Once they approve Parker's return, Popovich will have an interesting decision to make.

He could opt to give his leading scorer a little extra rest, ensuring maximum readiness for the postseason. Alternatively, he could look to play him as soon as possible so that he's in a better rhythm. It's something of a Catch-22 and could very well depend on conversations with Parker himself.

Either way, the Spurs don't look to be doomed.

Including Thursday's game against the Mavericks, San Antonio has four remaining regular-season games. That gives Parker up to three contests in which he can return to action, and you'd have to guess he'll take advantage of at least one or two of those.

This certainly isn't ideal timing for the Spurs to face an injury, but nor does it appear to be a disaster. Despite losing two of their last three games, the club is still on the heels of an epic 19-game winning streak that proved what it's capable of when everyone is healthy and firing on all cylinders.

How far the team can ride that momentum of course remains unknown. Ideally it'll forget its recent stumbles and injuries (including Manu Ginobili's left calf contusion) and return to form when the games really begin mattering. It would be nice to spend the next couple of games as a whole unit, but the added practice could be valuable for San Antonio's deep second unit.

Popovich will no doubt look to get that second unit plenty of play in the first round, keeping his starters fresh for what could be another long postseason run. Getting guys like Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli a little extra run in advance of that first round couldn't hurt.

San Antonio's bench has proved to be instrumental all season long, leading the league in scoring and assists. Though rotations typically shorten in the playoffs, Popovich might leave his more or less intact for the first round. Why change a system that's been operating so flawlessly, at least until you absolutely have to?

But no amount of depth would replace Parker should his back problems spiral into something much worse.

The club has played in a handful of games without Parker throughout the season and gone a surprising 10-3 without him. But several of those wins came against the likes of Philadelphia 76ers, Charlotte Bobcats and Detroit Pistons

A seven-game series against a Western Conference playoff foe is a much different story. The West is crazy good and crazy deep. Every first-round matchup will be a battle, San Antonio's included.

The Spurs need Parker primarily for his scoring. At 16.8 points per game, he leads the team, and that's a deceptively low average. Keep in mind that Parker has only played in 29.7 minutes per contest, the lowest mark since his rookie season. He's been afforded plenty of rest because the Spurs frequently blow out the opposition.

Mills' development has also given Popovich the luxury of sitting Parker a little longer than he otherwise might.

The result is Parker's numbers have taken a seemingly significant dip from a year ago, when he averaged 20.3 points and 7.6 assists. That shouldn't be confused with a dip in effectiveness. Parker's production remains instrumental in the Spurs' most important games.

More importantly, the team's offense tends to sputter without him. So much of San Antonio's system depends on Parker running the pick-and-roll and making the right decisions therein. Without him in the mix, the ball either has to run through Tim Duncan or depend on side-to-side movement. That could only take San Antonio so far in the playoffs.

Probably not past the first round.

Again, the Spurs probably won't have to worry about a worst-case scenario. At this point, they may be more worried about peaking too early.

That's the sentiment Parker conveyed via French Radio (per Project Spurs' Chelsea Torres): "It is true, there is always a little fear we peaked too early. The playoffs are coming soon. We did not play much with everyone. We had a lot of injuries this year. It has only [been] 17 games with five starting and all replacements."

On the injury front, though, we're likely looking at a brief hiccup in the road to what could be another formidable display of playoff basketball. If all goes according to plan, Parker won't have to play 40 minutes a game in the first round, reducing some of the toll his back has to take in the process.

Though any of the Spurs will tell you they're taking one game at a time, their fans already have eyes set on the Oklahoma City Thunder, who swept San Antonio 4-0 during their regular-season series. The real question isn't so much whether Parker will be healthy Day 1—he will be. The bigger question is how fresh he'll be in the event San Antonio faces OKC.

The Spurs will need vintage Parker in that case, healthy back and all.