First in the standings. Last in buzz.
It wouldn’t be an NBA season if the San Antonio Spurs weren’t winning more games than anyone else — and generating less hype.
As the NBA returns Tuesday night from the All-Star break, fans are debating whether LeBron James is the greatest ever; Kevin Durant and the Thunder can bring down the Heat; the dynamic duo of CP3 and Blake Griffin can lead the Clippers to the Finals; ’Melo and the Knicks are legit contenders; and oh, yeah, the latest goings-on with the Laker circus.
Meanwhile, down the dusty I-35 path in San Antonio, the Spurs (42-12) have the best record in the league, are four games clear of the Heat and are steaming toward the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference for the third consecutive year.
But because of their market size, lack of entertainment sizzle and failure to parlay those top seeds in 2011 and 2012 into a trip to the Finals, the Spurs are practically an afterthought. They are merely the fourth title choice in Las Vegas at 7-to-1 odds, trailing Miami (2.5-to-1), Oklahoma City (4-to-1) and the Clippers (5-to-1).
In Houston, meanwhile, the arrow points up, as a smart rebuilding plan, sped up by the free-agent signing of James Harden, has the Rockets on the fast track to success.
Dallas, however, has begun a long and painful descent into never-never land, unless Mark Cuban can pull out some free-agent magic over the next few years.
A closer look at the NBA’s Texas teams:
The Spurs have won 13 of their past 14 games, including four of five on the rodeo road trip, which resumes Tuesday in Sacramento. Once this nine-game jaunt is finished, the Spurs can tuck the luggage away, as they have only seven road games in March and April.
What makes San Antonio so darn good?
Tony Parker is having an MVP-worthy season. He is actually improving at age 30. Averaging 20.8 points and 7.6 assists, the point guard is shooting a ridiculous 53.6 percent from the field.
Gregg Popovich is the best coach in the league. Pop, despite the gruff exterior, has a rare combination of communication skills, rapport with his players and X’s and O’s excellence. He also has a knack of pulling the right strings from night to night.
General Manager R.C. Buford has assembled the deepest team in the NBA — by a long shot — despite low first-round draft slots and free-agent restrictions. Seven players average double figures in scoring, and the rotation truly extends 12 deep. All of the pieces fit, too.
The Spurs’ second-stringers are better than a lot of teams’ first five. They went into Chicago and beat the Bulls without Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili. And they are famous for winning without part or all of the Big Three.
Popovich and Buford transformed the Spurs from a defense-oriented team to an offensive club without overhauling the talent. They are top five in nearly every offensive category.
Tiago Splitter, a project from Brazil, has become a bona fide starting center. Forward Kawhi Leonard, chosen 15th in 2011, might be the second-best player in that draft behind Kyrie Irving. Cleveland castoff Danny Green has developed into one of the league’s most underrated distance shooters. Gary Neal, similar story. Stephen Jackson is invaluable off the bench.
San Antonio also has a few pieces, starting with power forward DeJuan Blair, that it could package for trade deadline reinforcements this week. The Spurs, who were in talks with Toronto and Detroit, could be in the Josh Smith sweepstakes with Atlanta.
Everyone around the league was curious as to whether Harden could elevate from the NBA’s top sixth man to starting superstar. The answer is a resounding YES.
Harden is fifth in the league in scoring at 26.1 points per game, he gets to the line a ton, and he’s a vocal leader who’s loving the spotlight in H-town.
GM Daryl Morey didn’t stop with the Bearded Man. He laid out big money for point guard Jeremy Lin from the Knicks and center Omer Asik from the Bulls. While the popular Harvard man hasn’t quite generated Lin-sanity, he is efficiently running the league’s No. 1 scoring team.
Asik, a savvy signing, is second in the NBA in rebounding at 11.5 and is shooting 55 percent.
Former first-round draft picks Chandler Parsons (14.5 ppg., 5.6 rpg.) and Patrick Patterson (11.6, 4.7) are progressing nicely.
The Rockets (29-26), whose average age of 23.7 makes them the youngest team in the NBA, hold the No. 8 seed in the West and are likely to make the playoffs for the first time in four years. They lead Portland by 3½ games and the Lakers by four.
Just don’t expect another blockbuster deal before Thursday’s trade deadline.
The Mavs (23-29) have the look and feel of an old, broken-down team, largely because Dirk Nowitzki is exactly that. Nowitzki, 34, has been slow to regain his form after knee surgery, and what’s around him is hardly inspirational.
Dallas, the fifth-oldest team in the league, sits 11th in the West, 4½ games behind Houston, and it’s doubtful the Mavs have the personnel to reel in significant deadline help. Too many Vince Carters, Chris Kamans and Elton Brands and too few attractive youngsters.
A 12-year playoff string is about to be snapped, and Nowitzki (15.2 ppg.) probably won’t be the Mavs’ leading scorer — O.J. Mayo is averaging 17.9 — for the first time in 13 years. On the bright side, better draft position is on the way.
Stacking up the Texas trio
Comparing the San Antonio, Houston and Dallas franchises, with league rankings in parentheses:
Category; Spurs; Rockets; Mavs
Record; 42-12 (1);29-26 (15);23-29 (19)
Home; 22-2 (1);18-8 (12);15-10 (16)
Road; 20-10 (1);11-18 (13);8-19 (18)
Scoring; 104.2 (4);106.1 (1);101.3 (7)
Defense; 95.8 (9);103.3 (29);102.8 (28)
Differential; +8.4 (2);+2.8 (9);-1.5 (19)
FG offense; 48.7 (2);46.2 (6);45.3 (12)
FG defense; 44.2 (9);45.8 (18);44.4 (13)
3-pt. offense;38.4 (4);36.2 (11);36.7 (8)
3-pt defense; 32.6 (2);37.2 (24);36.7 (21)
FT shooting; 79.2 (4);75.8 (15);79.7 (3)
Rebounding; -1.6 (20);+1.3 (12);-3.6 (27)
Assists; 25.0 (1);23.2 (7);22.7 (10)
Ast.-TO ratio; 1.72 (1);1.43 (19);1.60 (7)