Wemby is a boss and Pop is legend. So why are the San Antonio Spurs so bad?

LLet’s get this out of the way at the beginning: everyone loves Gregg Popovich. He is a five-time NBA champion, the league’s all-time winningest coach and led the U.S. Men’s National Team to a gold medal at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Moreover, when a tragic event occurs in the world, Pop is the person in the NBA which most would like to hear from (Doc Rivers and Steve Kerr is next). But affection should not get in the way of a difficult question. So here goes: Why are the San Antonio Spurs so bad?

This year, the Spurs have a winning percentage of less than .200. They’ve barely had double-digit wins after playing 55 games (they’re 11-44). The Spurs also have one of the best and most exciting NBA players in rookie Victor Wembanyama, along with several other talented young guys like Devin Vassell, Keldon Johnson and Jeremy Sochan. Can we really live in a world where the New York Knicks are the paragon of decision-making and the Spurs are somehow the scum? But perhaps there is a method behind the team’s recent madness – let’s hope so for the sake of their fans.

Entering the 2023-24 season, the Spurs were the big winners of the offseason. They were given the right to select Wembanyama with the No. 1 pick in the 2023 draft. The 7-foot-1 big man from France is breathlessly hyped as the best prospect in the world the history of team sports. He can shoot from outside, dribble like a wing and defend like a spar. But like Wembanyama said, he came to the NBA doesn’t want to play centrally. With a slight build and a desire to showcase his outside skills, he didn’t want to be forced to shoot under the basket alone.

So the Spurs, led by their Hall of Fame coach, who recently signed an $80 million extension, agreed and started the season with a starting lineup that featured center Zach Collins and no true point guard. To the surprise of some NBA die-hards, the team got off to a slow start despite a pair of big wins in November against the Phoenix Suns. But during a late December game in Portland, when asked before the game if he had scouted rookie Scoot Henderson, Pop replied, “Have you checked our file?This means that he didn’t spend any time thinking about other players during the season this bad.

But now Wembanyama, who is averaging about 20 points, 10 rebounds and an edge of three-plus blocks per game (including 10 in a recent win), is play center. Collins is on the bench and Pop has finally moved on to starting young point guard Tre Jones. As a result, the Spurs even enjoyed a two-game winning streak in mid-January. In the second of those, San Antonio defeated Minnesota, one of the best teams in the league and a team with several talented big men. In that game, Wemby scored a triple-double with 23 points and Jones scored 12 points with 11 assists. The question, however, is whether 75-year-old Pop should have done this earlier. And if so, why didn’t he?

Jeremy Sochan, Victor Wembanyama, Devin Vassell and Julian Champagnie of the San Antonio Spurs look on during a February game against the Toronto Raptors. Photo: Mark Blinch/NBAE/Getty Images

Ahead of the 2023/24 season, the coach said he and his team would work with a wait-and-see attitude. Wembanyama’s development. They wanted to bring him along slowly and let him and the people around him make their mistakes – better now than later, the thinking went. And that’s fine. Rookies take time, games and years. Spices. Early on, few rookies are likely contenders, even though Wemby should be on the level of players like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. And both Pop and Wemby seem to be getting along well so far. Regardless, the biggest concern is this: could the lackluster 2023-2024 season negatively impact his development? Or that of his youthful supporting roles? Was Pop’s strategy indeed too risky?

Maybe. Every outcome is always possible. Even with the best care and intentions, injuries or setbacks can occur. However, when it comes to someone as big as Wemby, the concerns weigh even more heavily. As the Frenchman’s career unfolds, his best-case scenario is an NBA life like that of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – another very tall, transcendent center who was famous in his teens. Kareem played for twenty years. The worst-case scenario, however, is someone who looks more like Yao Ming or Ralph Sampson: gargantuan, otherworldly talents whose time was cut short due to lower-body injuries. There is no guarantee that a newcomer will dominate in the future. And it seems that this is even less the case with a giant like Wembanyama. To put it succinctly, do Spurs really have time to mess around?

So where can experienced leadership help? There isn’t one outside of the rarely used Devonte’ Graham or journeyman Cedi Osman. Despite a lot of young talent, there are no players on San Antonio who have proven themselves as winners. For Wembanyama, who looks as much like a baby deer on the field as he does a generational player, sometimes he needs someone to tell him go there, do that. He’s out there too often playing with the ball, and that’s exactly where opponents want him. He can’t touch his toes inside the edge. In the Spurs’ last game before the All-Star break, the team lost to Dallas (who has two great point guards) 116-93. Is that okay to lose on 23? Wemby is 20 years old. Where are the adults to sharpen his game?

“If you thought the Spurs made significant moves last season, besides adding the No. 1 draft pick, that’s on you. They told us this was not the case. You may or may not agree with the approach, but they were upfront and public about it,” Jeff McDonald, the Spurs writer, recently said wrote on Twitter. He added“(T)he Spurs wanted to observe Victor for a full season, see how he adapts to the NBA game or not, and then buy the pieces that fit together best.”

In Kareem’s second season, his Milwaukee Bucks traded for Oscar Robinson and went on to win the 1970-71 championship. Later in his career he played for Magic Johnson and “Cap” won five more rings. Yes, having a point guard for the world is important. Yet Spurs have so far declined to bring in a lead guard to play Wemby. Earlier this year, there were rumors about trading for Dejounte Murray. Before the season, future Hall of Famer Damian Lillard blinked at the franchise. San Antonio had limited signings over the summer free agent Austin Reaves away from the Lakers. Or they could have packaged some of their promising young guys – Vassell is averaging almost 20 points per game, Johnson is around 16 and three others are in double figures – for a big-name vet. The Spurs also have a number of deep draft picks – their own and several others, including a handful from Atlanta the deal that sent Murray to Atlanta. Yet all they gave Wemby in year one was Jones, a talented if untested second-round pick who Pop inexplicably declined to start for the first half of the year. Why?

“There’s a zero percent chance that Spurs will simply ‘return’ next season. If they do, I’ll help you all sharpen your pitchforks,” McDonald, tweeted.

Gregg Popovich talks to Victor Wembanyama during the second half of a January game against the Detroit Pistons at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, Michigan. Photo: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Maybe this summer will be the turning point. If so, the Spurs would have had a year to see how Wemby adapted to the NBA. Theoretically, they’ve seen who he plays well with and the team could put together a package of assets to trade for a star like Trae Young, LaMelo Ball, Darius Garland or Cade Cunningham, all of whom could be available for the right price. And there are other lower-level point guards who may be available to sign, such as Chris Paul, Kyle Lowry, Mike Conley or Malcolm Brogdon. Or maybe Jones will become an All-Star himself. Over the past two years, he has averaged twelve points and six assists per game, even though he is only 24. And even though he’s only six feet tall, Wemby will be behind him, obliterating the edge like a T-Rex does the sun.

This could all be true. But what’s most confusing is why Pop, whose last winning season was in 2018-19, has seemingly dragged his feet. It started early this season when he decided to start not only Collins, but also Sochan, a forward. at point guard instead of Jones. In a way, the only explanation for this could be securing Spurs goods bad this year. Maybe that was Dad’s big plan? After all, in the NBA there is an incentive to be bad. The worse the record, the better the draft pick. Or maybe there is another option.

Perhaps Pop stacked the psychological deck against his budding star at Wembanyama? As the cerebral Frenchman talked about playing forward – not in the middle – and handling the ball after being drafted, perhaps Pop let him have his way – without a credible point guard – to prove that Wemby’s rookie ambitions were untenable . (He is known for sending messages, after all.) In the same way that parents let their kids smoke a carton of cigarettes when they catch them taking a puff, maybe Dad was playing mind games? Maybe maybe not. But before the season he did speak highly of “add more wins.” Now Pop says it will increase Wemby’s workload after the All-Star break.

So far it appears there is no real harm and no real violation. Whatever they did, Spurs weren’t going to win a title this year. Wemby plays an All-Star level (immediately historical usage frenzy, despite limited minutes) and after 55 games he inevitably has a better idea of ​​where he fits and who works around him on the current roster. Those are victories. And with a few offseason moves, the Spurs could be a playoff team, perhaps increasing their win total to 30 or even more than 40 games. Still, bad habits can grow like mold on a petri dish if you’re not careful. This year, some on the team, including Johnson, have regressed. His minutes have been shortened when he should be flourishing. Last year Johnson scored 22 points per game as a starter, this year it’s down to about 16 and he regularly comes off the bench.

Indeed, every strategy has unintended consequences, collateral damage. Perhaps a regression like Johnson’s is inevitable. But why Spurs are so bad this year is ultimately part obvious (banking Jones) and part vague (is it all part of some plan?). The hope is of course that the Wemby skyscraper, now an NBA pitcher, has not or will not lose ground as a budding star. Given the Spurs’ bottom-feeding record, there’s nowhere to go but up. Many fans hope so. The NBA is better when the Spurs are good. The NBA is better when the first rookie plays in meaningful games. Fans want to see Wemby against the best and, as mentioned above, everyone loves Pop – even if we don’t always understand him.