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What we learned from the Spurs win over the Magic

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Conclusions can always be drawn, but what determines value in a vacuum?

NBA: Orlando Magic at San Antonio Spurs
Socrates, seen corrupting the minds of the youth [398 BC, colorized]
Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

Of all contests, the blowout win is the probably the most difficult to analyze, and in the sport of basketball this is particularly true.

What can you really learn when the opposition shoots 36% on the night? There are so many things that bad shooting can be attributed to, and only one of them involves your team playing spectacular defense. Injuries, absences, poor shot choices, unfamiliarity, and the laws of variance are (and were) all in play as contributing factors in the victory.

And that’s not to say that your team didn’t play well, it’s just that there’s an overwhelming temptation (particularly as a fan) to read more into the situation than might have actually been there. Did the San Antonio Spurs play spectacularly Friday night, or did they just play well at the same time that a depleted Orlando Magic team played spectacularly badly?

This kind of game can serve as a litmus test for factions of a fanbase. For some it might confirm their suspicions that this is a team better in the absence of DeMar DeRozan. For others it might confirm their long-standing distaste for San Antonio’s entire big man rotation. There are those for whom it might serve as the confirmation of a successful youth movement, or even as the catalyst for faith in a 2021 Spurs title run.

And that’s the thing about confirmation bias; it can only really be confronted by an opposition of substance. An extremely narrow and hard-fought victory against a Western Conference contender would instill more confidence simply by the virtue of its legitimacy, something that a 13-25 Orlando Magic team (sporting the league’s 3rd worst net rating, and 4th worst record) would have difficulty spelling, much less supplying.

This is hardly an original notion to begin with. Anyone who’s watched Gregg Popovich’s post-game interviews over the years has seen him scorn even large margins of victory over a perceived lack of effort or focus, something that has trickled down into the ranks of former (and current) Spurs players and members of the coaching staff.

It’s one of the great rules of coaching; that no victory is so complete that it stands without flaw. And it serves as a philosophy that any coach worth their salt from middle school onward adheres to. I can remember with clarity being taken to task for technique and execution the Monday after a significant victory on the previous Thursday or Friday evening.

No video room is a safe space in the wake of athletic competition, regardless of the league or level. Give just about any coach game tape and a weekend to watch it and they’ll have a thirty-minute lecture ready for you by the next practice, guaranteed.

But for the rest of us, the landslide is a vacuum into which all significant analysis slips the surly bonds of earth, with the exception of two end conditions: the win, and the loss. And since we’re sitting here talking about the former, I think it’s safe to rule out the latter. So, bearing that in mind, I’ve mapped out what I think are the two most reasonable conclusions that can be reached based on last night’s win. Do with them what you will.

Argument A:

- Good teams beat bad teams with regularity.

- The San Antonio Spurs are now 11-8 vs. teams with records of .500 or less.

Conclusion: The San Antonio Spurs are a good team.

Argument B:

- Good teams beat bad teams with regularity.

- The San Antonio Spurs are *only* 11-8 vs. teams with records of .500 or less.

Conclusion: The San Antonio Spurs are [possibly not] a good team.

Takeaways:

  • At first glance it might seem as though San Antonio’s big man rotation (outside of of small-ball stud Rudy Gay) struggled offensively in this one, but a closer look reveals that Jakob Poeltl, Trey Lyles, and Drew Eubanks only took a combined 13 shots, and made 5 of them. Certainly more offensive contributions are going be needed from that group in the future for the Spurs to continue to effectively pursue a playoff spot, but that perception drastically undercuts just how smart and unselfish they were last night. Understanding how vulnerable Orlando was on the wing and at guard, and that their best defenders largely play the 4 and the 5, San Antonio’s big men passed out from the post at any sign of vulnerability on the perimeter, collecting 10 assists as a group (with Poeltl himself collecting a career high of 6). Combined with their defensive efforts (every Orlando frontcourt player outside of Nikola Vucevic combined to go 5-20) they’ve proven that they can hold down the fort with savvy play and solid execution. The Spurs still need a more traditionally sized big who’s comfortable scoring to balance out the frontcourt, and hopefully that’s something that will be addressed soon, but in the meantime, San Antonio’s frontcourt depth looks to be much less of a liability than in recent years past.
  • That being said, I don’t know that I like the idea of having Drew Eubanks on the court for almost 20 minutes per game. Fond though I am of Eubanks, size and athletic ability have placed him at right about his ceiling as a depth and energy big man, and it’s hard to see him out there for longer than 10-12 minutes a night, particularly when Luka Samanic (whose ceiling seems much higher) seemingly rides the bench as a result of those extra minutes. Eight minutes might seems like nothing consequential to be quibbling about, but every NBA minute counts when it comes to player development, and frankly, Eubanks doesn’t appear to have much game left to develop.
  • Words cannot express how much better this team defends with Derrick White back in the lineup. Yes, the Magic just couldn’t seem to hit the backside of a barn last night, but that wasn’t just bad shooting. San Antonio’s perimeter becomes sturdier with each game as White recovers more fully from illness and injury, and it’s beginning to show in the box score. Thankfully Derrick seems to be starting to find his shot as well, which bodes well for a Spurs team that can ill afford a lack of scoring with LaMarcus Aldridge’s impending exit.

Playing You Out – The Theme Song of the Evening:

Ballad of Big Nothing by Elliott Smith