After I stopped coaching college basketball, I still went out to campus to watch games. One of the games I attended was against an NAIA school from Orange County. Although we had a good Division III team, the opponent that night had scholarship guys who were taller, stronger and faster than our guys. They were also well-coached and played hard. Put simply, even though we had one of our typically strong teams, this was not a game we were likely to win. Predictably, the NAIA team won the game by about 15 points. But they did not score every time down, and our team was able to score a fair amount of points.
After the game, and before our coach went back to the locker-room to talk to the disappointed team, I pulled him aside. I told him that the team that had just beat us was the strongest team we had played in all the games I had coached or seen. I told him the message to convey to the players was not about what they had done wrong, but instead what they did right. Even though the other team had a great defense, when we ran our offense and moved the ball crisply, we were able to score. Similarly, even though the other team had a great offense, when we competed, were in the right spot, and contested the shot, we were able to get stops.
In many ways, even in a loss, the challenge of playing a better team taught our guys their ceiling. If we could score against that team when we did things correctly, and prevent that team from scoring when we did things correctly, the players should realize that they could defend anyone and score on anyone — when they did things correctly. They did not win this particular game, but each time they scored, or prevented this powerful opponent from scoring, was itself a small victory.
Some of you may see where this is headed. This season’s Spurs will not win the majority of their games. Indeed, most all pundits predict that the Spurs will win only about a quarter of their games.
The most optimistic prediction comes from our friends at fivethirtyeight.com. Their strictly mathematical formula predicts that the Spurs will finish the season with 30 wins. However, that prediction is largely predicated on the assumption that the team’s veterans will play a lot of minutes. A dubious assumption, in my view. John Hollinger at The Athletic has a more realistic view:
“The Spurs will be content to let their five teenagers develop at their own speed while Johnson and Vassell figure out their offensive limits. They’ll be one of the league’s worst teams, a strategy that has a 14 percent chance of yielding a giant French franchise center.”
Hollinger predicts the Spurs will win 24 games. NBC Sports is similar, predicting 24.5 wins (presumably expecting a tie game at some point). Sporting News predicts 23 wins. Vegas Insider has the Spurs with the fewest wins in the league: 22. Back Stage Sports predicts only 19 wins with this depressing but succinct analysis:
“The Spurs could very well be the worst team in the league this year. They are the front runners in the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes.”
Unless everyone is wrong, these win predictions have an unfortunate corollary: Losses. Lots of them. If fivethirtyeight.com is right with the “optimistic” 30 win prediction, that means the Spurs will have “only” 52 losses. The other predictions translate to up to 61 losses. For Spurs fans and players, that means that the vast majority of the games will end in the same disappointment that my former college team felt after losing to that NAIA school from Orange County. A loss to a team that was taller, stronger and faster than the Spurs. And almost all with much more experience.
Spurs fans and players should not expect actual full-game victories. Which means they need to look for small victories, even during defeats. Each Spurs possession that ends in a good shot is a small victory. Each time the Spurs get a stop, and one of the good guys secure the rebound, is a small victory. Enjoy those moments.
Individual players can have their own small victories too. Keldon Johnson can out-score LeBron James in a game — even if the Lakers win. (Side note — the Lakers might also suffer through a lot of losses.) Jakob Poeltl can have a great game defending the Joker — even if the Nuggets win. Each of the young guys can match up with an NBA All-Star and hold their own. And learn something each time they do.
Pop and the coaches can help with this. The film sessions do not need to focus on the mistakes, though they cannot be ignored. Instead, the coaching staff should use the small victories as teaching moments: ”See what we did on this play to get us a hoop, and on this play look at the great help defense that prevented a score” Sometimes the small victory will be a good decision to NOT do something: Choosing not to throw a difficult pass that might work, but probably won’t. We used to use the phrase “Good decision!” to compliment a player who correctly elected NOT to do something.
Indeed, all of us can do the same in our lives. Even if the midst of an otherwise mundane day, we can enjoy the small victories of solving a problem at work, helping a relative explore options, making a friend smile, or even better, laugh, seeing our kid making a good pass in a youth basketball game or bringing home a paper with a big “A” written on the top. Small victories, all of them, and all to be enjoyed and treasured.
In our lives, and watching this Spurs team struggle through this season, let’s all try to embrace the small victories, even if they don’t all translate into wins in the standings.