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What we learned from the Spurs loss to the Lakers

Luck, lobotomies, and losing.

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at San Antonio Spurs Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

It’s fascinating to think that the lobotomy used to be a reputable mental health treatment.

In 1848 a railroad foreman named Phineas Gage survived the accidental explosion that shot a rudimentary crowbar out of the back of his head through the front of his face, and 100 years later upwards of 5,000 people had their brains surgically altered in the course of a single year.

That Gage lived for another 12 years after the event is difficult to conceive. That his survival initially prompted more conversation about how the brain might be surgically altered than the largely negative effects on his mental and physical health even more so.

The event in question didn’t lead *directly* to the lobotomy, of course. But it was exactly the sort of happy accident that prompts further experimentation and refinement — not unlike the 1983 NBA Draft.

Having lucked their way into Ralph Sampson through actual terribleness, the Houston Rockets’ front office recognized that they could assure themselves a 50/50 chance at the top pick in the following draft if they could simply dedicate themselves to the pursuit of losing for one more season. And roughly 40 years and one Hakeem Olajuwon selection later, here we all find ourselves in an era that might be referred to in the coming years as ‘peak tank’.

It is, I suppose, possible that the San Antonio Spurs’ recent rash of nagging yet remarkably non-critical injuries is entirely circumstantial. The Spurs have, after all, spent many years on the cutting edge of player health maintenance. It’s also possible that driving an ice-pick through someone’s prefrontal cortex will fix their behavioral issues. I suppose it all depends on what the definition of the word ‘is’ is.

It’s hard to predict exactly what the outcome of such a pursuit might be. There have certainly been successful tanking efforts in NBA history. The Houston Rockets did end up profiting from their efforts to such an extent that NBA Draft Lottery had to be invented. The Process eventually rendered the 76ers a contender through Joel Embiid. There’s even an arguably murky history in San Antonio surrounding the selection of Timothy Theodore Duncan.

But for every successfully tanking franchise, there are a plethora of cautionary tales from the franchises that either came up short or engaged in whatever-the-hell it is that Sam Presti is up to in Oklahoma City, not unlike the ratio of ‘successful’ lobotomy patients.

Because that’s the thing about an invasive procedure with imprecise results: more often than not, things don’t work out.

Walter Freeman, the inventor of the so called ‘ice pick lobotomy’ initially claimed to have a success rate of 85%. What qualified as success is still a matter of debate, but the remaining 15% turned out to be the fatality rate. When doctors later investigated long-term outcomes for his patients, they found that just one-third could be regarded as experiencing some improvement, while another third were significantly worse off.

And yet, for twenty years the lobotomy remained a preferred mental health treatment. The originator of the treatment, António Egas Moniz, was awarded the Nobel Prize and hailed as a psycho-surgical pioneer. And for 20+ years this simple, fast, miracle cure was preferable to slower, more gradual, yet less invasive forms of treatment.

So, what exactly does this have to do with basketball? I suppose that’s for each person to decide for themselves. Hopefully there are enough ice-picks to go around.


  • Plus/Minus is a pretty fiddly stat to base any basketball discussion around, but there’s something delightfully congruent with Jeremy Sochan registering an exact 0 on the evening. Though I’m not one to comb through every box-score (unless it just so happens to support an extremely niche point of mine), I think it’s safe to say that it often feels like he finishes most contests with a similar +/-, with plenty of positive and negative moments balancing each other out. Lofty lottery aspirations aside, it’s pretty easy to see why Pop keeps rolling Sochan out there on a nightly basis, with flashes coming in transition and (less often) behind the arc, as well as on the defensive end. But it’s been a long while (2001) since we’ve seen a rookie this raw get real playing time for the Spurs and I can’t help but find it amusing that (for once) Plus/Minus seemingly sums up the entirety of the experience.
  • On the other hand, Plus/Minus never seems to appropriately describe just how effective Jakob Poeltl has become. Despite playing only ten minutes due to an awkward landing and some ‘quad issues’, Poeltl was already on the verge of a double-double with 12 points and 9 rebounds while serving as the only real deterrent between a resurgent LeBron James and the rim of the basket. It’s no coincidence that James began feasting on the interior shortly after Poeltl’s exit (with Lakers fans tweeting their relief). It’ll be interesting to see how Poeltl’s contract situation will be handled this off-season (and trade deadline), but if he keeps adding to his bag of tricks (someone’s clearly been spending time with a certain GOATPUFF) it might end up becoming quite the conundrum for the the front office.
  • Speaking of impending contract conundrums, I’m starting wonder exactly how far Tre Jones’ price tag has risen over the opening stretch of this season. Though some on twitter might try to convince you otherwise, Jones has proven himself a reliable starter in the opportunities he’s had, finishing the night two rebounds shy of a triple-double and shooting an absolutely scorching 69% against a lengthy Lakers back-court. And while a slight improvement from long-distance has been an important part of his evolution this season, the true difference has been his desire (and much improved ability) to press and convert around the rim. Some moments have even had me wondering if he’s been hanging out with a certain Frenchman.

Playing You Out – The Theme Song of the Evening:

Teenage Lobotomy by The Ramones