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What we learned from the Spurs regular-season ending loss to the Mavericks

Parallels are one helluva drug

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NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Dallas Mavericks Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

In the world of sports (as in life) there are an awful lot of ways to learn nothing. There are just too many players, games, and seasons to account for, in one combination or another, to really claim a definitive degree of knowledge regarding any one contest. Teams have off nights. Teams can play exceedingly well and still lose. Teams that shouldn’t lose, can end up losing more than expected because of internal issues that no one outside is privy to. And teams can win in spite of inferior talent. And so on, and on.

What we witnessed last night against the Mavericks, was none of those things.

And yet, there were familiar elements. Closing out the regular season with the knowledge that there were still contests yet to come, Gregg Popovich whipped out the well-worn tactic of playing his starters enough to knock the rust off, before pulling most of them a few minutes into the 4th quarter.

It was a strategy all too familiar to Spurs fans, having seen it used during the closing stretch of 24 of the last 25 seasons, but this season (as well as last season) it’s carried a different connotation in the form of a series of winner-take all contests known as the NBA Play-in.

There are those who have (or likely will) question the legitimacy of the teams involved, and there are more than a few who have already suggested that this would be/is San Antonio’s worst postseason entrant, but there’s something about this team (and their record) that will likely feel familiar to a number of longtime Spurs fans.

To discover exactly what that was, I had to venture back in time to 1987.

1987 is, of course, a year famous for swatches, Cindy Crawford, and the San Antonio Spurs landing their first number one pick in the NBA draft. It’s also much less famous as being the last year in which an NBA team made the playoffs with less than 35 wins.

The team in question? The 1987-1988 San Antonio Spurs.

With a record of 31-51 and a winning percentage of just .378, it might be difficult to parse out the similarities between these two teams, but with a little digging the parallels really jump right out at you.

With the exit of San Antonio’s first (and at that time only) franchise icon, the San Antonio Spurs had spent a few seasons treading water. In fact, they’d made the playoffs with a losing record in 1985-1986 season as well (as did the 37-45 Sacramento Kings, and their seemingly eternally suffering fans), serving as fodder for the peak Showtime Lakers.

Then the bottom fell out, as the Spurs went a then-franchise-worst 28-54, their worst season since they’d been the Dallas Chaparrals, kept out of last in the Western Conference standings only by a Clippers team for whom 12 wins that season felt like a miracle.

With attendance sagging, and no real prospects draft-wise, basketball looked like it might be on the outs in the Alamo City. And then, miraculously, they landed the first pick in the draft, and the sky seemed the limit.

But the franchise would have to wait for David Robinson, and in the meantime there was basketball to be played. And in spite of a dreadful season, there was a semblance of a core in place.

Led by a long, ball-swiping guard in Alvin Robertson (who averaged 19/6/6 and led the league in steals) and the amusingly named big-man Frank Brickowski, the ‘87-88 Spurs ended the year 2nd in pace, 4th in scoring, 12th in offensive rating, and 22nd in defensive rating; profiling as a young, fast team in search of a defense.

There were, of course, a whole host of reasons for a team like that to simply pack it in while they waited for Robinson to arrive. And they would in fact spend a whole lot of the next season losing. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that that Spurs team lucked into the post-season, considering that the next worst record for a Western Conference Playoff team that year was 46-36.

And yet, there they were in the postseason, getting swept Magic Johnson and company. That they lost only one game by double digits, and nearly took the third contest against a team that went 62-20 and would go on to steal an NBA Championship from the Bad Boy Pistons seems like it doesn’t get mentioned enough.

But in the end, no one seems to know why that team decided to win games. Maybe it had something to do with the 1988 NBA draft going down as one of the more barren drafts in the history of the NBA? Maybe the franchise was simply trying to tread water in the San Antonio market? Maybe the players just really didn’t like losing?

Like I said, there are an awful lot of ways to learn nothing. In fact, it’s hard to say that I learned anything definitive from watching this team. Wednesday night they’ll play the Pelicans in New Orleans, and it’s hard to know what I’ll take away from that contest either.

If they keep winning though...well, that’ll make it harder not to come up with something.

Oh, and as for the 1988 draft? The Spurs ended up picking 10th, and took a hard-charging shooting guard out of Georgia named Willie Anderson.

Seems like that worked out okay.


  • In spite of a more languid approach to the second half, Gregg Popovich decided to flex a little coaching muscle in the first half, as he tasked his team with constantly and creatively trapping Luka Doncic any time he so much as touched the ball. It’s not an incredibly surprising tactic, but with the stakes of the game being somewhat non-existent, it appeared that neither Doncic nor his coach were prepared for it, even though San Antonio has displayed a long and switchy frontcourt for most of the season. I can’t say that that bodes particularly well for Dallas considering the likelihood of teams aping said strategy against them for most of the postseason, but you have to love that ‘ol Greggy P was still in the mood to give them a little grief ahead of the playoffs.
  • It’s been an odd season for Devin Vassell. While he’s played quite well on the defensive end, he’s been just as hot and cold as (and maybe even more than) we expect Lonnie Walker to be on the offensive end. Despite excellent shooting form, some nights it just seems like Vassell just can’t see the rim at all between 10 and 21 feet. Thankfully he continues to convert on the interior and outside the arc enough to keep things afloat, but he’ll definitely need to work out some kinks in the offseason.
  • On the other hand, I can’t say enough nice things about Tre Jones, who might be the first traditional point guard the Spurs have featured since the days of Avery Johnson. Like Johnson he has a habit of a making the right decision, but his size allows him to be even more of a hindrance on the defensive end, and if he can sort out how to shoot from long-distance, the Spurs might have to take a look an extending him. His stats have a way of looking very ho-hum until you realize just how efficient he’s been.

Playing You Out – The Theme Song of the Evening:

It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) by R.E.M.