It’s not very often that Gregg Popovich has a lot of basketball things to say to the media, but when he does, people listen. Prior to the Spurs’ regular season finale against the Dallas Mavericks was one such occasion, when he gave a surprisingly lengthy explanation about why the Spurs pushed for the play-in tournament when they could have “tanked” / vied for a better draft pick. Per San Antonio Express News’ Jeff McDonald:
“There’s a lot to unpack there. Part if it is, it’s just not who we are. It’s not who I am. I can’t operate like that. Which might not be the most intelligent overall philosophy to have, and I get that. But we are who we are. We’re going to go ahead and complete.
“I think the young players gain a real understanding of a philosophically moral space where it’s the right thing to do, to continue to compete. Frankly, I don’t know how I would go to my team and say, ‘Ok guys, we’re not going to complete the way we should,’ or how you’d get that across, or with a wink and a nod. I think you do the players a disservice if they’re not able to go out and perform at the best of their ability.
“I think the lessons to be learned are very important as their careers advance. You hope that in the long run, that value they game from that will help them compete at an even higher level later. I understand the opposite, I just can’t do it.”
The tank debate was something that raged all the way up until the last few weeks, when the Spurs found their first extended streak of consistency to win seven of eight games and plant themselves squarely in the play-in while teams behind them blatantly tanked, and the struggling Lakers couldn’t stop losing no matter how hard they tried.
That being said, even if Pop had never outright said it, it was obvious all season that tanking wasn’t in this team’s DNA. They may not be a winning squad yet, but they always try their hardest every night. (I can probably count on one hand how many times I thought, “Wow, the Spurs really didn’t bring it tonight”.) Their struggles in close games has been well documented, and had they figured that part of the game out sooner, there may have never even been a debate over whether they should have kept fighting or let the season go earlier.
The reality is the Spurs are in a pretty decent spot right now. They hold the 9th best odds in the lottery, and the young players will still get a taste of the postseason experience while also feeling the satisfaction of accomplishing a mission (as opposed to last season when they fell from playoff contention into the play-in due to sheer exhaustion). Of course, some will note the Spurs will fall out of the lottery if they make it all the way to the playoffs, which is a distinct possibility, but that’s a topic for another day. Right now, the Spurs are packed for four road games and are ready to keep fighting for their pride and the city and fans of San Antonio.