Famed NBA talking head Bill Simmons published his annual NBA over/under podcast this week. Your opinion on Simmons may vary, but these shows are always interesting to get a snapshot of what expectations are for teams around the league. It was here where he called the 2023-24 San Antonio Spurs a “tanking” team, and expected them to go under their 29.5 win total over/under.
It’s just the preseason, but this has not looked like a tanking team. Now you can’t really make a call on whether this team will be “good” or not based on four games against frankly, subpar NBA talent (they avoided a top-10 player in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the Heat rested their entire roster and Houston is still a young developing team.) They haven’t been tested by the great teams in the NBA like the Nuggets, Bucks or Lakers. The results so far have been up and down but one thing has remained evident – this team has talent.
It manifests itself in Victor Wembanyama’s jaw-dropping plays, or Devin Vassell’s scoring ability, or Zach Collins all-around game from the center spot. It can look like Jeremy Sochan playing aggressive defense, switching to guard one through five, or Keldon Johnson bullying his way into the paint and playing with purpose on defense. Heck, Tre Jones and Cedi Osman have looked like huge upgrades over the bench unit that was featured last season.
In their 117-103 win against Houston on Wednesday night, they ran out a 10-man rotation of players that looked like they belonged on a winning team. Not many tanking teams can say that. That doesn’t mean it’s been all roses. After the game, Gregg Popovich had a quote that stuck out.
“Mentally, we’re not mature enough to understand it’s a 48-minute game,” Popovich told reporters. “It got easy there in the first quarter, start of the second quarter. We turned it over, stopped moving, stopped cutting. They’re young, and that’s where we have to be on top of them.”
Unfortunately, “young plus talented” doesn’t always equal good. It’s rarely boring, but it also doesn’t win many championships. Popovich is of course the great equalizer here. Not many young teams with this kind of talent have been coached by an all-time great. So I’m not telling you to bet the over nor the under on 29.5. But through four preseason games, this doesn’t look like the team that tanked it’s way to 20-wins last season.
- It’s just preseason but we saw some vintage Pop on Wednesday. One such moment was in the third quarter when Malaki Branham let a Rocket step right around him, grab an offensive board, and put it back up. As the camera followed the action to the other end, you could see Popovich march down to Julian Champagnie on the bench, and forcefully throw his thumb towards the scorers table. I immediately knew Branham was coming out. The Spurs were bad in general rebounding against Houston. They let them grab 16 offensive boards. Branham got another shot in the fourth quarter where he played well, and more importantly boxed out. As this team gets better, the expectations are going to be higher. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw more moments like that this season.
- Wembanyama continues to wow us in different ways. Tonight it wasn’t about his crazy highlights (although that nutmeg was something special,) but rather his IQ. Yes he did take some errant shots. The deep, quick trigger threes are fun if they fall, but only work in the flow of the offense. I was impressed by his ability to draw fouls, especially when defenders try to attack him while he’s dribbling. With such a high handle (only natural for someone of his size) he has a savvy knack for avoiding swipes, and uses his body extremely well to shield himself and draw fouls. He went to the line 8 times in a game where he couldn’t get his shot to fall. That’s what separates average scorers from the good ones.
- “Tall ball” is the way. It seemed unlikely all offseason, but Popovich confirmed this is the starting unit. It worked on Wednesday, as the Spurs were able to switch defensively and pressure Houston’s ball-handlers. Sochan looked much more comfortable bringing it up and running some offense, but also wasn’t pressured as much as his last two games. Really it was more of a by-committee approach in the half court. Collins is leading the team in assists from the center position. Everyone is going to have the opportunity to make plays for each other. When it was working, it looked beautiful. There will be some time spent working out the kinks, but early results seem positive.