The Spurs were in limbo for a few years. There was no real purpose to what they were doing. Even the performances of the best players had to be looked at exceedingly optimistically to be considered meaningful, which was probably a good indication that bottoming out was necessary to avoid falling into complete irrelevance.
Everything changed when the ping-pong balls gave the Spurs the opportunity to draft Victor Wembanyama. All eyes are on San Antonio now, as the rookie is one of the biggest stories around the league and the world of sports in general. How he performs, who fits well with him and who doesn’t, and to what heights he can carry the Spurs will be a daily topic for fans and analysts. The Wemby era is about to start and everyone is watching.
The attention will feel unfamiliar for a franchise that didn’t get much of it for half a decade. In past years it was extremely rare for any matchups featuring the Silver and Black to be on any channel other than the regional ones but the Spurs were already on national television a few times in preseason and will get 19 chances during the regular season to impress a national audience that will be thrilled to watch Wembanyama make the impossible look easy. At various turns of their dynastic run with the Big Three the Spurs were, fairly or not, tabbed as boring, but it’s impossible to use that adjective or any synonym of it when Victor is on the floor. Few players in the modern era have elicited as much excitement as the French big and even fewer seemed as ready to live up to the insane hype as he is.
The attention will be mostly focused on Wembanyama, but the overflow will reach his teammates and the franchise in general. The front office and the coaching staff got to make some mistakes and had their hits without receiving much scrutiny as they transitioned from the short-lived Kawhi Leonard era, but those days are over. The ongoing commitment they made to rehabilitate Zach Collins will go from being a nice gamble to a huge decision since he’ll be the one tasked with flanking Wemby inside. The commitment to play without a point guard and trusting Jeremy Sochan with ball-handling duties would have been just a fun experiment in other years but if there are struggles it could be seen as an unnecessary flourish. Even Devin Vassell’s completely reasonable extension might become a point of contention if he doesn’t immediately look like a much better player.
The Spurs as a franchise should still know how to handle attention and pressure, but things could be a little tougher for the players. The issue is less about whether the young guys who will wear Silver and Black will be able to handle the media circus that follows Wembanyama and more about the overall talent level of the roster. Outside of the starters, the supporting cast is lacking if the idea is to compete. Even in the top five of Sochan, Vassell, Keldon Johnson, Wemby and Collins it’s hard to make a case for a second star. It’s not surprising that a team that was bad enough last season to secure the highest odds at the top draft pick hasn’t become a contender overnight but if losses pile up the overwhelmingly optimistic mood the Spurs live in now could sour when more eyes turn to more criticism.
Fortunately, a glass-half-full perspective of the roster is not totally unreasonable. The Spurs have a nice mix of prospects, young veterans and seasoned journeymen who could come together to exceed expectations. Vassell is healthy and ready to take a leap. Johnson should be able to step into a smaller role on offense which could help him spend more energy on defense. Sochan is still a ball of potential who has the tools to be the glue that holds lineups together. Collins is tough, talented and in theory a perfect fit next to Wembanyama. Tre Jones will give the bench unit some direction and hopefully assist in Malaki Branham’s and Charles Bassey’s development. Doug McDermott and Cedi Osman will be there to provide shooting and guidance. If someone fails to deliver, the next man up will be delighted to have an opportunity to shine. The Spurs could surprise a few teams.
Even if they don’t, the wins and losses are not what matter the most this year, at least to the fans. This iteration of the team should be extremely fun to watch and that alone is a victory. Wembanyama by himself is worth tuning into a game but those who were in the trenches during the tanking season know that the other young players can dazzle at times in the motion-heavy, high-paced offense that Gregg Popovich has installed. If the defense bounces back after hitting rock-bottom last season, most nights the Spurs will be competitive and entertaining, and that’s enough for now.
This upcoming season a lot more eyes will be on San Antonio and the pressure to create something special and lasting will start to creep in once again. The sense of purpose that comes with expectations will finally return. In a lot of ways, things will start to feel like they used to for the Spurs. But there will be one big difference.
The one thing the challenging past years taught a franchise and fanbase that were spoiled by success is to enjoy the exciting moments, even if they don’t immediately build up to greatness. It’s impossible to know what the wins column will say at the end, but what’s certain is the Spurs and their fans will have a blast in the 2023/24 season.