The Spurs’ 2023 media day was filled with optimism. Victor Wembanyama was the major reason for it but the excitement of and about the other young players as well as the news about Devin Vassell’s extension contributed to it too. There’s a sense of stability and purpose in San Antonio again.
There was no better example of how things had changed from last season, which marked a start to the rebuild, than a quote from Gregg Popovich about goals for the new year:
“Development is great and all those guys needed it, and they made some big jumps. Even though there weren’t a ton of wins, even in the losses there were some great moments and some real competitiveness on the part of a lot of those guys. And of course, when you add a player with Victor’s abilities, your prospects look better. But this year with development, I think one of the important factors to enhance that development, is winning. So winning is as important this year as learning was in the past. So they have to continue to learn but adding more wins I think is appropriate, mandatory, helpful.”
It’s not a particularly shocking quote, since the Spurs are entering Year 2 of their rebuild with more talent and experience than they had the season prior, but what makes it noteworthy is how definitive it is. “Winning is as important this year as learning was in the past” doesn’t seem like that extreme a statement for a coach to make, but just a year ago, Pop stated that the whole point of that season was development.
The team hasn’t really changed much outside of Wembanyama, so the question is, are the two stances compatible? From Pop’s words, we can see that he doesn’t consider winning and learning to be mutually exclusive but in such a highly competitive environment as the NBA, that might not be the case. The reason the best teams have quality veterans as important pieces is that guys who have been around for a while tend to get the job done. Younger squads, by contrast, can often compete but can’t close games out. The 2021/22 Spurs, led by Dejounte Murray, are a great example of how victories can slip away when unproven leaders are trying to figure out how to handle increased responsibilities. There are some growing pains during those transitions, which last year’s team didn’t really get to experience fully since there was no pressure to actually win, as the team was tanking.
Speaking of tanking, what this group has going for it is that, going by what Pop said, the team will actually try its hardest this year. It’s a reality that the Spurs could have actually won a few more than 22 games last season. Between selective resting and trades that shook up the rotation, Pop trotted out 40 different starting lineups, many including rookies or players that only had a handful of appearances wearing Silver and Black. The young guys got to play through many, many mistakes, there was a lot of experimentation with units, and there were moves made both by the front office and the coaching staff that led to the team getting worse in the short term. Just by actively trying to succeed the Spurs should see some progress on the standings this season. Whether they should strive to do it is debatable, but they will likely win more.
Curiously, the biggest factor for wanting to win might provide the biggest challenge to the idea that the final score at the end of a game is as important as development. In that same Q&A session, Gregg Popovich admitted that they still don’t know how to use Victor Wembanyama, and not just because he’s a rookie. Because Wemby has such a unique and moldable offensive game, Pop said that they will have to figure out if they use him close to the basket or in the perimeter and will have to find out who fits best around him. It will clearly take some trial and error to get it right but making sure the potential franchise player develops correctly is paramount. It’s also likely that Victor is tagged to be the one to take bit shots and while he has some experience in that role at the FIBA level, it will be harder to carry the burden against the best in the world. With him, the focus should be development.
Wembanyama can be the exception to this new approach by Pop, of course. Wemby should be able to help immediately in a lot of different areas so he should be afforded a little more patience than the rest when he occasionally hurts the team as he tries to find his place in the league. The new higher expectations will likely fall on the guys who experienced the lower ones last season and who have been in the league for a while. After all, Tre Jones, Devin Vassell, Keldon Johnson and Zach Collins have a few seasons under their belts and are paid as the young veterans they are. Demanding that they play winning basketball is not irrational. Pop mentioning that Johnson got to focus on offense last season and will be asked to step up on defense this year is a good example of this new notion that just showing progress in one area won’t cut it anymore.
The Spurs are in an interesting position. Players like Wembanyama and Jeremy Sochan, whom Pop also admitted he hasn’t figured out yet, clearly need the freedom to explore their limitations and make mistakes even if they cost the team. Others have had those luxuries and will seemingly receive more scrutiny now, which makes sense. At some point, the training wheels have to come off.
The challenge for Gregg Popovich will be to find the right balance between being the disciplinarian who had no patience for mistakes in the championship years and the more laid-back mentor he’s been during the last couple of seasons. The legendary coach who reinvented himself and his teams countless times during his career will have to do it once again.