There are three scenarios that have me emotionally involved when I’m watching basketball (or any other team sport). One, I’m watching a game of a team I support. Two, I’m watching a game of a team I want to see lose, in particular against a clear-cut underdog. Three, I’m watching a projected lottery team outperform expectations to the extent the analyst elite looks silly. I’ve had all three this week in spades.
On Monday, Bayern Munich got kicked out of the DFB-Pokal by Saarbrücken, who are currently in 15th position in the third league. What made that particularly sweet is that before the game, Bayern manager Thomas Tuchel went on record saying the journey to Saarbrücken will probably be more arduous than the game itself.
Then I saw the San Antonio Spurs furiously return from a double-digit deficit and narrowly beat the contending Suns in such spectacular fashion it left Kevin Durant and his teammates flabbergasted. I then fully expected a revenge game that would see the Suns, with Devin Booker returning to action, put the Spurs in their place. Alas, they didn’t. They were at times dismantled by the Spurs — a team unequivocally analyzed to project as one of the worst teams in the league — to lack playmaking, self-creation, outside shooting, and rim pressure, and to have nothing more than unrealized potential on the other end of the court. Plus, they’re inexperienced. And all that in a Western Conference, in which twelve teams are entering the season with legitimate playoff aspirations and in which only one team on paper looks even weaker. A sobering outlook.
Five games into the season, four of which came against superstar-studded Western Conference teams, the Spurs don’t have a 1-4 record, which would have been neither surprising nor disappointing. Instead, they’re 3-2 with a top-half offensive rating. Five games are a very small sample, of course, and things may well take a turn for the worse sooner or later, but things might also get even better.
It’s not wild to assume Victor Wembanyama will be a better player two months from now, it’s actually quite likely. It’s also likely the team will have a better idea of who they are, what works and what doesn’t. And yet, as the Nate Duncans and John Hollingers of this world would have us believe, the Spurs might still suck. They might, like last season, be one of the worst teams in the league. But this season is unlike last season.
The wildly inconsistent lineups are a thing of the past. They were a measure designed to make sure the team lost as many games as possible anyway. In contrast, lineup consistency so far appears to be a major priority. The starting five is set, and Tre Jones is established as the leader of the second unit. There’s a clear-cut core of six players that should, barring injuries, remain intact throughout the season. There was hardly a core at all last season. And most definitely there wasn’t a king of the core. There is now. His name is Victor Wembanyama.
The French Phenom is the future of the franchise, he will sooner rather than later far and away be the best player on the roster. What the Spurs are looking for are the very best players to deputize and cater to Wembanyama. Some of those might not even be in the league yet, others might currently play for one of the other 29 franchises. But the Spurs have a mouth-watering number of future picks to trade for the guys they deem the best fits for Wemby.
They also have cap space, the projection for the 2024 offseason is around 35 million. An elite wing stopper would come in handy for the Spurs, and OG Anunoby is likely to become available. But that’s just a thought.
Last but certainly not least, some of Wemby’s deputies are likely already on the roster. The campaigns of Devin Vassell, Keldon Johnson, Jeremy Sochan, Zach Collins and Tre Jones are all underway, with Vassell likely already a lock. But what about the others?
Well, that’s going to be my focus watching the Spurs this season. I’m less interested in who, in a vacuum, will be the Spurs’ second or third-best player, I’m primarily interested in who’s best for Wemby. But it would be a nice sweetener if all those analysts had to eat their words as we all find out the Spurs are no longer among the worst teams in the league.
- Wemby still has an awful lot to learn about what he’s doing on an NBA court. No player is a finished product after only five games, let alone five years. In this respect, it’s completely scary what Wemby already brings to the table at this embryonic stage of his NBA career. His floor is extremely high, in particular for a 19-year old, his margin for error is unprecedented, and I am tempted to say he doesn’t even have what we think of as a “ceiling”. There are so many areas in which he can and inevitably will improve. And even if he only moderately improves one or another aspect of his game, the overall skill level combined with his physical tools makes him the personification of a game changer, a basketball equivalent to Einstein’s relativity theory if I may add a bit of hyperbole. At the very least, he’ll be a three-level scoring DPOY. One thing I really like about Wemby, apart from him being so good and getting better at basketball, is his on-court demeanor: I expected him to be a bit more superstar or showman-like. It’s a welcome surprise he doesn’t at all appear like that. The impression he gives is one of calmness and composure, one of focus over flashiness. Frankly, he’s much more Spursy than I thought.
- Is Jeremy Sochan a point guard? Up until last night only in the sense that he dribbles the ball across the halfway line and then tries to create. The results are mixed, his pathways sometimes look a bit out of control, but he’s putting up numbers — nine assists with only one turnover last night is an encouraging feat. He also scored efficiently. What type of player will Jeremy turn out to be once he is the finished product? I have no idea, which is why I’m thrilled to find out.
- With no natural point guard in the starting five, pick-and-roll ball handling opportunities for both Devin and Keldon are on the up, and they’re doing a reasonably good job. Keldon making progress as a playmaker is a lovely little surprise I didn’t see coming. I would prefer it, though, if he stabilized his shooting and got better as a defender.
- Devin Vassell has a major role to play now and in the future of the San Antonio Spurs. He’s looking supremely confident out there, he has taken yet another step forward as a ballhandler, playmaker, and self-creator. He’s unable to get to the rim, but other than that he leaves little to be desired. Hopefully that groin injury clears up fast.
- “Will he ever suit up for the Spurs?” Something like that I thought when I learned about Cedi Osman coming to San Antonio. I must admit I was pretty much indifferent about the guy, thinking he’ll be gone by the trade deadline at the very latest. He’s won me over in record time, I truly hope there’s a future for him in Silver & Black.
- Zach Collins finally saw his three-point shot go through the rim, and he overall had a positive impact on the offense. Let’s hope he can continue in that fashion. One thing I’ve noticed about him that I find a bit worrying is most centers he has matched up with so far this season have a physical advantage over him. In some situations, I got late-career LaMarcus vibes. I will have to keep an eye on that.