Throughout NBA history there have been young teams. Those inexperienced squads have been known to struggle in a veteran dominated sport. Yet every once in awhile they will show glimpses of what the future holds once they put it all together. That was what we saw from the San Antonio Spurs on Friday night against the Los Angeles Lakers. What we saw on Sunday was the other side of that story – a young team getting “whooped” by a veteran squad.
“Well, let’s see, that’s what you call an ass-whooping,” Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich said after the 146-110 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans. “They had a great night shooting. We couldn’t throw it into the ocean.”
Pretty definitive stuff from coach Pop. The Pelicans were dominant offensively. They went 56% from the field and hit 22 threes at a 52.4% clip. They outscored the Spurs in the paint by ten points, and in transition by 16. They won the rebound battle, and looked like a team that can compete for a playoff spot.
San Antonio meanwhile regressed back to some bad habits they’ve shown all season. Stagnant offense without rim pressure, weak perimeter defense combined with out of position help leading to open shots, lack of rebounding on both ends. Those things won’t get it done against the best in the NBA. The Spurs clearly have a lot of work to do, despite snapping their losing streak.
But it’s getting close to the holidays, and nobody wants to be negative. It’s hard to find silver linings in another 30+ point loss, but there still are some areas where the Spurs are playing well. In the sake of the season, let’s look at some high points from the loss.
- Victor Wembanyama’s game won’t jump out on the stat sheet, but I was impressed with the rookie’s impact on both ends. He had 17 points, 13 rebounds, 4 assists and 4 blocks on Sunday, giving him the most double-doubles in a row (8) for a teenager since Dwight Howard. Defensively Wembanyama is already an above average player in the league. He may even compete for all-defense with how he disrupts teams at the basket. I was also a big fan of his shot diet on the offensive end. He got more post touches, where he showed poise and made good moves with both hands. His threes were open and came within the rhythm of the offense. All the Spurs need to do is look for him in the paint more often.
- Keldon Johnson has become quite the debated player in the Spurs fan base. Some think he’s the team’s best player, others think he should be traded at the first opportunity. I fall somewhere in the middle on Johnson, and can’t deny he’s a polarizing player. When Johnson gets to the rim, the Spurs are a better offense, and he is a better player. When he settles for floating around the perimeter, the Spurs are less efficient. Johnson is shooting 36% from three this season, which is an improvement, but he’s so much better being aggressive and using his big body to play physical in the paint. When he drove against New Orleans, good things happened. He and some of his teammates (like Devin Vassell) should continue to be aggressive getting into the paint.
- Cedi Osman is a breath of fresh air off the Spurs bench. He’s aggressive, keeps mistakes to a minimum and gives San Antonio a veteran presence. He had 14 points off the bench in Sunday’s loss. He was the Spurs most efficient offensive player. With Collins, Jones and Osman off the bench, the Spurs have legitimate weapons in the second unit. That depth should help them as the dog days of the NBA season happen later this year.
- Julian Champagnie knocked down five three-pointers in the fourth quarter. Champagnie is someone who Spurs fans had high expectations for coming into the season, but has struggled to make the impact he had last year. Getting his shot back on track would be huge for his confidence, and would give the Spurs another shooter off the bench.