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What we learned from the Spurs loss to the Bulls

Debunking some prevailing narratives.

San Antonio Spurs v Chicago Bulls Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The San Antonio Spurs lost to the Chicago Bulls on Thursday night, 114-95, for their 3rd straight defeat. It was another game in which the Spurs started strong, but couldn’t score down the stretch, while their opponent got hot. This uneven play throughout a game is typically associated with young teams, and the Spurs are indeed a young team.

Unfortunately, after the final buzzer, the story of the game wasn’t of a young team who shot themselves in the foot with turnovers, or were out-muscled in the paint, or couldn’t defend well enough in transition to win. The prevailing narrative that emerged after the 19-point loss was that the Spurs don’t want to get the ball to their young star, Victor Wembanyama.

The Chicago Bulls announcers were quick to hop on the Spurs ball handlers for not getting Wembanyama the ball inside. The Spurs announcers repeatedly pointed out missed opportunities to feed Wembanyama for easy baskets. It’s a problem acknowledged by both fans and San Antonio players all season (see Devin Vassell’s comments after the game.) However, Thursday night’s game seemed to be the final straw for many. Fans took to social media to cherry pick clips that support a theory that the Spurs are seemingly “icing” Wembanyama out, and intentionally not getting him the ball when he’s open.

This is ridiculous for a couple reasons, but let’s start with the facts. Wembanyama has a 29.3% usage rating. That means when the rookie is on the floor, nearly one third of the Spurs offensive plays involve him in some way. Here is an interesting graphic that shows how many times players have tossed assists to Wembanyama. Vassell, Keldon Johnson and Tre Jones have thrown him 20+ assists this year. Jeremy Sochan, Malaki Branham and Zach Collins have all tallied 10+ assists to the big man.

Those numbers need to be higher, and that comes from a lack of familiarity and court vision from some key players on the team. But to call this phenomenon an intentional cold shoulder from teammates is a baseless argument that ignores data and common sense. The Spurs’ system is built around ball and player movement which means that an assist could be made by anyone on the court at any time. That also means that an assist can be missed by any player who doesn’t see an available passing window that seems obvious to viewers. Also, Wembanyama isn’t the only player the Spurs routinely miss. Sochan, Johnson and Vassell are open on cuts multiple times a game but don’t receive the ball. This issue has much more to do with the Spurs’ lack of experience and developing offensive acumen than any unspoken personal vendettas.

The bottom line is the Spurs are an inefficient offensive team for a number of reasons. They are bottom-five in the NBA in both field goal and three point percentage. Only two teams turn the ball over more than they do. They don’t generate enough good looks, and they don’t hit many of the open ones they manage to create. I think Gregg Popovich said it best after Thursday night’s game: “You got to score and we got a problem scoring, all year basically.”

Until the Spurs figure out how to generate offense, these losses aren’t going away.

Observations:

  • Since Wembanyama has moved to playing the majority of his minutes as a center, I have been encouraged by his ability to keep up with the bruising centers of the NBA. On a few plays against Chicago, Nikola Vucevic tried to burry Wembanyama under the rim and get a layup over him. What was perceived as a potential weakness for Wemby has actually not been that big of an issue. He’s got the length to bother a shot even if an opposing center can establish position. This ability has been huge during Wembanyama’s playing time at the five.
  • Collins has been excellent in the backup center role for San Antonio. He’s playing with terrific energy on both ends, knocking down perimeter shots, and giving the second unit a steady presence in the low block. Collins had 14 points, 9 rebounds, 2 assists and 3 blocks against Chicago. He also hit two three pointers. Since coming of the bench, Collins is shooting 58.3% from three.
  • San Antonio continues to hurt themselves with unforced errors. They turned the ball over 19 times against the Bulls on Thursday. Of those 19, 11 were forced by steals from Chicago. The other 8 were the cause of erratic passes, stepping out of bounds, or some other violation. You can’t expect to run a high-powered offense when you just give up nearly ten offensive possessions due to silly/youthful mistakes. It’s become a regular thing for this club that you just don’t see too often in the NBA.