Before this season began, Gregg Popovich chose his words carefully. He knew he couldn’t admit outright that the Spurs were tanking — or at least not trying their hardest to put together the winningest team they could — but “at the risk of being fined”, he admitted his team wouldn’t be contending for anything.
Now, with his team nearly three quarters of the way through the season, on a franchise record 16-game losing streak, and in a seemingly never-ending rut of being unable to string together enough consistent minutes to pull off a win against any level of competition, Pop is taking his words a step further, admitting his team isn’t built to compete for 48 minutes after his team’s latest debacle: a 102-118 loss to the Jazz in which the Spurs led by 14 points early in the second half before completely falling apart.
“We talk about 48 minutes all the time. We’re obviously not a 48-minute team. We got outscored 16 in the third quarter. I think in nine minutes they [Utah] were in the bonus. All that discipline goes to hell. Not mature enough to understand that you got to keep it up. It’s a game of consistency, execution, and keeping your competitiveness up. We just don’t have it for 48. I think I can finally say that at this point of the season.”
While he doesn’t outright say this is by design, that last sentence of, “I think I can finally say that at this point of the season,” is telling in the sense that he knows he still has to be wary of how he words things, but it’s not like anyone can deny it at this point. His team’s MO all season has been play hard and never give up for close to 36 minutes per game, but at some point, be it early or late in the game, the Spurs suffer an absolutely horrible stretch where they might get outscored by anywhere from 10 to 30 points, and that’s the ballgame.
This is a team that has not won a single game this season when either trailing by double digits at any point or when entering the fourth quarter behind, even if it’s just by one point. There’s a lot of reasons for this problem. Youth is one of them, although Pop has said he’s tired of that excuse (which is understandable: it’s not like even the rookies have never experienced a come-from-behind victory at any point in their playing days). Another is being perpetually shorthanded and having to lean on their rookies and players like Keldon Johnson, who is an excellent third or maybe even second option but was never built to be a first option, which is where the Spurs desperately miss Devin Vassell (although his sample size as a top option is still pretty small).
But the biggest reason, and likely the one Pop is referring to, is his team is simply out talented on most nights, and as more talented teams do what everyone does and crank things up for the closing stretch of the game, the Spurs just don’t have the talent, shooting, and defensive discipline to keep up, let alone recover if they’re already in a hole.
Of course, even though Pop won’t (and can’t) admit it outright, this is all by design. He may not have expected things to get this bad, but they wouldn’t have made the moves they did — namely trading Derrick White, Dejounte Murray and Jakob Poeltl primarily for draft assets — if their goal wasn’t to have the best chance they could at this season’s top overall pick. The timing is right since Victor Wembanyama projects to be a rare, generational talent, and Scoot Henderson, who has drawn comparisons as the next Chris Paul, would be one of best consolation prizes there is.
This season has been a painful ride for everyone, from the players and coaching staff, right on down to the fans, but Spurs fans know as well as anyone what a little bit of lottery luck can do for a franchise. Hopefully this year goes similarly to 1987 and 1997, because as accepting as everyone has been of the “rebuild” this season, it will be difficult to deal with a repeat next season if they don’t get a piece that will represent the next step forward in the draft and/or free agency.
Everyone has their limits, and even though Pop knew his team was going to be bad, perhaps even he is reaching a breaking point, because it probably wasn’t supposed to be this bad.