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What the tanking experience was like for Spurs fans

An entire generation of Spurs fans only experienced success, so the past year was a new adventured to many.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at San Antonio Spurs Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

How would you describe the experience of watching a tanking team in the first year of a rebuild?

Marilyn Dubinski: It definitely took some getting used to, considering it was my first time watching a team in this state. (Tim Duncan had just been drafted when my mom decided we were responsible and old enough to get our homework and studies done and watch Spurs games.) It certainly had some deep lows, like the 16-game losing streak and complete embarrassment at the Alamodome, but the lows also gave me a certain appreciation for the smaller things, like the strong start and end of the season, watching the rookies get minutes and grow, and what few wins the Spurs did get on the occasions they were able to put everything together. This whole season was a valuable learning experience for all.

Mark Barrington: Painful? Interesting? It was frustrating to watch at times, with occasional bursts of joy at seeing a young talent burst upon the scene and shine with the brilliance of a million suns. Punctuated with the experience of watching some players who shine with the dim illumination of a 40-watt incandescent bulb with a loose connection. After watching years of almost flawless basketball from a well-organized, mostly veteran squad, it was a different experience watching a bunch of young guys trying to figure it out as they go. It was a good experience, but not one I really want to repeat anytime soon. I expect that next year will also be a rebuilding year, but since some of the foundations were put in place this year, it won’t be quite as frustrating to watch.

Bruno Passos: I’d describe it as compelling in terms of micro narratives but overall hollow, at least until we see whatever the payoff will be. Call it the unbearable lightness of tanking, which is the result of not only the bottoming out but an extremely fluid roster that saw north of 20 players suit up in Silver and Black. It’s worth bearing in mind, though, that this isn’t just a rebuilding season in San Antonio — it’s Year Zero. Without even that bona fide, borderline untradeable, rebuilding piece, it’s hard to know what to cling to and project down the road. That undercuts a lot of the experience, but I suspect that’ll change going into next year.

Jesus Gomez: Bittersweet would be the best way to describe it. Tanking is a strategically sound plan for a team desperate for top-end talent but by design the on-court product is going to be bad. During most games there were enough good moments from the young players to make even blowout losses entertaining, but all the injuries and short absences after the All-Star break made some nights feel meaningless. It was good to see rookies and fringe guys getting playing time and securing a high pick was worth the pains of bottoming out. But there were times when I was looking forward to the offseason more than the next game, which is a new experience.

J.R. Wilco: I’ll admit that this season took a toll on me. I felt like my connection to the team was endangered. I didn’t doubt the necessity of the team’s direction, but living through the reality of it was more difficult than I anticipated. And I don’t think it was primarily because of the losing — it was so many different lineups and too many players. Twenty-three guys logged minutes for the team this year. That’s practically leaving the realm of basketball and on its way to being a football team. There’s also a bit of “be careful what you wish for” as we finally got up close and personal with a team that had zero qualms about playing the rookies. The losing was tough, no doubt about it, but the biggest loss of all was that of not being able to watching excellent basketball while supporting my favorite team.

What’s the most positive takeaway from this season?

Dubinski: The growth of the rookies, specifically Jeremy Sochan and Malaki Branham. It’s a real shame Sochan’s season got cut short because he had really come on strong, but his in-season improvement was insane and almost entirely unexpected. He had plenty of future promise coming in, but likely no one foresaw his offensive game taking such a huge leap in year one. As for Branham, he came in as a shooting specialist but with much less hype, and while it took him a while to get going, once he did he was nearly unstoppable, showing off his ability to create for himself and shoot from all three levels. Blake Wesley has more work to do but gets a pass this season due to his knee injury, but if he can learn to combine control with his speed and athleticism, the Spurs will have absolutely nailed this draft class, which is encouraging after a couple of pretty notable gaffes in 2019 and 2021.

Barrington: For me, it’s really the spirit and culture of the team. Despite several long losing streaks, this team never lost the joy of playing basketball and playing for each other. A lot of the credit for that goes to guys like Jeremy Sochan, who always has a good time on the court and is supportive of his team no matter what. Malaki Branham and Blake Wesley have really developed their games, and a lot of their progress is due to the supportive atmosphere that surrounds the team. I’m also impressed with how quickly newcomers like Mamukelashvili and Champagnie were welcomed and integrated into the team even late in the season.

Passos: 14%. The individual leaps have been nice, and it’s great to continue to see Pop engaged, laughing and personally ensuring the Spurs spirit carries through to the next group, but at the end of the day a 1 in 7 shot at a generational talent stands as the greatest possible legacy of the 2022-23 season.

Gomez: The level to which the franchise showed commitment to the rebuild was the most encouraging to me. The Spurs didn’t try to take half measures. From starting Sochan in the first game of the season to trading Jakob Poeltl and Josh Richardson at the deadline, every decision made it clear that there was a plan in place that was going to be followed no matter what. The season was about development and securing the best lottery odds and they made sure to accomplish both goals.

Wilco: I see Bruno’s point that the greatest legacy of this season would be getting to draft Wemby, but I think my most positive takeaway from this year would be some proof that PATFO has been drafting well and making good moves. Even if the ping pong balls bounce perfectly for the Spurs, I think Sochan, Johnson, Vassell and Collins are all staying in town long term — and likely more than just them. As we begin to glimpse the possible end of Pop’s tenure, and as the Brian Wright era takes shape, it’s good to feel realistically optimistic about the team’s future decision making.

What was the most surprising moment, aspect or event of the season?

Dubinski: Overall, Sochan’s improvement was the biggest surprise of the season for me, but I’ve covered that to death both here and elsewhere. When going for a more specific event, it would probably be either the Jakob Poeltl trade (which in the grand scheme of things wasn’t surprising, but rumors were swirling at the time that they not only were thinking about keeping, but also re-signing him this summer, so that added to the surprise factor), or their 24-point comeback against the Hawks, which satisfyingly enough came against Dejounte Murray. It also came just one game after the Spurs blew a 29-point lead of their own. You’ll probably never see a bigger 180 between two games than that ever again.

Barrington: It probably is the Jakob Poeltl trade for me. At the time he was traded, you could have made a good argument that he was the best player on the team, and the front office decided to move him and put all of their trust into Zach Collins, who at that point was still an untested quantity, due to having missed much of his career with injuries. That trust has proven to be warranted with Collins’ play for the last part of the season, but it was a bit of a shock at the time.

Passos: The way Pop so willingly unleashed Sochan was probably the most fun for me, trying him out as a playmaker and letting him (and KBD) defend the point of attack were the kinds of quirks that made you lean in a bit more, regardless of the score.

Gomez: It’s between Malaki Branham’s game translating so well and so quickly to the pro game and Keita Bates-Diop having an unlikely career year. Both good performances have the caveat of coming in a rebuilding year on a bad team, but they are still impressive. Branham’s lack of elite athleticism will always limit what he can do, but he found ways to create space for himself off the dribble regardless. KBD had the most efficient scoring season of his career despite an increase in usage and continued to be a do-it-all piece that Pop could use to plug holes. Great stuff from both, which I didn’t see coming.

Wilco: I hate to bring it up again, but the biggest surprise for me — by far — was learning that Josh Primo wouldn’t be continuing his career in San Antonio. The entire situation was off every chart you could track it on: the team’s history of drafting high-character guys; the organization’s ability to build an exceptional support staff; the way Spurs players handle themselves as individuals; and so forth. Nothing I’ve known of this franchise over the past 20+ years had prepared me for the immediate and irreversible severing of ties with a young player that they’d placed such an investment in. His time with the Spurs began and ended with shock, and that’s the most surprising (and saddest) moment of this long and loss-filled season.

All the best to you, Josh. I hope you get all the help you need and find peace.