Today, Kevin Pelton and Andrew Lopez posted a piece cautioning against high expectations for the San Antonio Spurs next season here. One of the core arguments made was that the Spurs -10.1 average point differential should have resulted in an 18 win season, and that at 22 wins the Spurs actually over-performed. Remember, the Spurs had exactly ZERO national broadcast games last year, and with the team openly tanking for Wembanyama there was little incentive for the national media to watch the Spurs. We watched almost every game.
However, the analysis is actually incorrect. Brian Wright, the medical trainers, Pop and Brett Brown were all in agreement on the "tanking" plan and worked very well together to sabotage the defense of the Spurs. The offense appears to be normal from a numerical point of view because it is just too obvious to sabotage the offense. So in true Pop style, defense was the key not only to winning NBA Championships, but to losing in a little less obvious way. Pop and Brett made it look BAD, all in the name of player and skill development when it wasn't injury management. Players had longer term injuries, primarily to prevent decent defensive rotations. When the defense wasn't bad enough, Jakob was traded to make sure it got worse. Players were thrown together that literally had never shared the court in the preseason with the expected results. That's not going to happen this year!
The net result is exactly what you would expect. Decent offensive numbers, but tragically bad defensive numbers. But look closer. The Spurs had an astounding 6-42 record in 10+ point games. Looking further, there were ELEVEN (11) 30+ point losses, including a 142-110 loss to Houston. For reference, the Detroit Pistons last season, a bad defensive team at -8.2 but not historically bad like the Spurs had only TWO (2) 30+ point losses. When you correct for this obvious statistical abnormality, you get a bad defense at about 118.5, or -6.5 differential, which is about a 30 win team, give or take a game. That is a TWELVE (12) game swing from Pelton's estimation. If you take Kevin Pelton's estimation of a 18 win team, the expected win total of about 26, that suggests that Wembanyama is worth about +8 wins. Feels about right to me, but the starting point should be a 30 win team, not an 18 win team. That is a roughly 38-44 team which would just miss the playin tournament. This does not account for other improvement, which is where the Spurs player development program really shines.
I think Tre Jones continues his improvement to about 15ppg and 8ast, which is a credible starting PG in the NBA. Devin Vassell with a healthy year and the expected improvement looks to me like a borderline All-Star, notably better than what Derrick White did for us in his fourth year. I think Sochan is much better this year because he was so raw coming in. I think Zach Collins picks up where he left off last year and has a great contract year. A healthy Charles Bassey with a full training camp is a capable, even desirable NBA backup center. With a full training camp, I think Mamu's defensive liabilities are reduced and I think Barlow is a capable rotation player. (Is Barlow a potential All Star in two years?? I don't want to put pressure on the young man, but I think he's got some fantastic ability!) I'm not as high on Branham as others because I think he has athletic limitations, but the man can score and this team will need points. Can Blake Wesley improve? I'm concerned, really concerned, but I think his defense will be better. I really like Julian Champagnie, who I think can help out on dangerous wings which was a particular defensive liability last year. When Keldon Johnson can go back to being a complementary scorer rather than a #1 option, he's going to be better. Dougie McBuckets is going to run wild with Wembanyama attracting attention, assuming we don't lose him in a trade.
No folks, take the over on the Spurs at 26 season wins ...