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Game Preview: San Antonio Spurs vs. Cleveland Cavaliers

A tale of two tanks

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Cleveland Cavaliers
A fond PTR farewell and best wishes to the player in the background.
Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Tonight, the San Antonio Spurs and the Cleveland Cavaliers will meet on the field of battle. It’s likely that much attention will be paid to this contest, after the valiant and high-flying effort in Thursday’s loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. And after that lofty clash it’s hard to argue that this team didn’t earn it.

However, with more eyes on the team comes more scrutiny, something the young Spurs will have to learn to deal with if they have any hopes of pulling themselves out of the cellar this season, and avoiding it altogether in the future.

This is a reality the Cavaliers know all too well, having gone from one of the youngest teams in the NBA just a few seasons ago, to one of the ten oldest this year.

The Cavs, as many may recall, did some tanking of their own from LeBron James’ exit in 2018 to 2021, taking Darius Garland, Isaac Okoro, and Evan Mobley in quick succession, then engineered a trade for Jarrett Allen with the Nets, and a much more expensive trade with the Jazz (and Emperor Palpatine figure Danny Ainge) to acquire Donovan ‘Spida’ Mitchell, in a push for immediate contention.

How the results of that effort are seen depends largely, I suspect, on how one defines contention. The Cavaliers did win 51 games last season, and 44 the year before that, making it impossible to argue that the team has not improved.

However, the Cavs were whipped pretty convincingly (gentleman’s sweep) in the 1st round against a consistently inconsistent Knicks squad, and have struggled with some inconsistency of their own this season, currently doing their best to hold onto the 8th seed out East.

Certainly there have been injuries to blame, but conflicting rumors around a potential trade with Mitchell’s hometown Knicks have only muddied the waters, rendering The Cavaliers a Rorschach test for team-building, particularly from the perspective of tanking.

Unlike the 76’ers, Cleveland curtailed their tank, landing only one top 3 draft pick to the 76’s four, and yet both teams find themselves in a loaded East, looking to avoid 1st and 2nd round exits.

Which leads to the question of what path the Spurs will take. After leaning into the tank last season, and landing a ‘generational’ prospect, they appear to be doing the same this season. Will they follow the Sixers’ path? Or will they take a page out of Cleveland’s book?

And is either method capable of helping this team eventually bring home another championship?

Read the tea leaves however you like, I’m not here to judge, but there are a lot of narratives in play regarding the outcome of this game, as well as each of these team’s seasons.

As for me? I’m just here to watch. Go. Spurs. Go.

San Antonio Spurs at Cleveland Cavaliers

January 7th, 2024 | 12:00 CT

Watch: Bally Sports Southwest|Listen: WOAI (1200 AM)

Spurs Injuries: Charles Bassey - Out (Knee), Zach Collins - Out (Ankle), Malaki Branham - Day-to-Day (ankle), Doug McDermott - Day-to-Day (Forearm)

Cavaliers Injuries: Evan Mobley - Out (Knee), Ty Jerome - Out (ankle), Darius Garland - Out (Jaw)

What to watch for:

Lineup Creativity

With Charles Bassey lost for the season, and Zack Collins out for at least another week or two, the Spurs had been relying on Domenick Barlow to anchor the 2nd unit’s rim defense, with intriguing results. But Barlow left the game due to apparent injury, and is also somewhat limited due to his 2-way contract, so the Spurs are going to have to figure out what they intend to do with Sandro Mamukelashvili and Mamadi Diakite, or aquire another big man somehow. If the Spurs opt to run with what they have (likely) they’ll be sacrificing a lot of height, as Diakite, Barlow, and Mamu are all 6’9”. It’s possible the Spurs may opt to go small against in this one, as they did against the Bucks after Barlow’s exit, and that could results in some lineups we’ve yet to see at this point.

Victor Freakin’ Wembanyama

I refuse to elaborate any further. Here is a video. I suggest you watch it.

For the Cavs’ fans’ perspective, visit Fear the Sword.

PtR’s Game thread will be up this evening for those who want to chat through the game. You can also follow along with the action through PtR’s Twitter feed.