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What we learned from the Spurs loss to the Cavaliers

The pros and cons of experimentation

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Cleveland Cavaliers David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

In the late 2000s, after decades of dominating the fast-food industry without much incident, the golden-arched empire of McDonalds finally found themselves falling prey to public scrutiny. Finally beginning to lose market share due to (very reasonable) accusations of unhealthy menus and dubious food-related practices, company executives began to encourage employees to explore and share healthy solutions that could keep their brand from potentially sliding further.

Eventually, this decree from then-head-executive Donald Thompson would lead to experiments in the corporate kitchen. The most famous result of these experiments has to be McDonald's very own bubblegum-flavored broccoli.

Why was this one of the first things I thought of watching the San Antonio Spurs play the Cleveland Cavaliers? It wasn’t. The first thing I thought of was how much better the offense looked.

With Tre Jones starting in place of Malachi Branham over the last two games (and in spite of a minutes restriction for the continually ascending Victor Wembanyama) the Spurs have pushed two Eastern Conference playoff teams to the brink, with Devin Vassell’s recent slump very coincidentally ending during the same stretch.

It’s only two games, of course, but thus far Jones is averaging 18/5/3 on a 50/67/100 shooting split, and the Spurs have profiled as 17th in scoring (previously 26th), 14th in offensive rating (previously 29th), and 18th in net rating (previously 30th) in that same stretch.

As it turns out, having an actual point guard running the point matters, even if it only raises the floor rather than the ceiling.

The effect has been visible, with Devin Vassell shooting with renewed confidence, Victor Wembanyama offering one consistent offensive performance after another, and Jeremy Sochan looking like his old self, happily wreaking havoc on the defensive end and serving as a connecting piece with his still-improving vision and intuition.

The Spurs even appear to have kicked their deflating habit of coming out flat in the second half, winning the 3rd quarter in back-to-back games for the first time this season.

Losses aside, things appear to be looking up for the Silver and Black, with renewed effort and excitement as players feel comfortable to settle into their roles and excel within them. Even Keldon Johnson appears to have taken to his new assignment of coming off the bench, leading the second unit in both attitude and scoring, seemingly capable of being even more recklessly energetic off of the pine in a way that feels vaguely reminiscent and sentimental.

This isn’t to say that experimentation doesn’t have its place. It’s always important to try and look at things from a new angle when stagnation and decline set in.

But there does seem to be a sense of relief emanating from Spurs players after 30+ games of relative variability. I imagine the children that McDonald’s paid to test their bubblegum flavored veggies felt the same way.

Somewhat famously, Donald Thompson eventually admitted to the public that his experiment had been a failure. The kids they had served that sweetened produce had been thoroughly confused by the flavor profile, their sense of reality subverted in a way that wasn’t enjoyable, with Thompson going as far as to admit that the saccharine broccolini “wasn’t all that”.

He no longer works for the company, after his attempts to improve the health of the chain failed miserably (see: a 4.1 percent decline in customer traffic), though he does serve on the board for the vegan alternative meat company Beyond Meat. And McDonald’s, against all odds, is now the world’s leading seller of salads.

Experimentation has its place, as it should and (hopefully) always will.

But sometimes you just have to eat your broccoli.

Takeaways:

  • Relying on Zack Collins to be healthy for the entire season always felt a little risky considering his long-standing injury history, but I imagine the Spurs thought they’d have it covered with Charles Bassey waiting in the wings. Of course hindsight is 20-20, but with Bassey sidelined for the rest of the season, the Spurs are more than a little thin at center, a weakness that has been even more exposed by Victor’s minutes restriction. I’m not sure there’s much that can be done at this juncture outside of signing NBA outcasts or shipping out assets at the deadline, but this is something the Spurs will definitely need to address in the coming off-season at the very least. San Antonio’s defense has actually improved over the last month, ranking 20th since December 1st (previously 27th), but it’s going to be hard for the team to progress in any meaningful way if they continue giving up points at the rim the way that they have been since Collins went down.
  • It may not be showing in the box score just yet, but Blake Wesley has looked much improved in the return from his stints in Austin. Prior to this season, Wesley’s burst couldn’t be ignored, but his vision and overall court-sense showed all the refinement of a chicken in a snowstorm. Make no mistake though, Wesley has been keeping his head up and has been more steady and thoughtful with his opportunities. If he can keep it up, and turn it into something more, he may get his shot running the 2nd unit, with Tre Jones looking like he might spend more time with the starters. If Wesley can use the rest of the season to realize his potential, he might make things even easier (or harder) on PATFO when it comes to acquiring players in the draft and the off-season.

Playing You Out – The Theme Song of the Evening:

That’s Just The Way It Is by Phil Collins