Are Victor Wembanyama, Spurs on right track to building a contender in San Antonio?

SAN ANTONIO, TX - APRIL 12: Victor Wembanyama #1 of the San Antonio Spurs celebrates after they defeated the Denver Nuggets 121-120 at Frost Bank Center on April 12, 2024 in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)

SAN ANTONIO — The San Antonio Spurs held fan appreciation day at Frost Bank Center on Sunday afternoon.

The sellout crowd of 18,516 didn’t much appreciate coach Gregg Popovich’s decision to hold superstar rookie Victor Wembanyama out of his team’s season finale, but the wisest of those in attendance had no quarrel with the Hall of Fame coach’s reasoning.

“Well, he’s got a long career ahead of him,” Popovich explained before rattling off the non-stop, on-court obligations the 7-foot-4 rookie sensation had completed through the previous year and a half, first in the LNB Pro A League in France and then for the Spurs. “And, he’s going to the Olympics. So, you look at it in a big picture sense, and it’s only logical that you be a little bit conservative.”

Popovich had joked that Wembanyama might put him in a headlock to force him to allow his participation in the finale, but there had been only some verbal sparring.

“It’s a two-way relationship,” Wembanyama said in a pregame chat with media. “So, we work together and I have to listen to the medical staff, what they have to say and in exchange, they will listen to me.

“And, I trust my guys to win today.”

Certainly, there was no need for the certain-to-be NBA Rookie of the Year to participate in a 123-95 blowout win over the Detroit Pistons (14-68), which tied for the 12th-worst regular-season record ever. Wemby already had spearheaded a late-season surge that had avoided both the worst record in club history and last place in the Western Conference. This season finale became a chance for two-way players and backbenchers such as Jamaree Bouyea, RaiQuan Gray, David Duke Jr. and Sidy Cissoko to show their stuff.

It didn’t take long for the one-sided contest to approximate an undisciplined summer-league game. So, when Spurs center Zach Collins departed with a shoulder injury early in the second half, the decision to sit Wembanyama proved prescient.

It was San Antonio’s seventh win in its last 11 games; its 11th in the 23 games played after the conclusion of the nine-game rodeo trip that consumed three weeks of February and produced only one victory.

The club’s competitiveness through the post-All-Star Game stretch of the season prompted a declaration from an ebullient Popovich after Sunday’s win that he was ready to begin a new season, “after about a week and a half off.”

When the Spurs regrouped in San Antonio after the All-Star break, Popovich challenged his players: Could they finish in the upper half of the league in some key measures of success during what remained of the season?

They did so in many categories, and affirmatively so in one of the most telling of team stats. Ranked 28th in net point differential (minus-8.5) before the All-Star break, they finished at minus-1.9, ranking 20th. Their improvement of 6.6 net points per game was the largest post-All-Star jump in the league.

At the height of the Spurs’ “Big Three” era that produced four NBA titles (2003, ’05, ’07 and ’14), Popovich often referred to his roster’s “corporate knowledge” as a major factor in its success.

He knew this season’s lack of such familiarity and awareness would likely bring the opposite of success, no matter how great a season his star rookie might have.

“If people have never played together, it’s going to take time,” Popovich said. “And, in the beginning of the year, probably the first 15, 20, 25 games, you’re starting different combinations; different people are coming off the bench. You’re playing, then you decide on something else, just trying to figure out who plays best with each other … and it takes time for that.

“And if there’s an injury that happens in the middle of that, it just sets you back even more because you can’t get a good feel. You don’t have enough possessions either defensively or offensively to make a good general statement about what you should be. That’s why we made a big deal to the team at All-Star break, seeing what we would do from there forward, given what we had to go through in the beginning.

“And, if you check the top eight or 10 stats on offense or defense, you’ll see that (in games played post-All-Star break) we’ve gone from the end, from the 28, 29 30 (rankings), to the midrange or lower in almost all those categories. So, it’s a huge jump and I wish the next season started (soon). …”

The winningest coach in league history was joking, of course, but his optimism was no joke at all.

The Spurs’ relatively strong finish included wins over the Oklahoma City Thunder, Indiana Pacers, Golden State Warriors, Phoenix Suns, New York Knicks, New Orleans Pelicans and, most meaningfully, the Denver Nuggets.

Denver entered Frost Bank Center on Friday night after a Wednesday win over the Timberwolves that the entire NBA-loving world believed had locked up the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference playoffs for the reigning NBA champs.

Wembanyama played in that one. He scored 32 points, 19 of them in the second half, and helped rally the Spurs from a 23-point deficit to shock Denver.

Nuggets coach Michael Malone gave ample credit to the Spurs’ intensity but lamented his team’s defensive indifference after building such a big lead.

If Malone’s players had expected the Spurs to give up after falling behind 76-53 a little more than a minute into the third quarter, they hadn’t paid attention to a never-say-die attitude that has brought as much praise from Popovich as some of his title teams used to elicit.

Could the veteran of 28 seasons on the Spurs bench explain how his team, this season’s youngest, remained so upbeat all season, even through an 18-game losing streak that ran from Nov. 5 through Dec. 15?

“That’s a good question,” Popovich said. “And, I have to give them unbelievable credit for their character. There’s (been) no letdowns or backbiting or blame or poor me or anything like that.

“They were dealt with tough circumstances, (including) a couple they couldn’t handle or have any control over — being young and never having played together. But, it was difficult for them, spotty injuries and that kind of thing, but it’s like it never happened.

“Every practice, every shootaround, every game, no matter what happened, they were ready for the next day. And that is a testament to their character. I am impressed by that and grateful for it because it could have been an ugly time — losing, being on buses and planes and all that. But, we ate together; we spent time together and they were special.”

What are we to make of the relatively strong finish to the season and such a meaningful victory as the upset of the Nuggets in Wembanyama’s final game of his first season?

Nothing is more important to the Spurs than Wembanyama’s belief that San Antonio is the right place for him to become an NBA champion, no matter how challenging his rookie season may have been. Finishing well underscored such trust.

“At any point, I never thought I wasn’t in the best situation; I wasn’t in the best place,” Wembanyama said before Sunday’s game. “Yeah, of course, I wish we were into the playoffs. I wish I didn’t lose 60 games. Of course. But, as much as it’s hard today, I know it’s for the long term and I trust my teammates a hundred percent and I trust the project.

“So, it’s my confidence was never shaken at any point.”

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