The San Antonio Spurs Tanking? Not This Year

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(Photo and caption courtesy San Antonio Spurs) October 24, 2022, Minneapolis, MN: San Antonio Spurs guard Keldon Johnson shoots a layup during the second quarter against the Minnesota Timberwolves at the Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota Monday, October 24, 2022. (Photo by Reginald Thomas II/San Antonio Spurs)

All tanking is a form of rebuilding, but not all rebuilding is tanking. This argument may seem nitpicky and overly semantic, but the words we use matter. If we assume that the San Antonio Spurs’ rebuilding strategy is tanking, they haven’t handled the start of the season very well. If they are not tanking but rather committing to a softer rebuild, their surprisingly hot start does not mean they are failing.

Tanking is the most extreme form of rebuilding. Any player who could contribute to wins is traded or benched on a tanking team. The “Process” Philidelphia 76ers and the Oklahoma City Thunder of the past two seasons are probably the most salient examples of tanking teams.

If the Spurs were tanking, they would find some reason to put Jakob Poeltl and Josh Richardson on the injury report until they could trade them for draft capital. Every NBA player has some sore muscle at a given time, meaning that any player could be on the injury report for even the most minor ailments. They are not doing this, however. While they traded their best player in Dejounte Murray, This off-season, and they would undoubtedly be willing to trade any veteran older than Keldon Johnson for the right price, the Spurs are not going to make their on-court team worse without getting assets.

The San Antonio Spurs Are Rebuilding Not Tanking

Why does it matter to distinguish between tanking and how the Spurs are rebuilding? Because it changes how we evaluate their goals for the season.

Evaluating each of the last 24 San Antonio Spurs’ seasons has involved counting regular season wins and playoff rounds won. Measuring success this season is trickier, especially without a solid understanding of the team’s goals.

The discourse around the season so far would lead anyone to believe that the goal of this season is to lose enough games to be awarded the first overall pick in the draft. The only problem is that the first overall pick in the draft is not awarded instantly to the team with the worst record. Instead, the team with the worst record has a meager 14% chance of winning the first pick in the lottery. Those are nearly the same odds as flipping a coin and landing on heads three times in a row.

What’s The Plan?

If the success of the Spurs’ goal for the season relies so heavily on luck that even if they execute their plan flawlessly, they are hoping for a 14% chance to go their way, they’ve set a poor goal.

Instead, if their goal is to give their younger players a pressure-free environment to develop skills in real-game scenarios, a situation that would not be possible on a contender, they are succeeding already.

If their goal is to roster a team that will earn them, at worst, a top-10 pick, with the upside of a much higher pick, while maintaining the flexibility of trading veterans for more draft capital throughout the year, they are succeeding already.

Jeremy Sochan dunking and not alloing the san antonio spurs to tank
(Photo and caption courtesy San Antonio Spurs) October 24, 2022, Minneapolis, MN: San Antonio Spurs forward Jeremy Sochan dunks during the second quarter against the Minnesota Timberwolves at the Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota Monday, October 24, 2022. (Photo by Reginald Thomas II/San Antonio Spurs)

Growth Is Key

Ultimately, this season is about the growth of the Spurs’ young core while maintaining the ability to draft another lottery pick. An early 3-game winning streak does not mean that the Spurs are playoff contenders. It also doesn’t mean they are failing their rebuild. A young team that emphasizes execution beating another rebuilding team (the Indiana Pacers) and two other teams that aren’t quite yet on track (the 76ers and the Minnesota Timberwolves) isn’t entirely surprising. There may even be more winning streaks throughout the season.

There will also likely be lengthy losing streaks at times, too.

But the satisfaction of this season does not come from the number of wins or losses the Spurs have on April 9th. The important factor is the growth of their core. Some nights, the growth will look like exciting flashes of brilliance. Some nights, the growth will look much less pleasant. Regardless, the next time the Spurs are a solid playoff team, there will be a deep satisfaction in having witnessed the growth along the way.

Do you think the San Antonio Spurs should tank this year?

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