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Are Victor Wimpanyama's Spurs on track to build a contender in San Antonio?

Are Victor Wimpanyama's Spurs on track to build a contender in San Antonio?

SAN ANTONIO – The San Antonio Spurs held a Fan Appreciation Day at Frostbank Center on Sunday afternoon.

The crowd of 18,516 did not appreciate coach Gregg Popovich's decision to hold rising star Victor Wimpanyama out of his team's season finale, but the wisest of those in attendance did not disagree with the Hall of Fame coach's logic.

“Well, he's got a long career ahead of him,” Popovich explained before touching on the ongoing on-court commitments the 7-foot-4-inch rookie has completed over the past year and a half, making his LNB Pro debut. The league is in France and then to Tottenham. “And he's going to the Olympics. So, you look at it from a big picture perspective, and it makes sense to be a little bit conservative.”

Popovich joked that Wimpanyama might put him in trouble to force him to let him in at the end, but there was only some verbal sparring.

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

“I trust my team to win today.”

Certainly, there was no need for the NBA's Rookie of the Year to be involved in the 123-95 win over the Detroit Pistons (14-68), which tied for the 12th-worst regular season win of all time. Wemby had already led a late-season surge that avoided the worst record in club history and a last-place finish in the Western Conference. The end of this season became an opportunity for duo players and backfield members such as Jamari Boya, Raekwan Gray, David Duke Jr and Cedi Sissoko to show their skills.

It didn't take long for the one-sided rivalry to become a sloppy Summer League matchup. So, when Spurs midfielder Zach Collins left with a shoulder injury early in the second half, the decision to bring on Wimpanyama proved the right one.

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This is San Antonio's seventh win in the last 11 games. It is the 11th of 23 games played after concluding a nine-game rodeo trip that consumed three weeks of February with just one win.

The club's competitiveness during the post-All-Star Game period of the season prompted an excited Popovich to declare after Sunday's win that he was ready to start a new season, “after about a week and a half of rest.”

When the Spurs regrouped in San Antonio after the All-Star break, Popovich challenged his players: Can they finish in the top half of the league in some key success metrics through the remainder of the season?

They did so in many categories, and certainly in one of the team's most telling statistics. They ranked 28th in net point differential (-8.5) before the All-Star break, and finished at -1.9, ranking 20th. Their improvement of 6.6 net points per game was the biggest post-All-Star jump in the league.

At the height of the Spurs' “Big Three” era that produced four NBA titles (2003, 2005, 2007 and '14), Popovich often pointed to the “institutional knowledge” of his team's roster as a key factor in its success.

He knew that this season's lack of such familiarity and awareness would likely lead to the opposite of success, no matter how great a season his rising star might have.

“If people have never played together before, it will take a while,” Popovich said. “And at the beginning of the year, maybe in the first 15, 20, 25 games, different groups start; different people coming off the bench. You play, then you decide something else, just trying to figure out who plays better with each other… and that takes time.” .

“And if an injury happens in the middle of that, it hinders you even more because you can't feel good. You don't have enough possessions either defensively or offensively to make a good public statement about what you should be. That's why we gave so much to the team at the All-Star break.” , and we saw what we would do from there forward, given what we had to go through in the beginning.

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“And if you examine the top eight or 10 stats on offense or defense, you'll see that (in games played after the All-Star break) we've gone from the bottom, from 28th to 29th to 30th (ranking).” , to the average range or below in almost all of those categories. So, it's a big jump and I hope next season starts (soon). …”

Of course, the winningest coach in league history was joking, 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 importantly, the Denver Nuggets.

Denver entered Frost Bank Center on Friday night fresh off a Wednesday win over the Timberwolves that the NBA-loving world believed locked up the No. 1 seed in the NBA's Western Conference Champions League playoffs.

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

Nuggets coach Michael Malone gave great credit to the Spurs' strength, but expressed his regret for his team's defensive indifference after achieving such great progress.

If Malone's players were expecting the Spurs to surrender after falling behind 76-53 a little more than a minute into the third quarter, they didn't heed the never-say-die attitude that brought as much praise from Popovich as some of his title teams are accustomed to eliciting.

Can the veteran who spent 28 seasons on the Spurs bench explain how his side, the youngest this season, remained so upbeat all season, even through an 18-game losing streak that ran from November 5 to December 15?

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“That's a good question,” Popovich said. “And I have to give them incredible credit for their character. There was no disappointment, backbiting, blaming, mistrust of me or anything like that.

“They've been dealt with in difficult circumstances, (including) a couple that they couldn't handle or control – being young and never playing together. But, it's been tough for them, sporadic injuries and things like that, but it's as if never happened.

“In every practice, in every shootout, in every game, no matter what happened, they were ready for the next day. And that's a testament to their character. I admire that and I'm grateful for it because it could have been an ugly time — losing, being on buses and planes and all “But we ate together, we spent time together, and it was special.”

What should we make of the relatively strong end to the season and the huge victory that Wimpanyama achieved in the final game of his first season?

Nothing is more important to the Spurs than Wimpanyama's belief that San Antonio is the right place for him to become an NBA champion, no matter how difficult his rookie season is. The good finishing emphasized this confidence.

“At any time, I never thought I was not in the best place; I hope I don't lose 60 games. naturally. But, as hard as it is today, I know that it's in the long term and I trust my teammates one hundred percent and I trust the project.

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

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(Photo by Victor Wembanyama and Blake Wesley: Ronald Curtis/Getty Images)