April 20, 2024

Spurs have a modest goal for their final 27 games: ‘Finish off strong’

The San Antonio Spurs completed a relatively short practice session Wednesday morning at their Victory Capital Performance Center, then headed for an early afternoon flight to Sacramento that would begin the conclusion of their nine-game rodeo road trip.

A Thursday meeting against the Kings, 31-23 and intent on securing one of the top six spots in the Western Conference to avoid a Play-In matchup, is the first of four more road games on the annual trek that requires perseverance and creative packing.

Presumably, 7-foot-4 rookie center Victor Wembanyama included in his luggage the stylish Louis Vuitton jacket he models on a billboard that the luxury brand just installed next to Interstate-37, one of the main thoroughfares that feed into downtown San Antonio.

During NBA All-Star Weekend, Louis Vuitton announced the addition of Wembanyama to its list of renowned sports ambassadors. He joins the likes of tennis stars Naomi Osaka and Carlos Alcaraz, as well as French swimming sensation Leon Marchand.

The weeklong All-Star break was a welcome respite for the Spurs, for whom the first 55 games became a spirit-crushing grind that produced only 11 victories, despite Wembanyama having lived up to the hype that surrounded his selection as the No. 1 selection of the 2023 draft.

It was also an opportunity for Hall of Fame coach Gregg Popovich to formulate some tweaks to his team’s offensive approach and establish some new goals he believes are reachable.

What sort of goals?

“Finish off strong,” said forward Keldon Johnson, the Tokyo Olympics gold medalist and one of the team’s emotional leaders. “Play together; play hard; play smart.

“We’re looking to just muck it up these last 27 games. Get into people, and make the games dogfights.”

To that end, look for Popovich to continue giving second-year guard Blake Wesley a significant ration of court time as a defensive energizer. Wesley is significantly challenged as a shooter — 16 percent from 3-point range — but no current Spur mucks things up more aggressively than the young combo guard from Notre Dame.

“It’s his major skill,” Popovich said of Wesley’s defensive aggression after the 20-year-old logged 28 surprise minutes in a blowout loss Jan. 24 to Oklahoma City. “So, one would hope that he continues to do that. I don’t know if he will, but anybody who can be aggressive enough to help a group gain confidence defensively, it’s a good thing and it is infectious for everybody.

“We have always had somebody like that. We are looking for that now.”

Wesley intends to use the final 27 games to convince Popovich he must look no further.

“For sure,” Wesley said Wednesday. “I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing. I’ve got more to accomplish; more to show by the work I keep putting in.”

Spurs guard Devin Vassell, the team’s No. 2 scorer behind Wembanyama, appreciates the impact Wesley typically makes when he comes on the court.

“I know that as soon as he comes into the game, he’s not even thinking offense,” Vassell said. “It’s pick up and just try to change the game and get into people.

“That’s the energy and toughness that we need, and it’s been huge. Not only defensively. Offensively, he’s been making the right reads, and he’s dunked on a few people, bringing the aggression that we need. I’m happy for him because early in the year he was G League, and last season he got hurt. So, for him to come in and earn some of Coach Pop’s trust is huge.”

Wesley said he had no choice but to become a defensive “dog” after growing up in South Bend, Ind., where he competed as a youngster with Jaden Ivey, whom the Detroit Pistons drafted fifth in 2022 after his sophomore season at Purdue.

“For sure,” Wesley said. “Jaden and me used to go at it all the time, and we’d both pick up, full court, all the time. There’s this dog mentality every time I step on the court.

“Nothing is given to you. You have to earn everything you get. That’s my mentality, every time.”

The Spurs made Wesley the 25th pick of the 2022 draft, their third first-rounder, after Jeremy Sochan and Malaki Branham. He suffered a torn medial collateral ligament in his left knee in just the second game of his rookie season, then played in the final 35 games.

He began the season at, or near, the end of Popovich’s bench, playing in only six of the first 26 games. He is now a regular in Popovich’s rotation and believes he can help the team achieve the goals Popovich articulated.

“We’ve got to finish the season strong on our defense,” Wesley said. “We had a meeting (Tuesday), and the goal is to finish in the top 15 in our offense and defense. That’s our goal, starting tomorrow: top 15 in points, assists, rebounds, defense. We’re trying to be top 15 or better. That’s our main goal. Finish out the season strong.

“We don’t care about the record. We’re just here to get better. We’re just here to do our job.”

Don’t read too much into Wesley’s assertion about not caring about wins. Each Spurs player wants to win, especially the uber-competitive Wembanyama. But a team that has won only 11 of its first 55 games can’t have unreasonable expectations about the final third of the season.



This year’s All-Star Game may be the last without Wemby, but he was hard to miss

Since their remaining 27 games feature only eight against teams with losing records, these Spurs are apt to threaten the worst record in club history. That would be the 20-62 mark compiled in Popovich’s first season on the bench, in 1996-97.

That record is what put them in position to win the 1997 draft lottery and, with it, the right to make Tim Duncan the No. 1 pick. They will need to win 11 of the remaining 27 just to match last season’s mark of 22-60, which is what put them in position to win the Wemby lottery.

What will define a successful finish to the Spurs season?

Vassell offered a more sanguine opinion than Wesley’s.

“More wins,” he said. “I can say that. That’s obvious. But, I just feel that us playing together, coming together as a team and everything we’ve worked on coming full circle. (It’s) us being better on the offensive end, whether it’s finding teammates and playing for each other; or, on the defensive end, just getting more stops. Vic’s been doing a tremendous job blocking shots, but on the perimeter, we’ve got to hold people to getting in their spots and just picking it up on the defensive end.”

With a five-year, $146 million contract extension signed last October, Vassell clearly is one of the players the Spurs expect to accompany Wembanyama into championship contention, sooner rather than later. He admits he never believed this final third of the season would include the challenge of avoiding the worst record in club history.

“I don’t think, at the start (of the season), we felt we’d be in this position,” Vassell said Wednesday. “But, in these last 27 games, we want to flip it around and be on a roll going into the offseason.”

Now that’s a lot to unpack.

(Photo of Victor Wembanyama and Keldon Johnson: Jesse D. Garrabrant / NBAE via Getty Images)