It might not look like it, but the Spurs are still going

The San Antonio Spurs had plenty of cap space heading into free agency, and the fans fluttered excitedly. Would the Spurs sign Bruce Brown Jr. or Fred VanVleet to help at point guard? Would Grant Williams or Cam Johnson play the stretch four alongside Wemby? Maybe Brian Wright would run up prices on Herb Jones or Austin Reaves to annoy other Western Conference rivals? There were plenty of possibilities. Hearts soared.

But one by one, as the free agent signings were Woj’d and Sham’d, the flutters subsided to vibrations that were further muted to murmurs. Instead of a major signing, the Spurs stuck to their best practice that started with the DeMar DeRozan sign-and-trade: taking unwanted contracts for draft picks as compensation. Thus, as I write this, the roster is floating with the following players (assets the Spurs acquired in parentheses):

  • Devonte’ Graham (four second round picks – “Josh Richardon” trade)
  • Khem Birch (a top-6 protected first-round pick and two second-round picks, Sidy Cissoko being one of them – the “Jakob Poeltl trade”)
  • Reggie Bullock (one unprotected 2030 first round trade from Dallas)
  • Cedi Osman (2026-2027, a trade of second-round picks with Heat)
  • Cameron Payne (Cash)

None of these players were acquired to improve Spurs over the next few seasons. It’s safe to assume that zero of those players will be on the Spurs at the end of next summer (Graham has two years left on his contract, but only $2.85 million is guaranteed if waived by July 1, 2024).

Furthermore, I would argue that the Spurs are aiming to have zero of these players on the team by this season’s trade deadline, which brings more questions and concerns. For example, it will be a challenge to trade these players for other drafts. Teams know San Antonio hopes to focus on development and may try to “wait out” the process by forcing the Spurs to make tough decisions on the roster — e.g. Dominick Barlow still does not have an NBA contract. Are the Spurs willing to give up more players without additional compensation? The details of the remaining offseason are intriguing, but the franchise’s direction for this season seems obvious.

Will the Spurs finish 14th in the Western Conference?!

For the sake of this article’s argument, imagine that the above players are either waived, traded, or don’t contribute significantly to winning this season. That’s why San Antonio is rolling forward with a young crowd of development projects with Doug McDermott as Team Dad. How good is that team against the other teams in the conference? Draftkings has set the Spurs’ over/under to 30.5 wins, the lowest in the Western Conference. Of course, this doesn’t take into account the likelihood that Portland will trade Damion Lillard. Using DraftKings and the potential Portland trade, the bottom five West teams include:

  • Trail Blazers: Runs hard on tank.
  • Spurs: Only the Spurs and post-potential trade Blazers are the teams without a recent All-Star or All-NBA player on the roster.
  • Rockets: Shot money out of a fire hose to sign Fred VanVleet, Dillon Brooks and others.
  • Jazz: All-Star Lauri Markkanen is once again ready to lead a group that forgot to be terrible last season.
  • Thunder: They have an All-NBA guard, a fun cast and a first overall pick ready to debut.

Despite DraftKings having eight of the league’s bottom eleven teams playing in the Eastern Conference, it’s safe to assume that many outside of our cabal of Spurs fanatics see San Antonio as a bottom-eight team or lower in the league. Logically, the Spurs are not a playoff team, and given the unsigned free agents, they are focusing on development this season. A team in the bottom 25% of the league that focuses on development is on a slide to another brand…Tank.

“Tanking” is hyperbolic for this situation. I prefer the term development as it better applies to a team with a projected big player on its roster. Either way, the league is unusually dense with talent, the best prospects are entering the NBA extremely young, and it is logical to conclude that the San Antonio Spurs will lose many more games than they will win next season. That’s why I wanted to look into tanking/development seasons as the recent changes in the NBA create a more nuanced experience.

Is refueling changing?

The combination of flat lottery odds in 2019 and the addition of the play-in tournament in its full 7-10 seed format (since 2021) likely affects how teams approach tanking. These changes aimed to increase the number of teams trying to win the most games in a season by making the bottom of the standings look less tempting and improving the incentives to be above the bottom teams. To examine tanking, I split the analysis into the bottom four teams and the teams with the 5th-8th worst records and examined these since 2008.

Winning percentages of bottom eight teams since 2008

Don’t get carried away by the weak uptrend; it is only there for the visual aid – 64 noisy data points is not enough for valid regression analysis. Note instead that this season produced the highest winning percentage for teams with the 5th to 8th worst records in the last 15 seasons. In addition, this season produced one of the largest gaps between the two groups – an observable trend over the past three seasons.

The NBA has created incentives for this divergence. The chances of getting the top picks are worse than before (from 25% to 14% for the worst record to get the top pick), but the bottom four records’ 14% chance of the top pick is still better than everyone else. So the motivation remains for these teams to go into the basement and stay there.

The tale of two seasons

But once a team is above the top four, there’s a chance that playing in the tournament will motivate them to stay in the game a little longer. To examine this, let’s compare the two seasons a decade apart. To make it more interesting, let’s compare the winning percentages of the bottom ten teams BEFORE and AFTER the trade deadline. In 2013, John Wall missed the first 33 games, leaving the Wizards with the worst record until the Bobcats took over on January 24th. Charlotte held that spot until the final three games, when Orlando staked claims (both would “lose” the top pick to the Cavs in the infamous Anthony Bennett draft). Outside of Portland, which has lost its last 13 games and the Bobcats’ Gerald Henderson closed out the season well, most teams maintained their steady trend.

2013: The winning percentages of the bottom ten teams before/after the trade deadline.

The 2023 season looks different. The bottom four teams isolated themselves before the trade deadline. In contrast, five to ten teams had winning percentages above 40% at the deadline. This was VERY different from 2013 where all but one team had a winning percentage UNDER 40%. In 2023, teams clearly tried to win games further into the season.

2023: The winning percentages of the bottom ten teams before/after the trade deadline

The “Traditional” and “Crash” tanks

Traditional tank

I classify tanks into two different genres. The “traditional” tank is what is most associated with the phrase. The roster is limited from the start and it is clear very quickly that the team is allocating playing time for development purposes. Wins are few and far between, and fans spend much of the season dreaming about the upcoming draft. The Spurs did just this. It worked. The Spurs also did it about 26 years ago. It worked too.

Crash Tank

The “crash” tank is different. These teams often have playoff and “playing in” dreams, but for various reasons (injuries, “chemistry” issues, etc.), the organization decides to pivot and dive as far down the standings as possible. For the past two seasons, Portland has “crashed” (quite successfully), and 2023 was incredibly epic. The Trailblazers lost 15 of their last 17 games (shutting down Damion Lillard for the last 10) and plummeted to the 5th worst record in the league. Then, via draft lottery luck, they jumped to the third-best draft pick and selected what many considered the second-highest projected player.

Will Spurs “Crash” the tank next season?

Something extraordinary about Portland finishing with the 5th worst record is that the Trailblazers won 33 games! Thirty-three wins are the most by a team that finished third in 30 years (The Warriors, 34 wins, traded Penny Hardaway for Chris Webber in 1993). Teams that win 33 games often pick 8th or 9th, and teams in that range aren’t usually considered “Tanking” organizations. Teams that win over 30 games and get the 5th best lottery odds is what the NBA wants. Besides, that might be what Spurs should do – strive to win most of the season and then assess with six weeks to go.

Over the next few seasons, we may see more data to support this thesis that the play-in tournament works. Specifically, it will promote competitiveness and pull teams ranked 18-25 up for most of the season. Then, if the landscape looks barren, several of these teams will “crash” after the trade deadline to maximize lottery odds. I put the Spurs right on the threshold of the Traditional and Crash tank this season. If a player shows exceptional development, playing in the tournament would be a wonderful learning experience. If not, a very strong draft pick would also be excellent.

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