The San Antonio Spurs stand at the base of a large, large mountain.
Currently in the midst of a 6 game-losing streak, the Spurs have many of their ardent observers asking what the difference is between this season and last season’s tanking effort. After all, the tanking was as successful as possible and landed the Spurs with the most anticipated player since LeBron James 20 seasons ago.
The team, who enjoyed one of the longest, most successful stretches of any professional sports team in North America, held off on bottoming out for as long as possible. Last season, with Victor Wembanyama entering the upcoming draft, they accepted that the quickest path to success was short-term losing, and quite a bit of it.
And the Spurs saw their plan come to perfect fruition, much like it did in the 1996-97 season, which netted them the pick that became Tim Duncan.
Tim Duncan and David Robinson’s Rookie Year
However, Duncan was immediately a dominant force in the league, as were the Spurs around him. He was named an All-Star and the Spurs finished the season with a 56-26 record. They also made it to the second round of the playoffs, where they lost to the Finals-bound Utah Jazz.
Duncan was not the Spurs’ first star big prospect. David Robinson was the Spurs’ selection with first overall pick in the 1987 draft. He didn’t play his first two seasons due to fulfilling his military service, but in his first season with the Spurs, the team won 56 games and lost in the second round.
This has been the Spurs’ story with generational prospects- an instant, season-to-season turnaround that vaulted the team into the mid 50’s in wins and high-level contention.
Through the first 11 games of Wembanyama’s career, his story is not following the same script. Is this an indictment on his abilities or a warning sign that his ultimate ceiling is not as high as some projected?
The Spurs’ success in the first year that Duncan and Robinson played is not the norm for a player of their caliber, but rather an outlier for how the first season of many of the game’s best players goes.
Below is the record in the first 20 games that the last 10 players who won MVP played in their careers (per Basketball-Reference):
7 of them won 6 or fewer games in the first 20 outings. 2 of the other 3 played on a team with at least one all-star in their rookie season.
A superstar-in-the-making starting their career with far more losses than wins is more common than the instant success Duncan and Robinson saw.
Just the Beginning
Furthermore, these 11 games the Spurs have played this season are only a small fraction of the games Wembanyama will play in his career overall. It is currently his age 20 season on Basketball-Reference. Let’s say he plays through the age of 36, making his career 17 seasons long. Let’s assume that bigger injuries over the course of his career cost him a combined 3 and a half seasons, but when healthy, he averages 70 games a season.
Even with these fairly conservative estimates, this would put his total games played at an estimated 945 games. These past 11 games make up only 1% of the total games he may be expected to play – in the regular season, not even accounting for playoffs.
The product the Spurs have put on the court over the last 6 games is often frustrating. There is no excuse for the level of execution the team has had at times during the losing streak. Anyone certainly has the right to feel frustrated with what they are watching.
However, before we make lofty judgment calls on Wembanyama and the Spurs’ ultimate ceiling, it’s important to remember how many elite players started off their careers in similar ways. Barring any season derailed by injury, this will almost certainly be Wembanyama’s worst season in the NBA until after he exits his prime.
As fans of the Philadelphia 76ers, Denver Nuggets, Milwaukee Bucks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Golden State Warriors, and Cleveland Cavaliers will tell you – the early days can be a rough watch. There is almost nothing more fulfilling, though, than getting the opportunity to watch the journey a player and team take to become a force in the league.
The early days are hard, yes. But they are also a privilege. Stay tuned to Project Spurs for more updates and the progression of this young team.