As the NBA’s eyes are on Las Vegas, Spurs and Pistons have long road ahead
There was so much promise six weeks ago. San Antonio was reveling in the debut of Victor Wembanyama, the No. 1 pick who arrived with amazing fanfare. Detroit had a new coach in Monty Williams — just two years removed from taking Phoenix to the NBA Finals — and a roster featuring five top-five draft picks from the last five years.
The Spurs started 3-2 and had a 21-point lead in the third quarter of their sixth game. The Pistons started 2-1, the only thing keeping them from a 3-0 start was a missed straightaway jumper by Cade Cunningham at the buzzer of their opener in Miami. So much promise, for both teams.
And nothing since. Nothing.
As the inaugural NBA In-Season Tournament winds down its quarterfinal round Tuesday and prepares to move amid the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas for its Final Four — capped Saturday by the awarding of a new trophy and the winning team’s players splitting about $8 million — the Spurs and Pistons are at the other end of the spectrum, mired already at the bottom of the league.
The Spurs have lost 14 in a row, two away from a franchise worst, their 3-16 record matching the worst 19-game start in team history. The Pistons have lost 17 in a row, that streak and their 2-18 record at this point both already the worst in franchise history.
For his part, Wembanyama isn’t showing any signs of worry or frustration. The way he sees it, the Spurs are coming to work every day, doing their job and moving closer to figuring things out.
“Everybody knows where we’re going,” Wembanyama said. “Most of the people here have been through everything before. We’re good. We’re in good hands.”
The Pistons are doing something that the NBA has never seen. Each of these 17 consecutive losses has come with Detroit having scored at least 100 points; no team has ever scored 100 points in at least 17 straight games and come away with exactly zero wins. The offense hasn’t been the problem.
Lots of other things have. The Pistons just finished the second-worst November in NBA history, going 0-15. Only Philadelphia has been worse; the 76ers were 0-16 in November 2015, part of a 1-30 start to a season where they finished 10-72.
“We have to have people that honor the organization and the jersey by competing at a high level every night,” Williams said after a loss last week, tapping his finger firmly on the table where he was sitting for added emphasis. “Not talking about execution. Just competing.”
The Pistons’ reason for hope might be this: they don’t get blown out too much. Of their 18 losses so far, 13 of them have come by 12 points or less.
The Spurs’ reason for hope might be this: they have built big leads — they just lose them. They’ve lost games after leading by 10 points eight times already this season, lost four after leading by at least 18 points. It’s typically just a three- or four-minute stretch where things go haywire.
“During those stretches,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said, “either we don’t score or our defense sucks.”
Wembanyama says he’s been through worse. He thinks a soccer team that he once played for lost more games in a row than the Spurs have. He was the goalie of that team. He insists he was a good goalie. The losing streak might suggest otherwise.
“I swear it wasn’t my fault,” Wembanyama said.
He’s been dealing with a little bit of hip soreness, his first official NBA injury issue. A few days off thanks to the tournament’s knockout round — no teams played Sunday, only the quarterfinalists for the tournament were playing Monday and Tuesday — might make him feel better. Either way, the break gives both the Spurs and Pistons a little time to practice, work on things and figure out what’s missing.
Detroit resumes play Wednesday against Memphis. After that, the Pistons’ next five games are all against teams with winning records. It’s not an easy stretch. San Antonio also returns to the court Wednesday, facing Minnesota. Defense has to be prioritized; the Spurs have allowed 120 or more 14 times in their first 19 games.
“The advice I get from great, successful people, it all revolves around the same thing,” Wembanyama said. “They always tell me to take my time and to be patient, but at the same time to not lose focus on the goal. It’s going to be hard. The season is very long. But that struggle every day is what makes us better.”