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‘I hate losing:’ Why Victor Wembanyama and the Spurs can’t seem to win

In the waning seconds of his first NBA regular-season victory, San Antonio Spurs' rookie Victor Wembanyama ran back up the court, high-fived fans and celebrated with his teammates, embracing shooting guard Devin Vassell at half court.

After a season opening loss to the Dallas Mavericks, the Spurs pulled together a 126-122 overtime win over the Houston Rockets on Oct. 27.

"I really, really love winning," Wembanyama said when asked about the outpouring of emotion after the game.

"It's what I love most in life, so of course it feels great."

Unfortunately for Wembanyama, that feeling has been hard to come by. The Spurs won three of their first five games to open the season, but since have endured a franchise-record losing streak that hit 17 games on Monday against those same Rockets.

They've blown double-digit leads (nine, the most this season including eight in a row, tied for the longest such streak in the last 25 years). They've been blown out -- five losses by at least 20 points, tied for the second-most in the NBA. They have the league's 30th ranked offense and 24th ranked defense -- a combination that makes for the worst point differential in the NBA.

The losing isn't something Wembanyama has had to experience much in his young career. Playing for Metropolitans 92 in the French LNB Pro A league a season ago, he led his team to the league finals while earning MVP honors.

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In fact, Wembanyama's only experience with this much losing came while playing an entirely different sport.

The 7-foot-4 rookie told reporters the most number of losses he ever had consecutively came while he was playing soccer as a child, as a goalkeeper.

"We really didn't have a good team," Wembanyama said with a laugh, adding that it was hard to defend the goal when he was regularly facing three-on-one breaks.

Even then, Wembanyama kept up his good spirits. It's something he's found himself having to do this season with the Spurs. Despite averaging 18.8 points, 10.6 rebounds and 2.8 blocks as a rookie -- numbers that only Shaquille O'Neal and David Robinson have posted since the league started recording blocks in 1973-74 -- the Spurs are near the bottom of the NBA, ahead of only the Detroit Pistons in win percentage.

Still, despite all the losing, Wembanyama won't allow himself to get discouraged; he can see the bigger picture.

"Of course," Wembanyama said when asked if he hated losing as much as he loves winning after Monday's loss to the Rockets.

"I mean, of course it's not easy. But we don't have a choice. We have to keep going and keep grinding. The good thing is nobody doubts that in the long run we'll be the winners. We have people who have the expertise and experience. Of course, I hate losing. But I stay focused on the long-term goal."

Victor Wembanyama and the Spurs have lost 18 consecutive games, a franchise record. Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

THE EARLY PART of the 2023-24 season for the Spurs has been dedicated to experimentation. Gregg Popovich & Co. are looking to see which lineups work and which ones don't around their French phenom.

The team's preferred starting lineup is Wembanyama, center Zach Collins, forward Keldon Johnson, Vassell at shooting guard and 6-foot-8 power forward-turned-point guard Jeremy Sochan.

That group performed better than the average Spurs defensive lineup -- averaging 1.2 steals and 1.1 blocks. But they couldn't seem to find their footing offensively. In 88 minutes this season, those five scored just 93.8 points per 100 possessions with an effective field goal percentage of 47.8% -- far below the league-worst 50.0% mark of the Portland Trail Blazers.

After the 14th consecutive loss, Popovich decided to change things up, sending Sochan to the bench for a game in favor of forward Cedi Osman -- another big option in the starting five. After their 15th consecutive loss, Popovich again changed the group.

Sochan was back in but guard Malaki Branham took Collins' spot leaving the team with four perimeter players and one big: Wembanyama.

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"If we were shooting it a little better, I think [the preferred starting lineup] would have worked a little better," Collins said on Wednesday. "The negative right now is spacing, which is a big reason why we went back to one big out there starting the game instead of two.

"At the end of the day, this is a make-or-miss league, it's shooting. You have to be able to shoot and space the floor, especially if you have two bigs out there. We have got to do a better job of that and then hopefully we can get back to that lineup a little more."

Collins (29.36%) and Wembanyama (28.38%) have the worst shooting percentages on jump shots in the league among the 136 players to shoot at least 100 jumpers so far this season, according to Second Spectrum tracking data.

In Wembanyama's first start at center he finished with 21 points and 20 rebounds -- becoming the youngest player (19 years, 338 days) in NBA history to have a 20-point, 20-rebound game.

In the three games he has started at center, he is averaging 22 points, 17 rebounds and 5 blocks per game. The only other rookies to have at least 60 points, 50 rebounds and 15 blocks over a three-game span are O'Neal, Robinson, Tim Duncan and Ralph Sampson.

Wembanyama is the 17th player to accomplish that feat in NBA history since blocks were first tracked and the only player to do it while making at least one three-pointer during that stretch (he's made five).

Still, Wembanyama's Hall of Fame coach doesn't see him as a center in the traditional sense.

"I don't categorize him as a five," Popovich said. "He's guarding the five, but I mean, he took six 3s the last game. He gets it on the wing, up top, on the block, in the paint. He's everywhere offensively. If you want to call him a five, that's just who he guards."

Friday, Dec. 15Lakers at Spurs, 7:30 p.m.Knicks at Suns, 10 p.m.

Friday, Dec. 22Wizards at Warriors, 10 p.m.

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Despite Wembanyama's individual success as a starting center, the lineup change hasn't ended the Spurs' losing streak. A nine-point home loss to the Chicago Bulls was followed by an 11-point loss to the Rockets in which the Spurs held Houston to 93 points, but couldn't get anything going on their own offensively as they shot 5-of-41 from 3-point range.

It was, in part, a microcosm of the Spurs' season. They fix one thing -- in this case the defense, which ranked 29th in the league earlier this season -- and other problems arise.

While no Spurs rotation player has a positive net rating this season, the team has found modest success with point guard Tre Jones on the floor (108.9 offensive rating, 112.4 defensive rating). Jones and Wembanyama have shared the court for 255 minutes this season, and the Spurs have outscored opponents by 3.4 points per 100 possessions in those minutes. It's the only two-man pairing with Wembanyama that has a positive net rating (minimum 10 minutes).

Jones, who started 65 of 68 games for San Antonio a season ago, is averaging 7.9 points and 5.1 assists per game in 23.8 minutes per night. But the Spurs like him coming off the bench and leading the second unit, which has limited the amount of time he's spent playing alongside their star rookie.

"It's a good combination for him to play with Zach," Popovich said on Monday when asked what he likes about keeping Jones in the second unit. "He keeps that whole second group steady. He brings a lot of energy. He really steadies things out as the second group is concerned."

EXPECTATIONS WERE LOW coming into this season, as the Spurs went 22-60 a year ago and made few roster changes aside from adding the No. 1 overall pick. Still, starting 3-19 wasn't what anyone in San Antonio expected this season.

On media day, Popovich declared that "this year, with development, I think one of the important factors to enhance that development is winning. Winning is as important this year as learning was in the past. They have to continue to learn. But adding more wins is appropriate, mandatory and helpful."

While Popovich and others have maintained that the goal remains to win games, the players have done their best to see through the constant losing.

Johnson, who was the Spurs' leading scorer a season ago and sits third this season behind Wembanyama and Vassell, said that even though the losing streak has been "frustrating," he believes that his teammates will get back on track.

"We know that we put in the work for it so we believe in each other," Johnson said Monday. "I wouldn't want to do it with any other group than the group we got."

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San Antonio took the floor at home on Wednesday night against the LeBron James-less Los Angeles Lakers with a chance to snap the 17-game losing streak.

But the night started out the way many Spurs games have this season, with the team lacking the proper energy and effort from the jump.

The Lakers built a 20-point lead at the start of the fourth quarter when the Spurs decided to look alive. They chipped away and cut the lead to single digits with the help of two Wembanyama 3-pointers with less than two minutes to play to make it a two-possession game.

With 21.9 seconds left, Wembanyama missed a game-tying free throw that led to the Lakers converting two free throws on their end to stretch the lead back to three. On the last play of the game the Spurs got Wembanyama a clean look at a 3-pointer.

As Wembanyama caught the inbounds pass toward the top of the key, Vassell wrapped around him and took a handoff. Vassell dribbled toward the sidelines, turned and got the ball back to Wembanyama at the top of the key.

Wembanyama pump-faked, and Lakers guard Cam Reddish bit and went by. Wembanyama took a step to his right, fired off a shot at the rim and ... an offensive foul.

Wembanyama's sixth personal foul of the game came off an extended right leg. He was done for the night, and so were the Spurs, who fell 122-119, extending their losing streak to 18.

Wembanyama said he sees growth in the team from where they were at the start of the season. Some of the sloppiness has been cleaned up. The turnovers are going down. The team is more decisive with the ball. But even he knows there's a long way to go.

"It's a work in progress," Wembanyama said. "We're nowhere near (where we want to be), but on the right path for sure."

    

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