Luck, fortune, and a plan years in the making
The Spurs may have been reliant on a 14-percent chance that lottery balls would bounce their way, but their preparation for Victor Wembanyama was anything but random.
Shake off the feelings for a second. The euphoria. The scenes online of a bar packed with patrons losing their ever-loving minds as Spurs Chairman Peter J. Holt did the same on a quiet, made-for-TV NBA Draft Lottery set. Take a deep breath and understand the unreal level of fortune this franchise has enjoyed for decades while so many others drag themselves through the mud time and time again just to sniff what San Antonio lived Tuesday night.
The last time a member of the Holt family represented the Spurs in person at the NBA Draft Lottery was in 1997, when then-chairman Peter M. Holt had the honor of celebrating what would eventually be the arrival of Tim Duncan. Now, 26 years later, his son Peter John is the one whose face and voice is representing San Antonio. Ebullient and loud, he did so flawlessly, just as the drivers on Commerce took to the streets to honk their car horns.
Holt, the younger, let out an involuntary, “LET’S GOOOOO!” the second the Charlotte Hornets’ name was announced as the second-overall pick. He said after the lottery he could see the placard before NBA Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum was even able to announce the team, and from there it was history. From there he “blacked out” and “went a little fuzzy.” He didn’t need to hear the Spurs’ name called. They were already the last ones standing, and in that moment, the fate of his franchise changed.
Victor Wembanyama was still in France on Tuesday, but his flight to San Antonio is now booked.
The math said there was a 14 percent chance this would happen — the exact same likelihood Wemby would end up a Houston Rocket or Detroit Piston. But the latter, a team that finished with the worst record in the league, fell to the fifth spot, while the former fell to four. As the Spurs celebrated, the other two bottom-dwellers suffered tremendously.
Both the Rockets and Pistons have endured the kind of season San Antonio just survived for several years now, over and over again picking at high-level talent and repeatedly entering the tank race until the time came to pray for Victor. But the Spurs felt they were destined for this. Or Holt did, at least. However much karma or prayer can factor into an event like this, he made clear he believed spirituality mattered. That people and practices mattered as much as the calculus.
“Yeah. I did. I really did. And the reason is, I believe in the attraction. When there are really great people being of service and building things that are bigger than themselves, good things happen to those people,” Holt said. “And we have a ton of those folks. We have a ton of those leaders everywhere in our families, in our leadership group, people whose names you probably don’t even know that are down in the organization.
“And I just — yeah, I believe that great things will happen to great people.”
Maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s the lesson. Great things happening to good people — however “good people” are defined — is something the virtuous would love to see become reality more often than not. The Spurs, as an organization, do wonderful things in the San Antonio community, and they have for a long time. Perhaps that’s reason enough to believe. But whatever the source, there has to be some explanation for the kind of luck the Spurs have exhumed from their few forays into the league’s doldrums. David Robinson turned out alright, and so did Duncan. And as long as the basketball gods allow it from a health standpoint, so will Wemby.
But perspective only lasts so long in situations like these. Appreciation for the past and the acknowledgment of luck is critical in a measured response, as it’s respectful toward a process that required a little dirty work. But blah, blah, blah… now it’s safe to freak the f*** out, because San Antonio has a clear path toward one of the greatest prospects in the history of the sport.
Pardon my French, but what other language would you have me use here?
Tuesday night was why the Spurs risked what they did. It’s why they played the long game and traded Derrick White, DeMar DeRozan and Dejounte Murray when they did. It’s why they did the deed and asked for forgiveness later, hoping their fans would understand the gravity of the situation. Because in the world of professional basketball, 14 percent is as great a chance at greatness as many franchises will ever experience in their entire existences. When a talent like this comes along and you’re nowhere near the pinnacle, taking one big swing — especially as an organization as grounded and structured as San Antonio — is unequivocally worth the risk.
“It’s been a long period of time. A lot of things have to break your way. You’ve got to get a little lucky — everyone in this position does — but we’ve got a great staff that came up with a plan,” General Manager Brian Wright said of the Wembanyama blueprint. “We got lucky tonight. Hopefully we can build on this and continue to build the core.”
The Spurs’ tendrils have been everywhere around Victor for years now. Tony Parker is the majority owner of ASVEL Basket, the team Wemby played for last season and the one prior; Boris Diaw was previously the president of Metropolitans 92, the phenom’s current team. Once San Antonio had a chance to regroup following the trade of Kawhi Leonard, nothing it did since was accidental. The Spurs have had intel on Wembanyama since he was 15 years old that led them to believe he would be the guy to target. His work ethic, his character, his meticulousness, and of course, his otherworldly talent and skill for a player his size — all of it unimpeachable based on their observations.
If San Antonio was going to blow things up and grind through the pain of a tank job, it would be for this guy. Not for Anthony Edwards, Cade Cunningham or Paolo Banchero, but for this guy. And somehow it got lucky. Contingency plans were in place, but this was what the Spurs had been building toward with their heads down and fingers crossed.
There’s no way of truly knowing whether doing things ‘the right way’ actually affects the universe, but at their very core the Spurs feel it does. We can look back and laugh a little at Gregg Popovich broaching the topic of tanking a year ago with an honest appraisal of his inability to do so, but he was being genuine then. He didn’t know how to do it.
But with former Philadelphia ‘Process’ leader Brett Brown in town, and a front office willing to step in and point the way, the path became easier to navigate. Player development becomes a more simplified focus when winning isn’t the immediate goal, and Pop was surrounded by the type of energy that allowed him to follow a different type of plan.
San Antonio did what it could to strike a balance, to entertain the customer and keep a fan base happy, all while it went through substantial turnover both on the court and in the owner’s suite. The Spurs had a grand scheme and a master plan, but they needed one gigantic puzzle piece to fall into place.
On Tuesday, in front of the whole world, it did so perfectly.
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I hope this works out well for your Substack too! Everyone will want to be on the Spurs beat now, but you’re already there.
I still haven't fallen asleep yet, I'm so amped 😬