A few years back the top story concerning the San Antonio Spurs was their budding youth movement. After going the draft-and-stash route for years or surrendering first round picks for veterans, the Spurs selected George Hill in 2008. At the time, the selection of the IUPUI (drink!) guard was seen as almost an anomaly, but in the following years the Spurs continued to select players that would join the team right away instead of drafting-and-stashing.
This decision was received with optimism by most Spurs writers, and even the national media considered it the Spurs' newest way to stay ahead of the pack. Yet so far, the tactic has failed to yield meaningful results in terms of providing the team with a young core for the future, with only Kawhi Leonard looking like he will be a prominent piece of the post-Duncan puzzle. But was finding a new core ever the real objective?
It was not rare for the Spurs to add young players to the end of their bench in hopes of finding one that could develop into something more even in the championship years. Yet the Spurs also brought in ring-chasing veterans, so it wasn't surprising that the most young players were relegated to the deep bench. Projects like James White were used sparingly, while those minutes went to Brent Barry or Michael Finley.
With San Antonio becoming a less attractive destination for veterans, the Spurs decided to use the draft to fill out the bench. Players that were ready to play from the get-go like George Hill, Kawhi Leonard and DeJuan Blair carved out roles for themselves, while others who needed a little more time or the right circumstances to find their footing, like Ian Mahinmi or James Anderson, have fallen off the wayside. The rope these young guys were given was short. Yawn and Anderson faced different non-basketball related difficulties that derailed their development, and resulted in the Spurs not picking up their options; in Anderson's case, he didn't get a Summer League experience until this year.
Cory Joseph went through something similar on his first year, after visa problems and the lockout robbed him of training camp as well. This season he will be afforded those opportunities, and we will have a better sense of how good he really is and how much progress he has made. But what if he gets injured or squanders the first chance he gets? With the guard depth the Spurs have, it's not out of the question that the Spurs could refuse to pick up his option.
The problem with this way of handling young players is that the whole rookie scale system is in place to let teams make sure of what they have before having to either let the young talent go or commit big money to keeping it. Anderson won't likely be more than a bench player (if that), but the Spurs had him (and Mahinmi before him) on the hook for very little cash to make absolutely sure of it. One of the rationalizations to the Anderson situation was that, since Green was producing, it made sense to let Anderson go, when in fact it was the opposite: because Green was producing, the Spurs could afford to wait for Anderson to figure things out. That's the supposed beauty of rebuilding while contending: you are good enough to not need huge contributions from the young players you are trying to develop.
But unproductive young players are not the only ones the Spurs are ready to depart with. George Hill was an important rotation player for the Spurs for the three years he spent in San Antonio. He started most games and did an excellent job complementing Manu and Parker. Yet when he was entering the last year of his contract, the Spurs traded him for the 15th pick which became Kawhi Leonard. The trade seems genius in hindsight, but there is simply no way the Spurs knew that Leonard had the potential to become a star; what everyone projected him to be initially was a solid defender and rebounder. The Spurs surely liked Leonard, but the main motivation to roll the dice was probably the impending bump in salary Hill's play was going to demand.
Fast forward to this off-season around the draft. The rumors about the Spurs trying to move Blair for a pick were in full swing. The young power forward, like Hill before him, was about to enter the last year of a contract that was a bargain based on the production he delivered. Again, the argument that the Spurs have better players in his position can be made but that means that, just like in Anderson's case, the Spurs could afford to be patient if they were in it for the long haul. But are they?
Both the situation with Mahinmi and Anderson and how the Spurs handled Blair and Hill before them leads me to believe that they never intended to bring rookies in to try to build a young core for the future; giving up on players early on and trading players you developed because they are about to get paid for players on rookie deals is not conducive to that goal. More likely, the Spurs simply wanted cheap role players, and there are few better contracts than those bound by the rookie scale. Perhaps anticipating the always inflating price of veterans, the Spurs focused on getting role players by simply finding young guys that were ready to contribute. When it looks like those cheap role players won't be cheap anymore (Blair and Hill), trade them for picks to get new ones. If they don't contribute immediately, cut ties (James Anderson) and look for replacements from the bargain bin (Danny Green). Never commit long term unless you have to (Green) and only do it with players that are producing at a high level or could become stars.
This is a fantastic cost-conscious plan and one that has allowed the Spurs to be one of the few teams in the league without bad contracts. In fact, the Spurs' last bad contract, Richard Jefferson's, exemplifies why this is a great way of filling simple roles like "spot up shooter" for cheap while maintaining flexibility going forward, instead of overpaying a familiar name to do it.
What this realization, if you can call it that, means to me is an adjustment in the way I look at the young players the team drafts. When the Spurs select someone, I won't look for potential because the Spurs don't seem all that concerned with it right now. Instead I'll look for production and viability as role players. The same applies to free agency and trades. The Spurs wouldn't roll the dice on Anthony Randolph or trade for Larry Sanders because, while those guys have athleticism and potential, all that matters to PATFO now is production.
While we were praising the Spurs for trying to find a future core while still contending, they were actually doing something more clever, although clearly less exciting: using young players and their cap friendly contracts to cut costs and maintain flexibility. The "youth movement" seems to be nothing more than a smart way to get cheap role players to go with the existing core, not a way of finding the next star.
Of course, going forward, Kawhi Leonard probably changes that. It looks like without really trying the Spurs lucked into a potential star. Trying to surround him with young players he can grow up with should become the second priority after contending, and bringing De Colo over and keeping Joseph are two steps in the right direction. The fact that the Spurs are paying close attention to the development of their stashed second rounders is encouraging as well. Now that Kawhi is there to lead the way, a real youth movement can begin.