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Why the Spurs can’t afford to stand pat.

The Spurs must use this season to build towards the future.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The San Antonio Spurs are led by two perennial all-stars, have solid veteran role players, young players with upside, and a coach considered one of the greatest of all time. That should be the makeup of a team primed to make a deep playoff run — except they aren’t winning games. If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it’s probably a duck. Unless it’s the Spurs.

There’s been almost a season and a half’s worth of data to show that the two aforementioned all-stars are not a good fit alongside each other. This is probably something PATFO should have considered before trading for DeMar DeRozan, but that’s a discussion for another day. The insertion of Dejounte Murray into the starting lineup was supposed to help shore up the defense, but that has yet to come to fruition. His inability to hit outside shots has only exacerbated the spacing issues created by having two high volume players occupying similar areas of the court. Bryn Forbes, the only floor spacer in the starting lineup, is barely shooting league average from three this season and isn’t a skilled enough player to have a positive impact on the game most nights. Trey Lyles has been fine, but he’s not a starter on a contending team. In a vacuum this season has been bad, but when looking at the bigger picture, it might be even worse if the Spurs choose to stand pat.

Before we dive into the abyss, let’s take a brief look at the playoff picture in the West. Barring catastrophic injuries, the Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers, Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets, Denver Nuggets, and Utah Jazz should all make the playoffs without much drama. On the flip side, both the Golden State Warriors and New Orleans Pelicans appear to be headed for a top pick in next summer’s NBA draft. That leaves seven teams vying for the two remaining playoff spots in the West. The Spurs are currently 12th in the standings with a 10-16 record but are only two games out of the final playoff spot with two-thirds of the season remaining.

As dire as the Spurs’ start to the season has been, the West looks more like the East this season in that a losing record could end up being good enough to squeak into the playoffs. Even so, this isn’t the NFL where the volatile nature of the playoff format means any team who makes the playoffs has a chance to win the championship. In the NBA, the best team usually wins, and there’s no way anybody could say with a straight face that the Spurs are close to being a championship contender this season. With that in mind, I don’t think dragging a bunch of veteran players into a first round exit is best for the franchise long term.

Spurs’ impact players vs other teams in the West

The chart above compares the top five players in terms of Win Shares (WS) for each team to the team’s winning percentage this season. When comparing the Spurs’ roster to that of other teams in the West, the Spurs seem to be an outlier. All the other teams fall into one or more of four categories:

  1. Championship aspirations
  2. Plagued by injuries
  3. Building around a young core
  4. Collecting assets with the plan of rebuilding through the draft

The contenders

The only team in the West with a core older than the Spurs is the Lakers. They traded away a bunch of their young players over the summer for Anthony Davis, then surrounded their star duo of Davis and LeBron James with older veteran players. This approach makes them both the oldest team in the West and also the team most likely to come out of the Western Conference. They went all in this summer, but that’s what a team with James does.

The Houston Rockets are the other contending team with an older core of players. I still don’t believe their brand of basketball is sustainable for an entire NBA playoffs, but they are at least in the conversation. Beyond that, the four other true contenders in the West — the Clippers, Mavericks, Nuggets, and Jazz — all have a core with an average age of under 28 years and seem to be set up to contend for the foreseeable future.

The injured

The Golden State Warriors, Portland Trail Blazers, and Sacramento Kings have been plagued by injuries this season. The Warriors are without Klay Thompson all season, Steph Curry for most of the season, and both Draymond Green and D’Angelo Russell have missed extended time. With a potential top pick in next summer’s NBA draft, they are setting themselves up to jump from the bottom of the standings this season to the top by as early as next season. The Blazers have been without Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins all season, and Rodney Hood was injured recently and will miss the remainder of the season. The Kings have been without their two-most promising youngsters — De’aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley III — for most of the season. Sometimes injuries are a legitimate excuse for falling short of expectations.

The young

The Memphis Grizzlies have an incredibly young core and some future draft picks to work with. The Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves are both middling teams with a young all-star at its center. These teams at least have young players who have been given the keys to the car and have proven capable of handling the load as a number one option. It hasn’t always led to wins, but there is at least the hope of building towards the future.

The asset collectors

This past summer, the New Orleans Pelicans and Oklahoma City Thunder faced a similar fate to that of the Spurs in that they both had superstar players ask to be traded. Instead of trading for an established player like the Spurs did with DeRozan, both the Pelicans and Thunder went the asset collection route.

The Pelicans sent Davis to the Lakers for Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, the number 4 pick in the 2019 NBA draft, and two future first round draft picks. They also lucked their way into Zion Williamson. With Williamson injured to start the season, the Pelicans have had trouble winning games, but their future looks bright.

The Thunder traded Paul George to the Clippers in exchange for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, and a plethora of future first round draft picks. They then traded Russell Westbrook to the Rockets for Chris Paul and even more draft picks. Gallinari will likely be used to collect even more assets as the trade deadline approaches.

It’s far too early to know whether or not these assets will help resurrect these franchises, but at least both teams were able to extract maximum value out of a tough situation and now have a clear path forward.

The Spurs

That leaves the Spurs. Their top five players in terms of win shares — DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge, Jakob Poeltl, Rudy Gay, and Patty Mills — have an average age of 30.4 years. They are also all healthy and playing heavy minutes. The Spurs have been old for the better part of a decade, but this iteration of the Spurs are reliant upon a bunch of 30-year old-players with limited upside and a zero percent chance of a championship.

In my opinion, the worst place a sports franchise can be is a middling team with no clear direction, and that’s exactly where the Spurs reside. Now is the time to find out whether or not Murray, Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV, and Poeltl can thrive in larger roles. This is something we don’t yet know because they have been at best third or fourth options on the team.

I’m only playing the role of an armchair GM, but here’s what I would do for the remainder of the season:

  1. Remove Forbes from the starting lineup. I have a whole article coming out dedicated to this topic, but his inconsistent shooting and poor defense have made him a net negative in almost every lineup he’s been a part of this season. I would also consider using him as a trade sweetener if there’s a team looking for an extra shooter off the bench.
  2. Some combination of Murray, White, and Walker IV should be in the starting lineup. We got to see a bit of Murray and White together against the Rockets, and unsurprisingly, the perimeter defense looked much improved. Walker IV might be a better fit alongside Murray in the starting lineup as he seems willing to pull the trigger from beyond the arc and has a more diverse offensive skillset than that of Forbes. Pop needs to start experimenting with these combinations sooner rather than later.
  3. Whether Walker IV starts or comes off the bench, he needs consistent minutes inside the rotation. As the most recent game against the Rockets showed, Pop is not yet ready to fully unleash him into the wild. Instead, we got to watch Marco Belinelli struggle mightily on the court while the most promising thing to come out of this season was sitting on the bench.
  4. Poeltl has been a force on defense and has shown some real flashes on offense, but that hasn’t really resulted in an increased role. In fact, the past couple games Poeltl has been used as a direct backup to Aldridge. If that’s the case, Aldridge needs to start playing around 10 minutes less a game.
  5. The Spurs must explore trading whichever veteran players yield the best packages. Aldridge, DeRozan, Gay, Mills, and even DeMarre Carroll should garner some interest on the market, so it should be in the Spurs’ best interest to start collecting some assets to build around the youngsters currently on the roster.
  6. The Spurs are likely stuck with Belinelli for the remainder of the season as I doubt he has any trade value at this point. I’m grateful for his contributions to the Spurs’ success over the years, but enough is enough. It’s time to remove him from the rotation altogether.

I’m not trying to paint a picture of doom. I’m merely pointing out that the Spurs are in strange purgatory of sorts. They have had two decades of sustained greatness, which is why I can understand their reasoning behind accepting the kind of trade they did for Kawhi Leonard. In hindsight the plan didn’t work out, unless the plan was to merely keep from bottoming out. With the Spurs staring into the unknown, it’s time to accept that in order to get better, they are going to have to risk getting worse first.