Ever since Kawhi Leonard forced his way out of San Antonio, the possibility of undergoing a rebuilding process has been real for the Spurs. Not even the success of last season’s team could fully distract the fanbase from the knowledge that a few tough years could be ahead.
The poor start of this season, which now includes a drubbing at the hands of the Clippers, has only brought the discussion to the forefront. Even some of the most prominent figures in the national media are now talking about it.
In a recent ESPN special, Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe dedicated a small segment to the Spurs with the focus being on what they consider an inevitable upcoming rebuild that will come sooner rather than later.
In case you didn’t see the video, Lowe says that the good thing about the Spurs’ record is that it won’t allow the front office to talk themselves a win-now move while Woj states that a rebuilding process is coming either at the deadline or next summer and it won’t be easy for San Antonio.
Both statements are reasonable and we are talking about two of the most plugged in people in basketball journalism, but I find it hard to fully agree with either. Here’s why.
The Spurs could absolutely talk themselves into a win-now move
Lowe’s assertion that the team’s underwhelming performance should be enough to convince PATFO that this core is not good enough to waste an asset adding to it is correct. Hopefully he has knowledge of the front office’s internal thinking on the subject and he proves to be right, but it honestly wouldn’t shock me to see the Spurs actually try to make a win-now move, for two reasons.
First, everything the Spurs have done since last summer seems to suggest they are not ready to give up on this core. From guaranteeing the last year of LaMarcus Aldridge’s contract and signing DeMarre Carroll to a multi-year deal to discussing an extension with DeMar DeRozan and actually signing Dejounte Murray to one, the front office made moves that only looked to solidify the group already in place. Those are not the decisions you’d expect from a front office that has serious questions about its roster and it’s doubtful that 30 games will be enough to change their mind, especially considering the state of the West, which is the other big factor.
Despite having an 11-17 record San Antonio is 10th in the standings in the conference and only two games out of the eighth seed. Two of the teams above them are the Kings, which are still trying to find their identity, and the Thunder, which might become sellers at the deadline. The Spurs have looked horrendous for most of the season, but they do have a couple of quality wins and essentially the same roster that got them into the postseason last year. So far Gregg Popovich is prioritizing playing his trusted veterans over going younger. As long as they remain within striking distance of one of those two last playoff spots, I’d be surprised if they gave up on this season.
Does that mean they’ll throw in a draft pick or one of their young players in a trade to upgrade, for example, the forward positions? It’s tough to say, but I’m not sure we should rule it out just yet. From the start management has liked this core more than everyone else. Hopefully the bad recent performances will be enough to prevent them for once again doubling down on it, but I wouldn’t be shocked to learn otherwise.
A rebuild shouldn’t be particularly hard for San Antonio
The good news is that if a rebuild is actually coming, it could not be as painful for San Antonio as it’s been for other teams, despite Woj’s claim. While it’s possible to criticize most of the moves made in recent years, one thing this front office has done well has been accumulating young talent and maintaining flexibility, which should make a potential transition period a lot easier, for the most part.
The Spurs don’t have the type of asset that could get them a star to build around right now, which is a problem. That’s undeniable. DeRozan’s contract situation makes him a tough sell since he has a player option and could be a rental. Aldridge is on the books for next season, but he’s now a full time center who can’t really defend at a high level, which is not a type of player that is in high demand. Last year’s version of Rudy Gay was the perfect reinforcement for a contender, but his extremely poor outside shooting and his issues with focus and effort have surely lowered his value. It’s possible none of the three would get the Spurs a good extra pick and their own draft selection would unlikely land in the top five. The upcoming free agency class is atrocious, so no centerpiece could come via signing, either.
All that means, however, is that the Spurs would not bounce back in just one year of rebuilding. Beyond the 2020/21 season, San Antonio would be in an enviable position for a rebuilding team. The only big contracts on the books would be Dejounte Murray’s and potentially Jakob Poeltl’s, so they would have the cap space to use to make additions or could rent it out for extra assets. They would also have a collection of young players in rookie deals, and all their future draft picks — assuming they don’t trade one in a win-now move. By then they should also have a better idea of whether Murray and Derrick White can play together and of what Lonnie Walker IV’s ceiling is, so they could also use one of their more proven prospect to land a star via trade.
All rebuilding processes are risky, so there’s no guarantee the Spurs would actually return to relevance quickly, but there’s also no reason to think they are in a bad position to do so. As long as they don’t make any bad moves this season that reduce their talent base and compromise their flexibility, they should be in good shape as they look for their next star.
It’s a little too early to delve more deeply into what the future beyond this season holds for the Spurs, but there’s really no reason to be pessimistic about it. As long as they don’t do anything crazy this season, they will probably be fine.