Don’t look now, but the San Antonio Spurs are quietly trending upwards. Ok, it’s more of a one step forward, one step back situation — quite literally as they have alternated wins and losses over their last nine games — but it’s been good enough to sneak into the eighth spot in the injury-depleted Western Conference.
After an abysmal start to the season defensively, the Spurs have sported the seventh best defense over the past ten games. They also have the top rated offense over the past four games, thanks in large part to the Spurs’ mid-range three all hitting their peak form at the same time. DeMar DeRozan has averaged 25 points over the past four games on a ridiculous 40-56 shooting. LaMarcus Aldridge recently scored 40 in a game, and his recent trend of letting it fly from deep has elevated the offense. Rudy Gay, who has spent the majority of the season looking lethargic, has averaged 17 points on 13-19 shooting over the past two games. Even Marco Belinelli has looked good on offense, averaging seven points a game in December on 52/46/83 percent shooting.
Even with the elevated play of many players on the team, the Spurs are barely staying afloat by beating up on teams on the fringe of the playoffs or outside the picture altogether. The Spurs are 2-9 this season against teams currently inside the top six in the standings in both conferences. I believe the Spurs’ ceiling is seventh in the West, and that’s only if they can continue to build off their recent strong play and not revert back to their early-season form. The Spurs have the fourth toughest remaining schedule in the NBA and play a higher percentage of games on the road, where they have struggled over the past 2.5 seasons. This reality leaves PATFO with some decisions to make before the February 6th trade deadline.
The state of the 2020 NBA draft
Sam Vecenie of “The Athletic” had this to say about the upcoming NBA draft after talking to NBA executives at the G League Showcase in Las Vegas:
NBA executives are really searching across the globe for options in this draft. It is not considered a strong draft. Not at the top, not in the middle, and not in terms of depth right now. The No. 1 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft is likely to be treated from a value standpoint as more similar to a top-five pick as opposed to something that will be franchise-altering.
There isn’t a consensus number one player like there was with Zion Williamson in the 2019 NBA draft. James Wiseman is going to sit out until the NBA draft workouts. Cole Anthony, LaMelo Ball, and RJ Hampton are all injured and may choose to sit out the rest of their respective seasons.
Ethan Strauss of “The Athletic” said that thus far the 2020 NBA draft can be summed up in one word: a “mess”.
‘Mess’ is the most common description you hear from basketball operations types when it comes to the 2020 draft. Maybe it isn’t a ‘weak’ draft, necessarily. Notable drafts have been considered ‘weak’ before turning out unexpected superstars (2009 is a good example of this). What is certain about this draft, though, is its uncertainty. If you have a top pick, you aren’t necessarily pumping your fist about it.
The Spurs aren’t tanking anyhow, but those wanting the Spurs to trade away their veteran players, miss the playoffs, and get lucky in the NBA draft lottery may end up being disappointed if the Spurs have similar feelings about the upcoming draft than those NBA executives interviewed at the G-League showcase.
How the perception of the 2020 NBA draft might impact the Spurs
The Spurs aren’t one for making mid-season splashes, but this season has felt different than most. I recently talked about how the Spurs can’t afford to stand pat because they are an outlier in that they are being led by older veterans and not winning games. Even though my stance has not changed, there will certainly be roadblocks in getting any deals done before the trade deadline.
The perception of a weak draft likely means playoff teams will be more willing to trade their first round pick in the upcoming draft for an established veteran. That’s good if the Spurs are looking for draft assets, but for the same reason buying teams are willing to trade away their draft picks, selling teams might prefer younger players already in the NBA as opposed to draft picks. That could lead to a stalemate in many trade discussions, especially before the upcoming trade deadline before teams have been able to adequately scout potential draftees.
The Spurs have a number of veteran players that could garner interest before the trade deadline, especially if DeRozan, Aldridge, Gay, and Belinelli continue their strong play. The conundrum is that if these players all keep playing at a high level, the Spurs will likely continue winning, eliminating the desire to become sellers at the trade deadline. Either way, they will almost certainly be getting calls over the next month and they should give all potential moves strong consideration.
There’s a better chance of the Spurs trading a player like Aldridge or Gay in the summer once their contracts are expiring and the Spurs have a better grasp of the draft. Because of this, and the fact that Aldridge and Gay are not necessarily impeding the development of younger players on the roster, I don’t expect either of them to be moved before the deadline.
DeRozan, Belinelli, and Bryn Forbes are a different story because their contracts are expiring and the Spurs have younger players who play similar positions that could soak up some of their minutes. Even with a strong December, Belinelli has very little trade value and could end up being a buyout candidate on March 1st. Forbes is more likely to be a trade sweetener than the centerpiece of any trade, so the focal point between now and the trade deadline will be on what the Spurs should do with DeRozan.
He could absolutely yield a first round pick in the upcoming draft, especially with the buzz surrounding the draft at this point. It’s all going to depend on what salary the Spurs are willing to take back and how they feel about the upcoming draft. I don’t think they are looking to blow everything up, as there is enough talent on the roster to suggest that tweaking it to have better on-court synergy would be better than starting over. With that in mind, acquiring additional draft assets may not be their primary goal. I believe they would much prefer to find players already in the NBA to compliment the players on the roster who are considered untouchable. The Spurs are already a borderline playoff team with a mishmash roster, so one can’t fault them if they choose to go this route.
The idea of an NBA draft being considered weak is only relevant in the context of how teams handle their business prior to the draft. There have been many drafts considered weak that have produced generational talent. The Spurs could look at the uncertainty of the draft as an opportunity to grab an extra late first round draft pick to select a player overlooked during the draft process. Only time will tell, but the Spurs’ conservative in-season nature and the uncertainty of the NBA draft leads me to believe that they will either stand pat or look to trade players for others already in the NBA instead of unknown draft assets.