For the better part of two and a half decades, the Spurs offseasons have had a metronome-like quality. We knew they were going to try to find diamonds in the rough in the late first round of the draft, take a swing on an international prospect in the second round, use their mid-level exception to fill a hole in free agency and then find someone literally out of nowhere. No trades, very few splashy free agency signings (hello LaMarcus Aldridge), not many bad contracts handed out (they were really two years too late on getting good Pau Gasol).
For a lot of reasons, this year feels different. It started with the Bubble Spurs looking nothing like the regular season Spurs and has now spilled over into NBA Draft Season. For a variety of reasons a full rebuild may never happen, but what if we’re on the way to a two-year reload project?
Because the rumors are now out there let’s quickly discuss why a “blow it up” style rebuild may never be in the cards. First, much of the infrastructure from the extended dynasty is still in place. The Holt family remains principle owners, R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich remain in charge of basketball operations and Pop, as far as we know, remains the head coach for at least one more season. It’s hard to come up with an example of a group that is very accustomed to winning pivoting to intentional losing without an extended stretch of losing. The Miami HEAT, for example, have missed the playoffs a handful of times since the Big 3 broke up, but they never stopped trying to make the postseason. There are probably also business concerns. This is, after all, a small market franchise with a fanbase unaccustomed to losing. How long would Spurs fans continue to support a team designed to not compete?
The HEAT actually feel like a good model for the Spurs to follow. Don’t do anything crazy contract wise but show players (and their agents) you’re intent on keeping a winning culture in place even if title contention doesn’t seem plausible. That could start this summer, er-fall. We know the Spurs are working out players who are projected to go before the 11th pick. Deni Avdija and Onyeka Okongwu are not making it to 11 barring some sort of medical red flag. They’ve also interviewed Isaac Okoro and Tyrese Haliburton. Both might be there at 11, but you’re more likely to have to move up at least a couple of spots to land either. This is the year where moving up makes sense. The draft is considered light on elite talent. In theory, that should make trading up less costly.
Additionally, while the Spurs don’t have a lot of cap room this season, they’re projected to have somewhere in the range of $75-80 million next summer. That doesn’t take in to account a Derrick White extension or bringing back any one of DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge, Rudy Gay or Patty Mills if they chose to do so. But the point is they have the flexibility to take on money if it means moving up for the player they want.
There’s also an external factor at play here. Next season, the Western Conference is going to be even more loaded than this season. You could argue every team is going to compete for the playoffs. Minnesota, with its 19 wins and all, is going to get more competitive next season and try to make the playoffs. The Warriors are expected to be the Warriors again, or at least close to it. And Phoenix just added Chris Paul to the mix. So the three teams that finished behind the Spurs are all expected to make a playoff push, and two of those team are likely going to be a lot better this upcoming season than last. While the Thunder might blow it up, they’re not a team that has shown any interest in just being bad. The Spurs could try to make the playoffs, still finish bottom 3 in the West, and likely draft in the top 10. Maybe even higher. Next year’s draft class is loaded. Jonathan Givony from ESPN recently told Zach Lowe there’s 6 or 7 guys in the 2021 draft that could be the first pick this year.
Back to this draft. Let’s say the Spurs move up for a front court player. It might cost them one of Dejounte Murray or Derrick White. That probably is a high price for many fans, but the depth on the wing is real enough that the Spurs could take a hit if it meant finding a front court player with All-Star upside (I recently advocated for James Wiseman and have repeatedly touted Onyeka Okongwu as someone whose upside is being overlooked). The aforementioned 2021 draft class is also highlighted by wings likely to be high usage on offense and defend point guard-small forward (Cade Cunningham, Jalen Green, Jalen Suggs and BJ Boston would be good names to learn). It feels worth it to trade one young player and absorb a longer contract if it means getting two players with All-Star caliber upside. Having pieces like that in place make it that much easier for an organization used to winning to not hand out long-term deals to free agents Aldridge and DeRozan.
The term “blow it up” just never seemed like a Spurs-y move. Not while Pop roams the sidelines, R.C. oversees basketball operations, and guys like Tim Duncan remain constants at the One Spurs Way practice facility. But Spurs fans are right to think something must be done (and it sounds like something might be done before the draft). It just doesn’t have to be drastic and done in one summer.