The San Antonio Spurs have steadily assembled an intriguing collection of versatile two-way talent since 2016. Although none of them have made the colossal leap into stardom, almost every one of them has exceeded expectations by a wide margin.
Jakob Poeltl has become a premium screener and rim protector since arriving in the 2-1-0. And despite coming off the board outside of the lottery, Dejounte Murray and Derrick White have developed into legitimate NBA-level starters, outplaying many of their draft classmates.
Luka Samanic has flashed ball skills and tantalizing perimeter defense in limited minutes. Devin Vassell looked the part of the quintessential 3&D wing as a rookie. Second-rounder Tre Jones made the most of whatever garbage time came his way. And this trio is all younger than 22.
Keldon also fits into that category, Lonnie is barely past the legal drinking age, and all eight players discussed thus far have at least a little unexplored potential. But will any of them become foundational cornerstones? Well, it’s improbable the Spurs identified six future All-Stars in the past five drafts and traded for another in Poeltl.
But before we go any further, let’s explore the grey area that appears when talking about San Antonio’s young core. While they aren’t considered old by NBA standards, Dejounte, Jakob, and Derrick are mere months away from turning 25 and 27, and each will be playing on their second professional contract once White’s extension kicks in next season.
As of this moment, the Silver and Black haven’t won many meaningful games with that triad occupying heavy minutes, though that’s not entirely their fault. Rampant injuries, suboptimal rotations, and an awkward roster composition have, without a doubt, played a role in San Antonio’s shortcomings over the last two seasons.
Dejounte, Jakob, and Derrick are unquestionably valuable players who can contribute to a winning organization. And there’s plenty of film and numbers to disprove any theory that says otherwise. But given their usage and progression in San Antonio, it’s near-impossible determining their peak outcome and whether they’re close to achieving it.
Unless one or two of them makes strides towards maturing into a perennial All-Star, it’s hard imagining the Spurs competing for hardware anytime soon. Still, every player has a unique trajectory, and late-bloomers like Kyle Lowry, Chauncey Billups, and Sam Cassell crop up often enough for fans to hold out hope for a delayed breakout.
Manu Ginobili and Bruce Bowen also made names for themselves on the cusp of their 30th birthdays. That said, for every success story, there are quite literally thousands of players who never amounted to anything more than adequacy. Every NBA player is better at basketball than 99.9% of the population, but historically, most are just average professionals.
And because the NBA is a superstar-driven league, ordinary won’t get the job done. Those that have a superstar are usually a co-star away from entering the title conversation. Those that have two or more are possibly only a few role-players short of a ring. Those that lack one altogether frequently find themselves in basketball purgatory.
Organizations can lose their way into the top of the lottery, relying on luck and scouting for their shot at drafting a generational star. That’s more or less how Charlotte obtained LaMelo Ball, and that’s presumably what the Rockets are aiming for with unanimous first overall pick Cade Cunningham two months from promising a downtrodden ball club a brighter tomorrow.
Assuming the Spurs let multiple veterans walk this summer, they’re probably still too good to tank, so they fall into another category. Specifically, the subsection of teams that might sneak into the playoffs if everything goes their way. This sort of makeup often lends itself to earning a middling pick, leaving the franchise stuck between a cycle of mediocrity or blowing it up.
Thankfully, the Silver and Black aren’t in a position where restarting from square one makes the most sense. And with a league-leading $51M in projected cap space, PATFO have a ton of financial flexibility to improve their roster this summer. However, it’s worth noting the somewhat shallow free-agent market in front of them.
Should San Antonio lure John Collins or Lauri Markkanen away from their incumbent organization, there’s a slim chance signing a B-tier talent transforms them into an instant contender. Ancillary moves like adding three-point shooting to foster an inside-out attack can help solve some of their issues, but that still won’t push them over the hump.
Philadelphia had to let go of Michael Carter-Williams, Nerlens Noel, Dario Saric, Robert Covington, Jerami Grant, Jahlil Okafor, Richaun Holmes, Markelle Fultz, and Landry Shamet to construct an optimal roster. Now, they’re well on their way to Eastern Conference supremacy.
The Jazz parted with Enes Kanter, Dante Exum, Rodney Hood, Alec Burkes, Trey Lyles, Tony Bradley, Grayson Allen, and Derrick Favors in hopes of eventually curating something extraordinary. And they just finished with a league-leading 52 wins amid a shortened regular season.
With the Sixers intentionally tanking to complete “The Process” and Utah building organically, both teams took drastically different routes towards title contention. But one thing they had in common was their willingness to shake up their rosters through trades and signings.
Rarely was anyone untouchable, and they both did a phenomenal job of judging who was worth keeping around. Landing Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Donovan Mitchell, and Rudy Gobert certainly aided their cause, but shipping young valuable assets for proven players who were better stylistic fits is what pushed them into championship territory.
Even the Nets, a title favorite heading into this season, gladly separated with Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen, Taurean Prince, Rodions Kurucs, and their 2021 through 2027 first-round picks for two-and-a-half seasons of James Harden. Does it guarantee they’ll hang a banner in the Barclays Center? No, but it unmistakably improves their chances of doing so.
PATFO can’t realistically hold onto every homegrown prospect who walks through their door. At some point, the positional and size overlap will force their hand into making a difficult decision. And that’s why figuring out which individuals are expendable is such a critical component in rebuilding this franchise to its former glory.
The Spurs shouldn’t necessarily host a comprehensive firesale for anyone under contract. San Antonio has a handful of impactful players who can help them recapture contender status if placed in the right circumstance. But the emotional strain of moving on from a few fan favorites is more than worth it if they can attain a franchise-caliber player.
Those guys don’t become available every day, but the Spurs know all too well about what a disgruntled superstar can do to your leverage in the trade market. Toronto pounced on San Antonio’s misfortune to acquire an MVP candidate in Kawhi Leonard on the path to their first championship a few years ago.
While seeking a one-year rental might be reckless, there’s no reason for PATFO to abstain from trying to poach a big fish locked into a long-term deal who wants out of an awful situation. At the very least, they shouldn’t be afraid to explore their options. Standing pat with a flawed roster won’t bring San Antonio a sixth Larry O’Brien Trophy, and taking calculated risks is necessary.