The Spurs selected Josh Primo with the 12th pick in the draft, far ahead of where he was projected to be nabbed, and the reaction to the pick revealed something about the current state of the franchise: the fans no longer trust the front office.
The overreaction to the Primo pick was not one of just confusion by those who had consumed mock drafts for weeks, but one of almost contempt. It was seen, both on Twitter and the comment sections, as an egregious mistake, almost a betrayal. In the days since, fans have been talking themselves into the pick, as it always happens, but that initial reaction remains telling. Years ago, the percentage of people who would have chosen to just trust PATFO even when they drafted a complete unknown like George Hill seemed vastly superior to the section of the faithful who protested as vehemently as they did to the Primo pick. And the complaints at the time were perceived more as signs of entitlement after years of being spoiled by success than anything else. This was different.
In reality, the 12th pick is not a big deal. It’s easy to look at the last All-NBA team and point out that a lot of players came from outside the top 10, so why rule out the possibility of an obvious star dropping to the Spurs. Unfortunately, that would be engaging in survivorship bias. For every Giannis and Kawhi selected at 15th, for example, there are dozens of unremarkable to bad NBA players picked at the position. The stars are the outliers, not the norm, so picking Primo over someone better graded by draft experts likely won’t have a big impact on the future of the franchise.
A lot of people seemed more enraged by the fact that the Spurs didn’t trade down for Primo than by the selection itself. The obvious counter to that is that the front office surely knew that trading down is possible but probably didn’t find a trade partner, or they had good reason to believe that there were other teams interested in Primo who would nab him first if they moved out of the lottery. General Manager Brian Wright actually said that the latter was true, stating that “what the intel says is often not what the mocks say.” The front office liked a guy, thought he might not be there if they moved down, so they picked him.
So why were so many people upset at a pick that didn’t have a high chance of changing the franchise and distrustful about whether the front office had done the most basic aspect of its job? The answer is simple: because the Spurs have lacked a direction for three years now, and this felt like the latest in a string of moves that made no sense.
Part of the reason why so many fans seemed to be hoping for a savior with the 12th pick is because it’s been unclear how the Spurs will actually attempt to find their centerpiece at all. So far they have refused to tank, so they have denied themselves their shot at the Cade Cunninghams of the world. They carved out enough cap space to sign a superstar, but on a year in which none are available. A trade seems like the most likely scenario in which they get an All-NBA guy, but players typically have control on where they land now, and might force their way elsewhere. So having one of the familiar names associated with potential join the Spurs through the draft suddenly seemed of vital importance.
Similarly, the selection of yet another swingman brought to the forefront the reality that the Spurs don’t have and have not had a balanced, well-rounded roster for years now. The reason fans seemed to want a high upside shot creator or a big man with a perimeter game is because the team has lacked both in their young core since they started forming it. Every guard on the roster is mostly comfortable in a secondary creator role while the wings are mostly finishers for now. As for the bigs, Jakob Poeltl and Drew Eubanks are paint-bound while Luka Samanic has not panned out yet. Instead of addressing very real roster needs with the draft, the Spurs picked another small wing who doesn’t project to be a primary creator, and it’s fair to wonder if it was the right decision.
So are Spurs fans right to distrust the judgment of management right now? Based the last three years, absolutely. Since Kawhi Leonard forced his way out, there was essentially no progress made in creating the next great Spurs’ team, and plenty of mistakes were made along the way. The Brian Wright era has had very few bright spots and one glaring misstep in the DeMarre Carroll-Davis Bertans-Marcus Morris debacle, even if it wasn’t entirely his fault. Worse yet, it’s been impossible to tell what direction the franchise wants to pursue going forward. Were they building around DeRozan? Do they believe they already have someone around in the young core that could turn into a centerpiece? Are they just accumulating assets with the intention of making a trade? It’s unclear.
The distrust itself is understandable. For a lot of fans, the Spurs have lost the benefit of the doubt at this point. That all the anxiety about the future bubbled up with the selection of a seemingly fine prospect is a little silly, but it was only a matter of time until something triggered a collective meltdown. Hopefully the release of pressure will help all understand that, as bad as the recent past has been, San Antonio is still in a decent position. This is not the offseason in which everything gets fixed, but it could be the one in which the Spurs take their first real step on a real path back to contention.
The two picks were solid, and they give the team positionally flexibility, which is something the franchise is preaching every chance it gets. Knowing that the Spurs are not too concerned with positions at least gives us a better understanding of the front office’s team-building philosophy.
The cap space created provides plenty of opportunities. From taking long shots at restricted free agents like John Collins and going for reclamation projects like Lauri Markkanen and Zach Collins, to signing young veterans to round out the roster, San Antonio will have choices.
Having so many young players either on rookie contracts or good value extensions, along with control of future picks, should also allow the Spurs to be in the mix for any All-NBA guy that becomes available.
Hopefully, this is the end of the mediocre transitional period from the truncated Kawhi Leonard era and the beginning of a brighter day. It’s fine to be more critical about the decision-makers until they prove they can be trusted again, but there’s no need to reflexively panic just yet after every move. Patience will be required.
The last three years haven’t been good, and nothing can change that, but now it’s time to look at the future and hope that the people in charge can make us all believers again.