Going into Monday’s game against the Minnesota Timberwolves, the San Antonio Spurs are on pace to win 54 games. Mind you, this collection of players is not going to actually win 54 games, but after an opening night loss to Charlotte that had me bracing for one of the worst NBA seasons of all time, the team has rebounded with back-to-back wins against the Pacers and the 76ers.
Part of this surprising start has been hot shooting from behind the three point line. While I think Keldon Johnson’s 10-24 so far this season will probably replicate itself throughout the season, Doug McDermott shooting over 60% on good volume and Josh Richardson shooting 47% on high volume likely are not. The shooting will cool down, and the team will find its level.
By all indications, such as trading Dejounte Murray for draft picks, San Antonio wants a shot at a top-two pick in the upcoming NBA draft. The problem is, even when the three-point shooting returns to normal, so far this team looks more likely to land near last year’s 34 wins than the bottom of the league (in an admittedly small sample size).
Part of this ‘problem’ is Jakob Poeltl is really one of the better centers in the NBA. He is the sort of defensive stopper and effective offensive option that could anchor the post for a team wanting to go deep in the NBA playoffs. So far this season, he is averaging 16 points per game on strong efficiency, nearly ten rebounds, and is exhibiting the kind of solid rotational defense we have come to expect from him.
Other factors at work that may hurt the Spurs’ tanking include the development of Devin Vassell, Keldon Johnson, and Tre Jones, and the early returns suggest Jeremy Sochan will find a useful role on the team defensively.
Jones, Vassell, Johnson and Sochan shouldn’t be going anywhere, their development is a key part of the plan, but unless one of them takes a leap into superstardom (it’s worth nothing that Johnson and Sochan are both better offensive players than Kawhi Leonard was at their age), a high lottery pick with superstar potential is still a necessity in the near future.
I am hardly the first person to say or propose this, but if this team’s intention is to be in the high lottery (I try to avoid the word ‘tank’), then highly competent veterans like Poetl, McDermott, and Richardson need to be traded sooner rather than later.
Blake Wesley and Malaki Branham are currently assigned in Austin, and that will do them some good, but it would probably be better for the team long term if one of them was getting the 22 minutes a night currently taken by Richardson. The Spurs would win fewer games this year, but the teenagers would get far more development.
Poeltl’s minutes could be largely absorbed by Zach Collins: a talented player who is a couple years younger and more offensively diverse. Once again, it may cost some games now, but the Spurs could find out how much of a piece for the future they have in Collins.
I believe there was an assumption by most observers in the NBA that if the Spurs simply got rid of the do-it-all point guard who led them last year, the team would automatically fall to pieces. Instead, the strong in-house talent development of the organization and the stepping up of key veterans has left the Spurs with a team that isn’t good enough to compete, but may not be bad enough to get the most talented players in the 2023 draft. If a top two pick is in fact the goal for this season, San Antonio should jettison their veterans quickly for draft picks before they find themselves in the back half of the lottery...again.