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The rebuilding Spurs may have too many veterans

Doug McDermott, Josh Richardson and Jakob Poeltl have played important roles this season, but should a team that is focusing on development lean heavily on players that might not be a part of the future?

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Minnesota Timberwolves Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

When the Spurs moved Dejounte Murray, it was fair to wonder if other players with experience who didn’t fit the new timeline were going to be traded away as well. Jakob Poeltl, Josh Richardson and Doug McDermott all could have been flipped for assets and no one would have been surprised.

All three are still on the Spurs’ roster, at least for now, and that seems to have been the right decision, as they have been helping the young players progress early in the season. The question now is if it makes sense to continue to hold on to them for the rest of the year, especially if the losses start to pile up.

The situations of the individual veterans are different, and so is what they bring to the table. There shouldn’t be much urgency when dealing with McDermott, for two reasons. First, there aren’t any young player who could be getting minutes over him and can offer a similar skill set. The sharpshooting forward is getting 20 minutes a night, and while his playing time should largely be matchup-dependent, he’s not really impeding the progress of any recent draft picks. Second, he has a year left in his contract after this one, so the Spurs can simply keep him around if there are no enticing offers and reassess in the offseason. For now, his low usage, off-ball movement and outside shooting mesh well with the team’s identity and should help cement the principles of selfless play that the coaching staff is trying to establish.

Things get more complex when discussing Richardson. He’s in the last year of his contract and should have significant trade value as a plug-and-play option at the wing for a contender. He’s also clearly someone whose leadership has been evident since he arrived in San Antonio, and after Blake Wesley went down with injury, he has picked up the role of secondary ball handler, ranking second among available players in average seconds and average dribbles per touch behind only Tre Jones. If the Spurs were actively trying to tank, moving Richardson and giving Malaki Branham some run to speed up his development while waiting for Wesley’s return would make sense. However, despite currently sitting with a 6-9 record and still giving minutes to several members of the young core, it could be hard for the Spurs to pull the trigger on a trade that would bring even more issues when it comes to playmaking when Jones rests.

How they handle things with Richardson could give fans a hint of what the Spurs are actually trying to do, but the real telltale sign will be whether or not they eventually move Poellt. The 27-year-old center has been fantastic this year after a breakout 2021/22 season and is likely the team’s most coveted veteran. Despite being in the last year of his contract, he could immediately help a franchise with a hole in their starting lineup, and his salary is small and easy to match in any transaction. Anyone actually willing to part with significant assets for his services would have to be convinced that he would re-sign, so that eliminates some suitors, but even as a rental it could make sense for some contenders to seek him out. Would the Spurs trade a player whose steady production Gregg Popovich has compared to Tim Duncan’s and David Robinson? If they do, that would be a clear sign that despite the relatively strong start, the goal continues to be to rebuild through the draft.

It’s still early to focus too heavily on transactions over simply enjoying the (at times) fun team the Spurs currently have, but as we approach the 20-game mark, the questions about the future of the veterans currently on the roster become more important. Hold on for too long, and the value of the players on expiring deals will decrease. Rush to a deal, and there could be regrets if the team continues to win enough games to compete for a play-in spot.

The emergence of Charles Bassey as a rotation player and the eventual return of Wesley could play a part in convincing the front office that the team can actually function this season even without two key players like Richardson and Poeltl, but ultimately the decision will have to be made with an eye to the future. Every roster needs some veterans, so there’s no reason to just give them away, but unless the plan is to actually try to compete, exploring the market for everyone not in the young core would make sense.

After making big moves regarding Derrick White and Murray, the Spurs once again seem to be in a position where they are forced to pick a path where there are no right or wrong answers. Tanking is not the only way to return to relevance, and winning 35 games like San Antonio is currently on pace to do with a younger, cheaper group is not the same as winning 34 last season with a roster that was supposed to be better than they were. There’s no need to panic.

It is, however, time to start planning how to proceed with a season that is quickly approaching the quarter mark. The fate of the veterans could very much tell us what direction the front office is leaning toward, so it will be interesting to see how things play out.