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The Spurs are finally committing to a real rebuild

With their moves before the deadline, the Spurs made the tough decision to rebuild instead of trying to retool around a likable but limited young core.

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at San Antonio Spurs Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into the trade deadline, it seemed like the Spurs, which had already made two deals before, were going to be relatively quiet. There weren’t a lot of big rumors about them and there seemingly was no rush for them to make big moves.

When the dust had settled, Derrick White, Thaddeus Young and Drew Eubanks were gone, and if the reports are correct, Jakob Poeltl came close to joining them. In return, the Spurs got Josh Richardson, Romeo Langford and Goran Dragic, but more importantly, two first round picks.

We’ll know soon enough how the moves affect the team this season, but the most interesting aspect of the transactions is that they signal that the Spurs have finally picked a path. By moving White, they are going all in on maximizing their cap and trade flexibility and building through the draft instead of trying to retool around the existing core.

While Young was only on the roster to get flipped and Eubanks never truly became a member of the young core, White was a huge part of the team. Losing him hurts. He was a hidden gem that the Spurs unearthed, and both because of his skill set and the way he undeniably gave it all for the team, he was the type of player any coach would want around. He even showed star potential in his breakout sophomore year, so a lot of fans thought he was going to be San Antonio’s next great find. While he never reached those heights, he earned his extension and his starting spot by doing what was asked of him on offense and being a fantastic, selfless defensive player. To truly comprehend how big this move is, it’s important to understand not just that White is good, but also that he’s fundamentally Spurs-y.

The obvious parallel to draw is the trade of George Hill. After Gregg Popovich called him his favorite player publicly and repeatedly, the Spurs moved him, because they realized that no matter how representative of their values a player is, if they can improve from letting them go, they need to. In Hill’s case, his trade was designed to give a team that was severely lacking size on the perimeter a chance to shore up that weakness and extend its contending window. In White’s case, the reasoning has to do with adjusting a timeline that felt out of whack by the decision to hold off on a clearly needed rebuilding process to remain relevant after Kawhi Leonard forced his way out. Both could be turning points for the franchise, and both were all about the future.

It might be hard for a fan base that is used to only thinking about winning to easily accept trades that don’t bring in an upgrade. It seems like it was certainly hard for the front office to finally decide it was time to pick this path, considering they reportedly tried to trade for Domantas Sabonis. But it truly seems like the best one. The Spurs have an All-Star in Dejounte Murray but no true franchise player. Guys like White and Jakob Poeltl help maintain a level of competence, but can’t elevate a team on their own. The other young players are all 23-years-old or younger. The only real options were either staying put until the offseason, to make sure they knew what they had, or moving on from at least one of their young veterans now. The Spurs took the riskier path.

What comes next is unclear, but there shouldn’t be huge changes in the immediate future. Dragic is all but gone already, another pragmatic buyout from a team that used to seem opposed to them on principle. The Spurs could shut down Murray, Poeltl and McDermott, give the young players all the playing time they can handle and try to out-tank the Trail Blazers. But that’s not who they are. In all likelihood, they’ll try to minimize the damage of White’s departure by giving Richardson most of his minutes, and possibly even his starting spot. They will kick the tires on Romeo Langford, to see if the potential some saw in him was real. It’s hard to project a big drop off for a team that even with White around only won around a third of its games and unrealistic to expect a big post-deadline surge. Things should stay as they are, for the most part.

The exciting part comes after. The Spurs should have no trouble moving either or both of the guys they got from Boston next offseason, since they will be on expiring deals, or keep them and take the future cap flexibility. There’s no emotional attachment there. Moving up in the draft should be easier with two extra first rounders and multiple second rounders to dangle, along with a group of young prospects and a couple of veterans others might covet. Keeping all three picks seems unlikely, but could be a possibility. Another attempt to pry away a disgruntled young star should be on the table, and now the Spurs have the assets to pull it off. There will be cap space to play with. The possibilities are endless.

Erring on the side of caution would have been completely acceptable for the Spurs at the deadline. They will be lucky if either of the picks they got turn out to be as good as White. After taking their time to develop young players into contributors, it would have been understandable to be extra cautious before making any big moves. There was no huge rush.

Sometimes being decisive pays off, however, and if a vision for the future is clear, there’s no reason for delays. By pulling the trigger now, the Spurs are committing to a path, finally. Whether it’s the right one remains to be seen, but having a sense of direction has value on its own.