The Spurs have had a massive offseason in which they’ve reshaped their roster and reset their timeline. By adding three rookies, trading Dejounte Murray, and not signing any high-level players, San Antonio has gone young and should be a player in the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes. The Silver and Black are officially in rebuild mode.
It’s undeniably a good thing that the franchise now has a clear direction, but the presence of a plan makes the aimlessness of the four years that preceded it stand out more. The only reason there was a need to make huge moves now is because those moves weren’t made earlier, which likely set the Spurs’ return to relevance back years.
As much as the fans — and likely everyone involved with the Spurs in any capacity, really — want to forget about the entire Kawhi Leonard saga, it’s impossible to fully understand where the franchise stands now while ignoring what went wrong once Leonard asked out. San Antonio was coming off 47-win season in which their superstar wing only suited up for nine games, so it would have been understandable to think they could continue to be a playoff team without him. The problem is that Leonard was not the only one who departed that offseason. Danny Green went with him in the trade, while Kyle Anderson left in free agency. Manu Ginobili retired, an aging Tony Parker left after being relegated to a bench role, and Pau Gasol stopped being a viable rotation piece. Those players were six of the top ten in minutes per game that season.
It was the perfect time to rebuild, as former stars were at or near the end of their careers, and quality depth was being lost while a superstar was forcing his way out. The Spurs could have pivoted by seriously engaging the Lakers about a package centered on the young talent they had available at the time, plus some picks. Instead, they reportedly tried to convince Leonard to stay, then asked for too much from Los Angeles. With Leonard doing everything in his power to tank his value, the longer the discussions got, the less San Antonio could get in return. The Celtics and 76ers refused to include Jaylen Brown and Ben Simmons, respectively, but offered deals based on picks that were deemed not good enough. In the end, the Spurs took a deal that netted them DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a late first-rounder, which delayed their rebuilding effort.
The reasons for this decision are unclear, even today. It’s possible ownership gave the order to remain in the playoff hunt at the expense of building a higher-ceiling squad to avoid losing revenue. Gregg Popovich’s potential unwillingness to coach a rebuilding team at the time was probably considered. The refusal to move Leonard to one of his preferred destinations after so much drama, while too irrational to condone, might have been understandably part of the equation. Maybe the main motivation was to provide LaMarcus Aldridge, who had had a monster season without Leonard, with a running mate to help him in his last few productive years. Maybe all of the above was a factor.
While understandable at the time, all those reasons still seemed flimsy then and look even worse in retrospect. The Spurs’ regular-season attendance numbers held for a while before plummeting, and they only hosted three playoff games in the AT&T Center since trading for DeRozan. Popovich has clearly enjoyed coaching young players, but even if he hadn’t, the Spurs would have had plenty of options to replace him that they are now gone, as his assistants have taken over head-coaching spots in other franchises. Leonard eventually found his way to Los Angeles anyway. Aldridge’s defense deteriorated, which was predictable, and the arrival of DeRozan forced him out of his spots on offense, arguably hasting his decline.
There is one possible reason for picking the path the franchise walked that makes at least some sense: the Spurs thought that they could buck convention and get back on top without bottoming out by threading the needle between going young and remaining competitive. It’s not common, but other teams have done it in the past, in slightly different ways. The Rockets were a mediocre but fun team with a lot of roster turnover for the years between Yao Ming and James Harden. The Warriors didn’t pick in the top 5 before going from the We Believe group to the Stephen Curry-led juggernaut they eventually became, so it’s not surprising the Spurs believed they could do something similar, even if it was unlikely.
Unfortunately, for that plan to work, a perfect mix of flawless execution and blind luck is necessary. A look at the draft picks, free-agent acquisitions and buyouts make it clear that the Spurs had neither.
It didn’t help that there were enough glimmers of hope in most seasons to prevent the pot-committed Spurs to pulling the plug on the DeRozan era sooner. In the first year, they made the playoffs despite missing Murray. In the second year, the shine was wearing off until the bubble, when a new small-ball identity emerged. Year 3 was the first time Derrick White and Murray shared the backcourt as starters. Year 4 was the first opportunity to see how the young guys would fare without DeRozan. None of those circumstances alone should have been enough to keep the experiment going, but the only other option was to pivot to the full rebuild they had tried to avoid in the first place, so that’s what two different general managers seemingly held on to in order to justify maintaining their course.
At some point, the bubble was going to burst, and it’s not surprising it finally happened this year. The bad fit in the backcourt became impossible to ignore. The fall in the standings and attendance — not to mention the lack of nationally televised games — showed that the current path was likely hurting the Spurs’ brand. Pop got the record for most wins as a coach and actually seemed energized by coaching young players. No one emerged as a franchise-star-in-the-making, and there were no veterans with deep ties to the franchise and long-term contracts that would be affected by the decision to change courses. Murray seemed eager to go to a better team, so parting ways with him was not an issue. More importantly, it became painfully clear that whatever vision the front office had prior — assuming it had one — was not materializing, as the team looked as far from contending as it did four years ago.
Finally accepting a rebuild was the right decision, especially considering the haul the Spurs got back in return for Murray, but it’s clear that it would have been better to be more proactive earlier. If tanking was something the franchise was actually willing to do, doing it sooner would have made more sense. Had that happened, they would likely still have Murray around but surrounded by a few other standout players his age, and the Spurs would be entering the fun step in a rebuild in which the young core enters its prime. Instead, the process is only starting in earnest now, and it could take several years to get to that second stage.
The Spurs have been wildly successful for decades, winning titles and putting together fun teams that were a blast to root for, so fans should have patience during the downturn. The team made the playoffs just three years ago, after all. But it’s also imperative to understand that the recent seasons have been a failure, especially if the goal was to build towards something special. The decision-makers either vastly overrated their ability to find centerpieces and put together a good team without high draft picks, or they were content with settling for comfortable mediocrity up until having to commit to it for the long haul by signing flawed would-be cornerstones to massive contracts. Those are the only two options, unfortunately.
Again, it’s a good thing that the Spurs realized that the path they’ve been on wasn’t going to lead them to a good destination, but it’s also worth remembering that they willingly chose that path. As they get ready to walk in a new direction, it would be wise to keep in mind that the people in charge are far from infallible, and questioning whether they are making the right calls is not a sign of ungratefulness; it’s simply common sense.
The Spurs are not special. Not anymore, at least. It took the front office years to figure out that, but fortunately, they seem to finally get it. Now it’s time for the fans to accept that too and support the team through a rebuild, no matter how long it may take or how late it may be.