It’s been a trying time for Spurs fans. Even those who support the approach to go for a full rebuild and agreed with the draft selections have likely struggled to find reasons for optimism in the short term. Moreover, the lack of success that has correlated with a change in leadership at the front office level probably worries some when thinking about the future.
While nothing (other than time travel) will calm the anxiety about the future, a look at the small things the front office has done right recently might assuage some of the concerns about the people in charge. The Brian Wright administration has not had one great win yet, but it has strung together some minor ones. Let’s start with the biggest example and go from there.
The Dejounte Murray trade was well executed
People can disagree on whether the Dejounte Murray trade was necessary or the right course of action, but looking back on it, the execution was undoubtedly good. Murray is a very good player in his prime, but getting three first-round picks and a pick swap while not taking any long-term salary back is impressive. The timing of it was also perfect, since a lot of other stars became available after, which might have derailed the conversations with the Hawks. Acting quickly was smart.
Speaking of that suddenly star-saturated trade market, it offers a good comparison point to judge the Murray deal. The transactions that have been completed since or the rumored hauls other franchises are requesting for better — or at least more accomplished — players indicate the Spurs did well. A three-time Defensive Player of the Year commanded a return of four first-rounders and a swap, plus some decent but unspectacular players. The asking price for Donovan Mitchell seems to be six or seven first-rounders, but so far no team has been willing to offer that. The circumstances surrounding the Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving trade requests are unique, but even two superstars with championship pedigree have struggled to fetch big hauls so far.
Murray is good, and he might eventually become a multiple-time All-Star, but he’s not at that level yet. By acting quickly and decisively, the Spurs got back what seems like a fair at-worst and legitimately good at-best package back for him.
It’s the perfect year to have a lot of cap space
The biggest disappointment from the Murray trade is that there were no actual players coming back to San Antonio. Instead of being able to get excited about and deep dive into the game of, say, Ognyeka Okongwu or John Collins, the fans had to settle for looking at scouting videos for prospects that might not ever wear Silver and Black, as the front office prioritized picks.
A sub-product of that decision is an abundance of cap space, which is normally considered mostly an asset for the future, just like the draft selections. This year, however, it might be useful sooner rather than later.
The Spurs are in a prime position to facilitate trades at a moment in which several stars could be on the move. Even if no deals materialize over the next few weeks, cap flexibility could come in handy during the season and especially at the trade deadline, where teams will either try to shed salary or upgrade their roster by possibly even going after the same stars that seem available now but might not be yet. The likely return San Antonio will get would probably be more draft picks, which will still be tough to get too excited about, but there might also be an opportunity to pry away a young prospect with potential in those transactions, or a veteran to provide leadership that can then be flipped later.
The Spurs could have focused on having cap space next offseason, but they made sure to have a lot of it available now, which opens up more options. At worst, they’ll roll it over, but not making any big additions gives them valuable flexibility.
The contracts have been structured well
The Spurs only have a few guys who are not on their first contracts, and all of them have deals that have been structured well. The most impressive example is Keldon Johnson’s contract. The young forward will see his reasonable salary decline as the years pass, getting paid $17.5 million at the back end, which will likely be a tiny fraction of the cap. The downside is that it could be tough to extend his contract if he blossoms into a star, but the Spurs would still have the possibility to offer more money than anyone else once he hits free agency.
Other, less consequential deals are also team-friendly. Doug McDermott has a flat contract, meaning that he’ll make $13.7 million both this year and the next, and with the cap expected to go up, he’ll essentially be cheaper in practice as his deal winds down, which could make him easier to trade. Zach Collins’ contract is fully non-guaranteed next season, so the Spurs could cut ties with him next summer if he struggles to stay on the court or keep him for a very reasonable $7.3 million while obtaining full Bird Rights to him if he excels. Finally, making the second year of Keita Bates-Diop’s deal fully non-guaranteed and likely only guaranteeing part of the newly signed Alize Johnson’s contract should allow them to determine which one of them fits the team better for little to no cost.
Most fans are understandably not too concerned with bookkeeping factoids, but considering the issues the franchise had in past years with bad contracts that resulted in buyouts or were tough to move, it’s worth mentioning that the front office has been more careful recently.
The front office did a good job on the fringes of the roster
After trading their best player for a good haul, carving out a gigantic level of cap space, and handling the veteran’s contracts well, the front office also did a good job of filling out the roster with intriguing players on affordable contracts.
Claiming Isaiah Roby off the waivers was one of those small moves that make sense for a rebuilding team to pull off. Roby is not going to turn into a star, but he’s still just 24 years old, has good physical tools and some experience under his belt, and is on the last year of a contract that will pay him under $2 million. He also fills a position of need, as he can play power forward and small ball center.
Keeping Tre Jones past the deadline that guaranteed $500,000 of his $1.7 million deal was a no-brainer, but having the possibility to cut ties was smart planning in case the former second-rounder didn’t pan out. Similarly, giving him a three-year contract that will net the Spurs full Bird rights while still making Jones a restricted free agent in 2023 gives them control over a young player who might be a part of their future.
Alize Johnson for the minimum on a likely partially guaranteed deal is also a nice little gamble. The forward has dominated G League play in the past with his all-around game and has a chance at sticking in the NBA thanks to his rebounding and passing.
Even something tiny like making Joe Wieskamp a restricted free agent to have the opportunity to retain him or using the two-way slots on two big forwards with potential are smart moves.
The success of a rebuild is almost always determined by the big moments. A team can do all the small things right, but if the lottery luck is not there or they pick the wrong cornerstone, none of it will matter. One great move is most important than dozens of decent ones in the NBA. It’s just an unfortunate fact.
It’s still comforting to see a front office be competent in what it can control, and the Spurs seem to be on their way to having one again. Hopefully, Brian Wright and Co. will build on what has been a solid few months and be ready to nail the more important decisions that will come down the road.