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The Spurs, the Rockets and the importance of veterans for rebuilding teams

Having some veterans around can help rebuilding teams, but circumstances, roles and many other factors matter.

NBA: New York Knicks at San Antonio Spurs Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

The Rockets’ rebuilding approach caught some heat recently after Timberwolves’ guard Austin Rivers commented on how young guys need veterans around to teach them how to play and Houston doesn’t have them.

“Someone needs to teach KPJ and Jalen (Green) how to play the right way, you know what I mean?”, Rivers said after the game, according to “They need those vets … I like those guys, they’re super talented, they can really score. … They need someone to help them take that next step.”

The comment comes just days after the one veteran on the roster, Eric Gordon, had some harsh words of his own about the state of the team when asked about the progression he’s seen this year.

“There’s no improvement. Gordon said in a post-game interview. “Same old thing all year. We have a small margin for error. It’s a lot of things. It’s mindset. You got to play for one another. Do what’s right by your teammates. If you do that, it’d be more fun. You give yourself a better chance to win.”

Anyone who has watched the Rockets play this season probably agrees with both statements. Houston has a lot of talent and athleticism, but very little cohesion on offense and oscillating effort on defense. The reasons for those problems are probably more complex than just a lack of veterans, but it’s impossible to disagree that having some culture-setters could help, as the Spurs are showing.

San Antonio has the worst net rating in the league and arguably considerably less raw talent than Houston but those who can look past those predictable issues probably can tell that while the Spurs are simply not good at all, they are clearly trying to build an identity based on teamwork and selflessness, helped by their more experienced guys. An imperfect but quick way of pointing out a key difference is looking at assists per game, where the Spurs rank third in the league while Houston ranks last. A better way to actually see the difference between the two approaches is that there are no unhappy veterans in San Antonio or opponents calling out the immaturity of their young players. The case for having guys like Gorgui Dieng, Josh Richardson, Doug McDermott and Jakob Poeltl around even during a rebuild is easy to make when contrasting it with what’s happening in Houston.

That case does have some holes, however, when looking at other rebuilding teams. The first one is fairly obvious: because of the way the league handles the lottery it can be hard to thread the needle between having enough older, proven guys to lead but not enough that they can lower the chances of a high lottery pick. A perfect example of this issue can be found in the third West team that was expected to tank this season. The Utah Jazz moved their two stars and two other starters but kept Mike Conley, Jordan Clarkson and Kelly Olynyk around. Those three played a key part in a hot start that put the Jazz high in the stands early. The wheels have been falling off for them recently record-wise but they are still very close to play-in territory and their recent losses have been close. It’s unlikely they find themselves at the bottom of the standings anytime soon, so they will have to get extra lucky for a shot at any of the draft’s top prospects.

The second big issue with the idea that young rebuilding teams need veterans is that while it’s true that they will eventually need them, early on they might not be that important. Every time a franchise decides to go extra young during a rebuild, as the Rockets have, there is some outcry about how the prospects are going to develop bad habits and there will be a losing culture established that can’t ever be overcome. There are some examples of that happening, but there are also plenty of examples of teams simply finding transcendent talents to build around, shuffling the roster around maybe changing their coach and quickly turning things around. If the Rockets land Victor Wembanyama and he proves to be as good as expected, they’ll just have to surround him with some good pieces and they will likely be successful. No one will remember or care about this year if that happens.

From the outside, it does look like there’s value to having some veterans around to guide young players but it’s harder than it seems to determine how many, of what level and in which role, and at what point of the rebuild. Too many good ones getting regular minutes could hurt lottery chances, too few who don’t have any real on-court impact and they might not be able to actually teach anything meaningful. Have some early in the rebuild and they can end up mentoring players that won’t be around for long or hindering the playing time of guys who need to develop. Again, finding a balance is tricky.

It will be interesting to see how the Spurs do it going forward. There are likely going to be some transactions including the veterans before the trade deadline, but even if there aren’t, Richardson and Poeltl will become free agents and Dieng will be probably gone soon. McDermott could remain for one more season if he’s not moved, but he’s seen his minutes reduced, which could continue, making him more similar to Rudy Gay in Utah than Bojan Bogdanovic in Detroit in terms of on-court role. Will having him alongside Gregg Popovich sitting on the bench most of the time be enough or will San Antonio try to load up on more vets to teach the kids?

More importantly, will their decision really matter in the long term if they draft the next Tim Duncan? Probably not, but it’s one more piece of the rebuilding process that they will need to figure out. And if having a veteran presence is the excuse they need to bring Patty Mills back to San Antonio, no one will complain.