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The Spurs look like a team that is actively tanking

The Spurs find themselves near the bottom of the standings and their struggles are at least partially self-inflicted.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

A quarter into the season, the Spurs are one of the worst teams in the league. Are they actively tanking or just unintentionally terrible?

Marilyn Dubinski: At this point, I have to believe they’re tanking. There’s just no other way to interpret some of the roster and rotation decisions, like having Tre Jones as the only point-guard and playing Jeremy Sochan at starting PG (and then replacing Sochan with Cedi Osman instead of Jones because Pop felt like it)? None of these are moves a team that wants to win makes, and I believe Pop made a mistake when he said before the season that the goal was to return to winning because it shifted expectations. If he had just stuck with narrative that this would be an experimental season from the outset, fans would probably be more patient.

Mark Barrington: I think that Pop is doing a lot of things with the team that are not conducive to winning, like playing Sochan out of position, and not having a defined role for Victor Wembanyama on defense or offense. Is that tanking? Maybe you could call it that in the short term, but the intention behind these puzzling moves is to provide long-term benefits in player development and player evaluation. Is it going to work out? Check back with me next year, because right now it’s pretty chaotic and painful to watch.

Bruno Passos: I don’t necessarily think that keeping Jones on the bench is a tanking move, but we’re starting to see enough sub-optimal decisions to where you have to hope this was a hedge with tanking in mind. Heading into the season as young as they are, with just one playmaker on the roster (and one you’ve tabbed as a back-up), two legitimately playable big men, and a completely open-ended approach to unleashing your high-usage rookie on offense? Collectively these feel like moves with a best-case scenario of maximizing development while staying in the play-in mix and a worst-case scenario of bottoming out for a top pick while keeping your powder dry for another year. For a team that’s clearly adopted a Process-esque approach to rebuilding, it wouldn’t be off-brand to punt on another season for the greater good, even if it’s not exactly what they said they were doing on day one and even if the 2024 draft is currently considered fairly weak at the top.

Jesus Gomez: Boy, I sure hope it’s all on purpose. The Spurs would have a tough decision to make regarding Pop if it wasn’t. The big issue is that the team didn’t manage expectations well going in. This season was always going to be about development and trying to find what works, which means losing a lot. But the players and Pop said they were trying to win, which just wasn’t likely with the lack of depth and many flaws of the roster. I’m not sure if the idea from the start was to tank, but it seems like the franchise wasn’t opposed to being a bottom-dweller for another year if it meant both experimenting and eventually getting another cornerstone through the draft. So here we are.

Is there a tweak that could be made without changing the roster that could turn things around dramatically?

Dubinski: I don’t know how dramatically it would actually change things, but if they’re experimenting, why not start or even just play the lineup everyone wants to see a bit more? Jones-Vassell-Johnson-Sochan-Wembanyama has still only played 16 minutes across seven games and has a net rating of 58.4. (At least we did finally get Wemby starting at center against the Bulls.). Of course that number won’t hold up with more time, but it hasn’t been utilized enough, and not only is the status quo not working, but it’s possibly to the detriment of several players. Wemby isn’t getting the help he needs to properly develop, and Sochan is reportedly feeling unsure about his future role.

Barrington: I think just getting more organized is what the team needs to win more games. There’s more talent on the team than there was last year, yet they’re playing worse. While some players are having undeniably bad stretches [Zach], the biggest problem is that they aren’t playing together, which can be seen every time they botch a fast break or miss a rotation on a pick and roll. I feel like the coaching has been focused on individual skills, but the team coordination has just been awful so far this year.

Players need defined roles, especially on defense, instead of just randomly floating where they think they might be useful. Pop has said that he’s really not coaching Wembanyama that much while he’s evaluating what he can do, but maybe now, a quarter of the way through the season, he could start dictating more where everybody needs to be on defense, because one guy out of position has been leading to lots of easy baskets for any team that’s reasonably good at passing the ball, which has been a killer late in games this year.

Passos: If I had a silver bullet I might be the winningest coach in NBA history but, off the top of my head, I’ll say: ideally, a clean bill of health for Vassell and more aggressiveness from him, more experimentation with Wemby at the 5 lineups, lower usage for Zach, more Cedi, and maybe a look at Devonte’ Graham for spacing’s sake here and there.

Gomez; The playoffs are not a possibility, so making huge changes doesn’t seem likely or necessary. Still, starting Jones and giving some minutes to Graham off the bench and playing Sochan at power forward, either off the bench or with Wembanyama as the starting center should make the team more competitive.

True or false: If the Spurs are in the cellar going into the trade deadline, no one but Wembanyama should be considered untouchable.

Dubinski: Devin Vassell should also be considered untouchable, and Keldon Johnson and Jeremy Sochan should only be available for a high price. Beyond those four, the Spurs should have open ears for anyone else, especially those who are not a part of future plans. I just hope any moves they do make are for the benefit of the team in the near future, not just draft capital that is multiple years away or other teams’ salary dumps.

Barrington: Devin Vassell is also untouchable, and I doubt anyone would want to offer enough for Keldon Johnson to replace his leadership on this young team. Sochan is another guy who just wouldn’t demand enough of a return to counterbalance his value to the Spurs for his long-term potential as a centerpiece on both offense and defense. But the Spurs have a lot of players that are easily replaceable, and while I really like all of the players on the roster now, it’s a rough business. If the team can improve the roster by moving one or more of them, I won’t be too upset that they have to go to make the team better.

But the truth is that the Spurs aren’t interested in winning this year, so any trades that they’d be interested in would be focused on the long term, which is why I wouldn’t be surprised if Devonte’ Graham were moved for a second rounder or a young project player, for example. As much as I’m disappointed in Malaki Branham’s play this year, I doubt the Spurs could get anything in return for him, so the best hope for him is that he’ll improve in a system that gives him more open looks at the basket, which hopefully is in the works for next season. While very few players are untouchable, most of them will stay on the team because they are basically untradeable. The Spurs aren’t going to churn their roster unless they can see a long-term benefit, and the opportunities for that are going to be very limited this season.

Passos: I don’t imagine they’ll rush to trade another piece of the current core, but realistically no one else should be untouchable. Vassell is likely the closest thing to it but even those most optimistic about his fit with Wembanyama, unrealized defensive potential or possibility as a top-two option on a good to great team should still pick up the phone. Are you watching this team?

Gomez; I’d say listening to offers makes sense, but actually pulling the trigger on a deal sending out any of the core players doesn’t unless the offer is too good to pass up. It wouldn’t hurt to know what, say, Keldon Johnson could get as a return in a trade, but there should be no rush to trade anyone under 23 right now. Some pieces of the roster don’t seem to fit well with others, but that can change quickly if someone develops a specific skill or another piece acts as a connector. Making some changes next offseason would make more sense than shaking things up midseason.