Expectations for the San Antonio Spurs heading into the 2022-23 season were not particularly high. Trading their best player in Dejounte Murray for draft capital, letting another young contributor like Lonnie Walker IV walk for nothing, and replacing them with three 19-year-olds is typically a sign that a rebuild is coming.
Well, that rebuild is officially in full swing, as the Silver and Black sit at 14-45, the league's second worst record, at the All-Star Break. They are on pace for their worst season since the 1996-1997 season... which resulted in drafting Tim Duncan #1 overall in the ‘97 draft. With 23 games left to play, there is no better time to look back at the season so far, and sift through what has gone right, and what has gone wrong.
What went wrong?
Losing. No duh, right? The Spurs are playing a brand of basketball that does not fit with where the organization has been over the last two decades. Even the last three seasons of below .500 ball featured pesky enough teams to warrant national attention, led by players who have since left like DeMar DeRozan, Murray and Derrick White. This rendition of the Spurs is a far cry from where the organization’s standards have been.
The team is posting the worst defensive rating in franchise history (120.3, allowing 122 points per contest), letting teams walk all over them in the paint, and allowing easy drive-and-kick looks to teams with good guard play. The on- floor product has not been pretty so far; however, it may pay dividends for years to come.
It’s no secret, this year’s draft has two potential franchise-altering talents at the top. Victor Wembanyama and Scoot Henderson have been hyped as generational talents by draft gurus and NBA scouts alike. San Antonio is hoping they can rekindle the magic of 1997 and land another potential face of the organization.
But the draft lottery is different now. In an effort to stop tanking, the league changed the rules, where the bottom 3 teams only hold a 14% chance of receiving the number 1 pick, rather than the worst team holding a 25% chance, and the odds descend from there. That means if the standings hold, the Spurs could end up with a pick anywhere from 1 to 6. While guys like Brandon Miller and Amen Thompson are legitimate NBA prospects, it will be a great disappointment to lose out on Henderson or Wembanyama after losing so many games.
To make matters worse, some players on the roster have fallen back in some categories where either improvement or consistency would have been expected. Keldon Johnson’s shooting has been a topic of concern for Spurs’ fans. After looking like a potential sharp shooter last season, shooting 40% from 3-point range, his shot mechanics have seemingly regressed, and he’s now hitting just 33% from beyond the arc. Of course, three-point shooting percentage is often a volatile stat for young players early in their career (check out Gordon Hayward’s numbers early in his career, as a good example,) so there isn’t a need to panic yet, but it would be nice to see Johnson’s shooting rebound in the back half of the season.
Finally, injuries have prevented us from getting a good look at how key contributors like Devin Vassell and Romeo Langford have progressed. Gregg Popovich recently stated that the Spurs expect Vassell back after the break, which would give Spurs’ fans something to look forward to in the last-third of the season.
What went right?
San Antonio is at a key stage in their rebuild: seeing what they have on the roster. That has meant larger roles for young players like Jeremy Sochan, Malaki Branham, Tre Jones, Keldon Johnson and Zach Collins.
The Spurs are seeing real strides from nearly all of their young guys. Johnson has taken on the role of lead scorer (22 ppg) with a hard nosed style of play, getting to the basket and going through anyone in his way. Sochan looks like a versatile 2-way forward who can make plays for himself and others on offense and stop high level scorers on the other end. Branham has started to come around in February and looks like a potential three-way scorer that could add some pop to the starting five or bench unit.
Collins has stepped into the starting role and looked comfortable as a play-making big in the offense. He’s also improved nearly every statistical category this year, averaging 10 ppg, 6 rpg and 3 apg on 54% shooting from the field, hitting 36% of his threes. He may end up being a back-up big in the long term, but his ability to step into the starting five has shown that the Spurs have a versatile postman that they can spot start if needed.
Of course, we would not have seen Collins get that starting spot had it not been for San Antonio shipping off some guys at the deadline. It was hard to say goodbye to Jakob Poeltl and Josh Richardson, who provided the Silver and Black with a steady veteran presence, and in the case of Poeltl, one of the team’s best players.
But when a team is rebuilding, these type of moves are necessary, now matter how tough the pill is to swallow, as it nets the necessary assets to move into the next phase of the rebuild. The Spurs netted onw 2024 first-round pick from the Raptors, seven second-round picks from the Heat, Pelicans and Raptors, as well as two veterans in Devonte Graham and Khem Birch. That’s a pretty good haul for essentially two players on expiring contracts.
Trading key contributors is never easy, but it’s necessary to get a shot at a franchise transforming player. Also, look at the biggest trades in the NBA over the five years. Draft picks rule everything around here, and stockpiling on them now is not such a bad idea, should the Spurs build the infrastructure that could attract the next disgruntled superstar.
The Spurs may not win many games this season, but they’ve put themselves in a good position to continue this rebuild effectively. Time will tell if those efforts will bear fruit.
Even in a rebuilding year, there are moments of excitement. The Spurs have gotten some really fun performances in the first half of the year.
Sochan’s historical 30-point game was a real moment for the team. Taking the Suns to overtime, he did it all for the Silver and Black, scoring on acrobatic finishes, midrange jumpers, and hitting three beyond-the-arc shots. He added in 8 rebounds and 5 assists in the loss: something only ever accomplished by four other teens in league history.
Remember when Poeltl absolutely cooked Jusuf Nurkic? The big man dominated the paint in the Spurs’ loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, tallying 31 points, 14 rebounds and 5 assists in a game that came down to the wire.
How about a dominant performance in a win? Vasell showed signs of being an offensive weapon before his injury. This showing exhibited how dangerous he is shooting off the catch, in turn opening up drives to the hoop and mid range shots. How about that side step three at the buzzer? Come back soon, Devin.
What about you? Any notable performances that come to mind? What were some of your favorite moments from the season so far?