The dust has settled on what was a busy week leading up to the trade deadline for the Spurs in which they focused on getting more draft picks at the cost of solid veterans. The moves shouldn’t be a surprise for a rebuilding team, but there was some noise about potentially standing pat.
Fortunately, the front office decided to stay the course and rebuild slowly, which simply makes sense, even if it will likely make the last 22 games of the season harder to watch.
Few things derail rebuilding efforts more than a lack of patience. There are plenty of examples out there from recent years, including the DeRozan Spurs, but one of the recent ones that stand out is the Timberwolves. Minnesota went from being a good, young team on the rise to a win-now group that has chemistry issues and currently sits in a play-in spot in the West, just as they did last year. In the process of reshaping their roster they lost multiple first-round picks and had to make a midseason trade to try to salvage this year, which netted them a 35-year-old point guard to pair with their 21-year-old potential superstar shooting guard. They might make a push up the standings if things go well, but they are not a contender and the clock is ticking, since Mike Conley probably only has one more good season in him and Rudy Gobert is already 30 years old.
Now, what Minnesota did is not completely unreasonable. The Wolves haven’t been to the playoffs often in their history and saw their post-Kevin Garnet rebuild derailed by a Ricky Rubio injury and an incompetent General Manager that botched their drafts. They know that things can go badly even if they are patient. They are also not a free agent destination and have seen some of the best players in franchise history ask out after a few losing seasons. Under those circumstances, it wouldn’t be crazy to say that the Gobert and Conley trades, which didn’t cost them any of the trio of Anthony Edwards, Jaden McDaniels and Karl-Anthony Towns that they were originally building around, was the safer choice. At least this way they got tangible talent in their midst instead of the hypothetical reinforcements that would come through the draft in future years.
The Spurs’ circumstances are a little different. San Antonio is also not a glamour market and the franchise has had some messy divorces with their stars recently but they have a level of organizational stability that the Wolves simply haven’t had. They also won a championship less than a decade ago and made the playoffs more often than not throughout their history and as recently as 2019. San Antonio is embarking on its first rebuild in decades while the Wolves and other franchises have cycled through them. The four years in limbo before this season have also disabused the fanbase of the notion that the franchise was different than any other and predestined to always succeed. No one in San Antonio is going to be fine with unlimited tanking, including ownership, but it shouldn’t be hard to ask for some patience as long as there’s improvement year over year.
There is one factor in the rebuild that is beyond the Spurs’ control, however. As we’ve seen in the past with teams that land truly transformational players who are ready to lead a good team from day 1, like LeBron James and Luka Doncic, + sometimes building through the draft by bottoming out becomes impossible. Guys like that give franchises about a one-year window to nail a second lottery pick before carrying the team to the playoffs or at least high enough in the standings that a top-five pick becomes unlikely. Victor Wembanyama projects to be that caliber of a star, which is why the talk about potentially re-signing Jakob Poeltl made at least some sense.
Still, the decision to part ways with the veterans seems the correct one, since there’s no guarantee the Spurs will land someone who can singlehandedly turn their fortune around in this upcoming draft. Even if they do, they should be able to quickly build around him. One of the things San Antonio’s front office has excelled at over the years and into the present is their ability to get quality rookies without lottery picks and find and develop role players that other teams overlook. That should be even easier to do if they can keep cap space open and a stash of extra picks to trade for the right complementary cast. With the tools at the Spurs’ disposal, it shouldn’t be too hard to find the next Poeltl.
It’s impossible to truly know how long a rebuild is going to take, but it’s always better to be committed to the long haul and be surprised if results come sooner than expected instead of trying to take shortcuts. The allure of skipping steps was present this season and will be there every year. It’s inevitable.
It’s a good thing that the front office didn’t give in to it and showed the necessary patience that others in similar positions have lacked. Hopefully, the same will be true going forward, when the pressure to show results increases.