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The Spurs with the most to prove going forward

The Spurs went all in on the rebuild at the deadline. Now they’ll need to rediscover their identity and they’ll need some key players to step up in order to do so.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Charlotte Hornets Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs went all in on a rebuild at the deadline, trading veterans for picks. Was it the right choice?

Marilyn Dubinski: They definitely batted at least two out of three. They basically got a free second round pick from the Heat to take and waive Dewayne Dedmon, and Josh Richardson wasn’t a part of their future, so getting a potential new “Patty Mills” in Devonte’ Graham plus four second-round picks for a player on an expiring contract is a win. (At worst, all are very tradeable assets down the line).

The only move I’m on the fence about and will remain there until at least next season is the Jakob Poeltl trade. After all the talk about wanting to keep him, my guess is the two sides realized they probably wouldn’t reach an agreement in the offseason, so the Spurs pulled the plug while they could get something for him. (Either that or it was all fluff to boost his trade value, and if that is the case, it didn’t work.) They certainly downgraded at the position in the short term by just getting Khem Birch back, and they didn’t get their desired two first-round picks (even if it was always too much to ask for an expiring contract.) On one hand, he won’t be too hard to replace in the long term, but whether it was the right choice for the short term remains to be seen.

Mark Barrington: The real answer to the question is that time will tell. What the Spurs had been doing for 25 years, which is making the team as competitive as possible by acquiring the best players available, is a formula that worked fabulously well until about the time that Kawhi Leonard forced his way out. The Spurs made the playoffs with DeMar DeRozan, but they weren’t a contender, and what happened this season at the deadline really started in the summer of 2021, when DeMar was traded to the Bulls. In my opinion, it’s definitely the right choice, but the Spurs are going to have a couple of tough years before they know if this course of action returns them to contention. They’ll definitely get better, but it’s not going to be something we see next year, so it’s going to be tough for the fans for a while.

Bruno Passos: Sadly, yeah. Not to undersell the value of holding onto high-character contributors like Poeltl or Richardson, something I’ve typically advocated for, but it’s PATFO’s job to play this rebuild out as cynically as possible and find teams that currently value those guys more. There are no guaranteed paths to a bonafide superstar and it’s on the front office to maximize their chances at acquiring one through draft positioning and asset accumulation. Ugh, it felt gross writing that.

Jesus Gomez: It was the right call. There’s no point in going for halfway measures during rebuilds. It’s always sad to see good players who fit the culture of the franchise leave, but improving the talent level of the roster has to be the priority and while the moves did the opposite in the short term, they could help greatly in the long run. Even if the picks don’t turn out to be great, having extra assets is always good and it’s also a positive for the front office to signal to the league that they are committed to the rebuild.

What are you looking forward to seeing from the Spurs the rest of the way?

Dubinski: I’m looking forward to seeing if they take Pop’s harsh criticism after the Hornets game to heart and up their effort on the defensive end. Even though this team is designed to lose, there’s no excuse for being historically bad on defense, and even he’s tired of it. I also want to see Vassell get back and playing at the same level he was before, and of course, I will never get tired of watching Jeremy Sochan grow and develop before our very eyes.

Barrington: Losing is tough on your psyche, so mostly I want to see if the Spurs can keep playing hard and making individual progress. I’m really not looking for wins, because this team doesn’t have enough talent to beat many teams in the league. Pop has shown that he’s getting on the guys a little more, and I hope he continues that for the rest of the season.

Passos: If nothing else, this season has been good about introducing new developments through the suck. Sochan has been fun throughout, both in his play and how the team has deployed him on-ball and at the point of attack, Vassell impressed before he went down, and Branham has given more reason for excitement moving forward with flashes of scoring at all three levels. If this team can keep hinting at what a good version of itself can be like in the years ahead — be it through individual strides or starting to build towards a new identity — while solidifying a crack at a top-two pick, I’ll take it.

Gomez: The same determination they’ve shown so far. This team is not particularly talented and injuries have at times decimated the rotation, but the guys who suit up always play hard. It might not translate to wins or even tangible improvement on the defensive end, where the Spurs can often be hard to watch, but shows that both the players and the coaches are actually committed to development. Everyone wants to get better. At least that’s how things looked before the deadline and the All-Star break and hopefully that won’t change.

Which player do you think has the most to prove in the next 22 games?

Dubinski: Vassell has a chance to sign an extension this offseason, so I’m sure he’s anxious to get back and show he has earned it, but he probably doesn’t have the most to prove from PATFO’s perspective. In that sense, I’ll go with Zach Collins. He’s been given the opportunity to be a starter in the NBA, which is huge for him with his extensive injury history. His contract is fully non-guaranteed next season, so he’ll need to prove that he’s worth keeping around, otherwise the Spurs could just waive him. (Not that I think they will: he’s still a very good backup at worst, but the point is he’ll never have a better chance than now to prove himself in the NBA, whether it’s for the Spurs or showing other NBA execs for the future.)

Barrington: I think that Tre Jones needs to prove that he’s good enough to be a starter in the NBA. He might be pushed to the bench anyway if the Spurs don’t luck out in the Wembanyama sweepstakes and draft a guard, but I want to see him improve his handle and passing, because he’s been really bothered late in games when the other team plays with more pressure on defense. If he’s not able to do that, he might be supplanted by Malaki Branham, who isn’t really a point guard, but seems to be able to handle pressure better, even though he’s not actually that good with the ball in his hands.

Passos: Everyone left on the roster’s so young that it feels like a short list of players with something to prove in what’s left of the gap year, but I do wonder what the chatter around Keldon Johnson is if he doesn’t rediscover his three-point shot. Throw out the handful of October games and he’s shooting 44% from the field and just north of 30% from beyond the arc on the year. Combine that with his limited defensive versatility, the presence of Vassell and Branham and the likelihood of this draft bringing in another guard/wing (should the Spurs not win the lottery) and Johnson’s outlook gets interesting. It probably doesn’t lead to any immediate decisions but it opens the door for a conversation.

Gomez: There are a few guys that are in the bubble as potential keepers. Collins and Jones are the main ones. But probably the one with the most to prove is Keldon Johnson. Not in terms of whether he should be on the team next season or not — he’s on a fantastic contract that could keep him in San Antonio for four years — but in terms of whether he can be one of the core three players on a good team. His three-point shot has abandoned him and he’ll need to find it to actually be a well-rounded offensive player. It’s harder to judge his individual defense on a team that is bad overall on that end, especially for someone who is not disruptive, but more consistency would be nice. Keldon has the opportunity to cement his place as a cornerstone going forward, if he can put it all together in time, but if he doesn’t, it wouldn’t be crazy to start rethinking what his role will be in the future.