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The Spurs are facing the cold realities of rebuilding in the NBA

After decades of success and a few years of comfortable mediocrity, the Spurs are embracing a full rebuild, with all the tough decisions it involves.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Minnesota Timberwolves Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

The trade deadline passed, and the Spurs lost two of their best players and stalwarts. Jakob Poeltl was an example of consistency, a leader by example that never complained and focused on improving. Josh Richardson spent only a year in San Antonio, but his charisma made him a favorite among fans and his teammates.

They did everything right but got shipped anyway for lesser players and future picks that will take years to convey, revealing the cold realities of rebuilds but also the Spurs' firm commitment to seeing it through, which is encouraging.

It’s understandable, after over 50 games of mostly terrible basketball, to not be thrilled to see two of the team’s best performers part for clear downgrades and a haul of picks that is certainly large but not particularly impressive. The Spurs have been bad and have clearly gotten worse on purpose, which seems antithetical to what the franchise always seemed to stand for and what the fanbase is used to after so much success. Even the mediocrity of the post-Kawhi Leonard years had a quiet dignity that could easily be spun into quixotic heroism in the most exciting times as the Spurs rejected the conventional wisdom that rebuilding from scratch was not only the best option but the inevitable one considering their circumstances and the realities of the league.

Now, the Spurs, which for decades seemed special to their fans and even some of their detractors, are tanking like any other franchise by moving good players for picks they might not even use. It’s a sobering moment for anyone who was still hoping they were just taking a year to reload.

It’s also absolutely the right thing to do and confirms that the franchise finally has a plan and a vision. The Spurs are going all in on this rebuild by controlling everything they can control.

Losing Poeltl will hurt on both ends but should help improve their lottery odds. It will also allow the front office to take a closer look at what Zach Collins, whose contract is not guaranteed for next season, can do in a bigger role. It might even provide another opportunity for Charles Bassey to get some playing time. A first round pick, a couple of seconds and a short-term replacement probably feels like it’s not enough to part ways with a really good role player, but the alternative was to risk seeing Poeltl walk or commit to a large deal that would take him into his 30s while some of his teammates are not even in their 20s.

The Richardson trade can seem even more baffling to anyone who still thinks that having good players is better than having bad ones right now. Richardson is a solid defender, secondary ball handler, shooter with size and a fun presence around the team. Why move him for a random backup point guard and four second rounders that will, with any luck, produce one rotation player? Because he was too old to be a part of the rebuild, and San Antonio needs as many bites of the apple as it can get in the draft to find a cornerstone and as many trade assets as it can accrue to pounce if the right target becomes available. It sounds incredibly cold, but that’s exactly how the front office should be thinking right now.

It’s fine for the fans to feel differently, of course. It’s more fun to watch games and root for a good team than look for Victor Wembanyama highlights and spreadsheets detailing a haul of picks that might not net the Spurs any actual stars. It’s also understandable to wonder how long this unnatural state in which losses sometimes feel like wins will last, to worry that by doing what every other franchise looking for a savior does, San Antonio might face the same fate as those other teams who go through cycles of rebuilding that span over decades with little to show for it. Trusting the process is hard after endless debates about tanking and its cons, and about how luck-based the entire thing can be. It’s tempting to wish to go back to fighting for the play-in and hoping one of the young guys suddenly makes a huge leap.

There’s no turning back now, though, which at least should bring some clarity to the situation. The Spurs are tanking for better odds. Unless they get a transformational talent in the next draft, they’ll probably try to flip their veterans for more picks. They’ll have cap space and will surely be willing to use it to get a star, if at all possible, but most likely they’ll rent it out for draft capital. The young guys, who were already getting significant playing time and responsibility, will get even more of both.

San Antonio is following the NBA rebuilding handbook instead of trying to buck convention and find a unique way to get back on top. There’s a comfort in knowing the plan. Now all that’s left is to have faith that it will actually work.