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Lessons Learned from the Spurs’ 2022-23 Season

San Antonio’s first major rebuilding season brought highs, lows and lessons for next year

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

How you describe the Spurs 2022-2023 season will likely depend on your point of view. If you hate losing regardless of the context, this was a near historic low for the franchise. If you have been waiting for San Antonio to truly give rebuilding the team a shot, then you got exactly what you wanted.

Regardless, this was a season full of lessons for the players, coaching staff, front office and fans. The 22-60 record brought many exciting moments and even more frustrating lows. At the end of it all, the Spurs find themselves tied for the second worst record in the NBA, and depending on a coin flip, are guaranteed a top 6 or 7 pick in an NBA draft seemingly filled with high-end talent.

Beyond the obvious goal of putting themselves in the race for Victor Wemanyama, San Antonio saw success in player development, accumulating more assets to help in future roster moves (they acquired eight picks over the course of the year), and had historic fan moments like breaking the attendance record in their game at the Alamodome, as well as playing two sold out games in Austin. Their record was not up to the franchise’s standards, but it’s hard to call this season a complete failure.

Now, they head into a very important offseason for the franchise. They have seven players hitting free agency and one (Zach Collins) on a non-guaranteed deal for next year. Three players (Khem Birch, Doug McDermott and Devonte Graham) will enter 2023-24 on expiring contracts, and the Spurs are projected to have over $40 million in cap space. And depending on some ping pong balls bouncing their way, a potential franchise changer on the way.

In order to look forward, one has to look back. What can we take away from this season? How can it inform what happens next? What comes next, are some lessons learned from the Spurs season.

This roster has talent

It’s ironic that the biggest takeaway from a season in which a team loses 60+ games may be that there is a real well of talent to be tapped on the team. But with 7 players under the age of 25 playing major roles, they have pieces to launch this next phase of Spurs basketball.

San Antonio had two players hover around the 20 points per game mark this season, in Keldon Johnson (22 ppg) and Devin Vassell (18.5 ppg.) No, they are not perfect players, but they showed spurts of being key contributors on an NBA roster.

Johnson usage rate took a big jump this season (up 6.6% to 27.9% in 2023,) and saw his ppg rise, but a lot of his efficiency numbers drop. He shot a worse percentage from the field, three-point arc and free throw line. His rebounding numbers also declined. This is perhaps a sign of a player not suited to be the leading scorer on a team, but rather a supporting piece to another star. Despite that, there were nights where KJ took over in the clutch, getting to the basket at will and shooting from deep with confidence. He established himself as a leader this season, even if he was playing in a role that is not an ideal fit for him.

Vassell missed over half of the season with a knee injury, but he displayed flashes of three-way scoring, defensive chops, and playmaking ability. He finished the year shooting 44% from the field and 39% from three, as well as averaging 3.6 assists and 1.1 steals. With his height and wingspan, his pull-up jumper is nearly unblockable, making him a solid shooter off of the bounce from deep and in the mid-range. He showed a big bag of tricks, including turnaround jumpers, and sidestep threes. The wing struggled to find his rhythm coming off of the injury, but those explosive performances early in the year show what kind of potential has.

The Spurs also seemingly hit on most of their first-round picks. Jeremy Sochan made history as a Spurs rookie, scoring 30-points as a 19-year-old, and flashed offensive upside that not many expected this season. Malaki Branham learned the game over the course of the year and came on strong late, looking like a smooth scorer who can get looks at all three levels. Blake Wesley struggled to find his footing, but his speed, effort and defensive potential still make him an intriguing prospect. That’s not even counting the undrafted additions to the roster like Sandro Mamukelashvili, Dominick Barlow and Julian Champagnie, who impressed down the stretch.

Add in improved seasons from Tre Jones and Zach Collins, and this roster all of a sudden looks more like an NBA team than it did at the beginning of the year.

The defense has to improve

The most frustrating part of San Antonio’s season came on the defensive end. The Spurs were dead last in defensive rating (120) and 30th in points allowed per game (123.1.) Gregg Popovich constantly talked about the team’s need to improve their performance on that end. With a young team, you expect there to be somewhat of a learning curve on that end, but this season it was historically bad. That’s right, this team had the worst defensive rating in Spurs franchise history.

There was a severe lack of ability to stop the ball on the perimeter. Too often, opposing ball handlers were able to get into the paint and get easy looks at the basket or find open shooters on the perimeter. Help was rarely in the position it needed to be, and the Spurs were even uglier in transition defense. Most nights they would get destroyed in the points-in-the-paint battle and let teams beat them down to the other end for easy points on the fastbreak.

They have to improve on that end if they want to build a winning team. They have strong defensive pieces like Collins, Sochan and Jones, but being competitive on that end takes a team effort. Communication and trust on that end is vital to success. You have to know your personnel, how to talk with them, and know what spots they will be in, so you can also be in the right position. This team threw out 41 different starting lineups this season, how could they ever really gel on that end?

An influx of defensive talent, and improvement internally at the individual level can help this problem, but a lot of the stride they will take on that end next year may come from just getting more time to play together in their defined roles.

They need a star

No duh, right? It’s a star-driven league. No team felt that harder than the Silver and Black this year. They were 11-17 in the clutch this season, the 3rd worst in the NBA behind the Wizards and Pistons. When the game got close down the stretch, they had no answer for who would take over the offense. Often times the answer would be KJ, but he showed he may not be the best fit for that role.

This team has a lot of interesting young pieces, but they likely won’t contend for a championship without a star to elevate them. Luckily this draft has a few potential stars at the top in Wembanyama, Scoot Henderson, Brandon Miller and Amen Thompson. The Spurs have shown time and time again that they can find elite talent anywhere in the draft. They need to strike gold again if they want to set themselves up for future contention.

Of course, there is always the option of trading for a star with all of the assets they’ve collected, but look at the Atlanta Hawks, who rushed to add a star in Dejounte Murray and may have derailed the very thing they have been building towards. The Spurs are doing the right thing in accumulating assets and very well could try to acquire a disgruntled star, but what roster are they building for them?

One way or the other, they probably need to find their key piece in the next two seasons if they don’t want to be bottom-feeding for the next half decade.