The playoffs are underway, and the Spurs are not in it, just like in the two seasons before. This time, however, it was by design. San Antonio made it abundantly clear that bottoming out for a high draft pick was the goal this year and committed to that plan.
It was a success, as the Spurs have the best odds at getting the top pick and can't drop below the seventh selection, but there was also a secondary goal in place. Development was also part of the equation, and it was hard to see much of it at the team level, which might have fans concerned, but focusing too much on the collective performances instead of the individual ones would be shortsighted.
A strong start to the season showed that, at full force, the Spurs were probably going to be too good to tank as hard as they needed to in order to secure a bottom-three finish. Not good enough to actually fight for a playoff spot, mind you, but potentially competent enough to stumble into the high 20s in wins. The starting unit of Tre Jones, Devin Vassell, Keldon Johnson, Jeremy Sochan and Jakob Poeltl, the most used five-man unit of the season, essentially played opponents to a draw. San Antonio also had a few reliable veterans off the bench in Josh Richardson, Doug McDermott and Keita Bates-Diop that didn’t really move the needle on their own but could keep the team in games. Josh Primo and Zach Collins gave Gregg Popovich a 10-man rotation with some talent and experience to rely on.
The roster simply wasn’t a typical one for a rebuilding team because it had the remnants of one that was designed to compete. Vassell, Johnson, Primo and Jones were young but already had a year or more of experience. Collins was a reclamation project but was finally healthy and ready to restart his career. Poeltl became a quality starter in those four post-Kawhi Leonard years in which the Spurs tried to remain relevant. The veterans arrived via very different avenues but had proved to be solid. No one was a star, which is why bottoming out became a need, but with some strong leadership by Gregg Popovich and some luck in the health department, even 30 wins wouldn't have been out of the question.
Fortunately, the Spurs controlled what they could. They didn’t indiscriminately sit players in the first half of the season but were cautious with every injury and gave young guys minutes over veterans at times. Pop implemented a relatively simple read-and-react offensive system but stuck with a complex,switch-heavy defensive scheme that required a level of cohesion to be successful that his lineups lacked. Unfortunate circumstances also made sure that the Spurs couldn’t really develop chemistry. Injuries and the Josh Primo situation shook up the rotations, and then the trade deadline arrived and changed the roster. Both by design and as a byproduct of external factors, San Antonio never had the type of continuity needed to reach its ceiling this past season, which benefited the franchise in the long run.
The good news is that individually, all the key pieces showed progress. No one made a bigger leap than Devin Vassell, as the third-year wing massively upped his scoring in part by unlocking his mid-range game. There were some inconsistencies that can be blamed on injuries, but in general Vassell’s improvement is probably the most encouraging aspect of the season, as he flashed shot creation ability. Close behind is the surprisingly effective offensive performance Jeremy Sochan put together as a rookie. The 19-year-old forward came in with a reputation as a potential defensive game-changer, but it was hard to predict how useful he would be as a transition player and especially a mid-post option. His comfort level as a scoring option was a pleasant surprise.
Keldon Johnson’s improvement somewhat stagnated, which was not surprising since he changed positions and roles, but certain aspects of his game showed a lot of promise. His passing in particular improved as the games went by, and his ball handling gave him new tools to use to get to the rim. The regression in terms of outside shooting is a concern and his defense is probably never going to be a strength, but having someone who can put pressure on defenses is important. Tre Jones showed that he could be more than just a caretaker point guard while Zach Collins proved that when he can stay on the court, he’s a quality rotation big man. Malaki Branham seemingly got better from game to game. Some of the non-heralded projects like Charles Bassey and Dominick Barlow showed promise, and even the incredibly raw Blake Wesley had games in which he didn’t look fully out of control.
The disparity between the lack of actual development as a team and the obvious improvement of the players was one of the aspects of this first rebuilding season that was at times hard to reconcile for a fanbase that has measured success in wins for decades. It made it a challenge at times to distinguish between actual individual progress and empty numbers. Fortunately, looking back makes it easier to realize that for the most part, the evolution of the key pieces was real.
As the years continue in the rebuilding process team and player progress should become coupled again. For now, the latter remains more important than the former and the Spurs actually accomplished their goal of furthering the development that made the most sense to prioritize, which made the past season a success.