It’s all but a certainty that on June 22, the Spurs will select Victor Wembanyama. Everything after that, however, is up in the air. While getting the first overall pick is clearly a blessing, it will force the Spurs to make some serious decisions going forward.
The first instinct would be to understandably try to speed up the rebuild. Get a solid starting point guard using cap space, bolster the depth at forward and make a run for at least the play-in during Wemby’s rookie year to regain a winning mindset.
While it would simply make sense to go with that plan, the Spurs should seriously consider taking things slowly, at least for another year, to make sure they build the right foundation. Here’s why.
The Spurs still don’t know what they have
Wembanyama seems to be as close to a sure thing as it gets, provided his health holds up, so the timeline shouldn’t affect him that much. The Spurs do have a lot of other young players who are still trying to find their place in the league and need some more time to show their worth. Bringing in reinforcements could slow down that process.
Malaki Branham showed that his mid-range pull-up translated better than many expected to in the pros, but he only got the freedom to become a weapon because the team lacked depth at the guard spots. Had Josh Primo not been waived following his scandal, Branham wouldn’t have gotten as much playing time, and injuries to players like Romeo Langford also helped him. Fellow rookie Blake Wesley wasn’t as lucky, as injuries of his own sidelined him at the worst possible time, and minutes became hard to come by for him even when the team sat a lot of players. They both still need plenty of reps before establishing themselves as core pieces.
Let’s say the Spurs bring in a veteran guard like Fred VanVleet into the fold while retaining Tre Jones, which would make sense if the idea is to win. Where does that leave Branham and Wesley? Jones, VanVleet (or any other veteran guard) and Devonte Graham would take minutes at point guard and some scraps left over by Devin Vassell at shooting guard. The playing time for the young rookies simply won’t be there. In a similar vein, having more ball handlers could marginalize Jeremy Sochan on offense, as he wouldn’t get the opportunity to unlock more of his playmaking ability. Letting the young guys go through growing pains by getting a long leash and minutes might hurt in the short term but pay off down the road.
There probably isn’t a second star on the roster yet
Assuming Wembanyama becomes a superstar or at least a perennial All-Star, do the Spurs have a second star in place to help him carry the load? If the answer is no, then getting another chance at a high draft pick is probably the best way to get one.
Trying to build a contender around just one star is hard. Even Tim Duncan needed help. There are outliers, like the 2011 Dirk Nowitzki Mavericks, but more often than not teams need more than just above-average role players surrounding their centerpieces to win titles, and the Spurs might not have one of those yet. Devin Vassell could turn out to be a Khris Middleton-type second option, but he’s only played 38 games in that role so far. Keldon Johnson could be a 20-point-a-night scorer even on a good team if his outside shot returns, but the concerns on the other end are real. Sochan showed a lot of promise as a potential Paskal Siakam-type, but it’s still too early to bank on him getting there. As mentioned, the Spurs don’t know what they have yet even when it comes to their more heralded young guys.
The concern with making sure there is a second star in place is that a team can spend years looking for one and never find it, making the rebuild too slow. The counter to that is that especially for a franchise that is not in a glamour market, the draft is the best way to find top-tier talent, and rookie contracts and restricted free agency allow for some level of coordination when it comes to building a roster. The Spurs will have Wembanyama locked on a cheap contract for four years and are almost assured to retain him after that, but it could be on a short contract. The time to lose would be in the first couple of years of his rookie deal in order to find him a costar that will eventually lead to the type of winning that would make the French big man want to stay long term. A couple of early playoff appearances won’t mean as much as a solid contending core in place for the future.
The Spurs might find a way to thread the needle, but it won’t be easy
Another tanking season might not be what the Spurs want, so while they clearly understand the risks of going for a win-now approach over a more patient one, they might try to figure out a middle ground. The reports about San Antonio looking to get another first-rounder would make sense in that scenario. Finding the right trade partner could be hard, but there are a few teams like the Pacers and Pistons in the lottery who already have good young point guards in place and could potentially be interested in a young wing and draft compensation. If there’s someone in that range who the Spurs think could be the Robin to Wemby’s Batman, using a lot of their resources to get them wouldn’t be the worst idea.
When it comes to being good immediately while still having the potential to be great in the future, acquiring a young veteran who will contribute right away while also having room to grow alongside Wembanyama would make sense. Again, it’s not easy to find the right targets, but if the Trail Blazers decide they want a bigger backcourt or blow it up and are open to trading Anfernee Simons, he could be a good get. It seems extremely unlikely that Tyrese Maxey will be available, but he’s another name that fits the bill. The key would be to target players that have already shown they can do well while still having untapped potential, but it would be challenging to try to find teams that actually want to part with them.
There are ways the Spurs can speed up the rebuild without compromising the ceiling of the team in the long term, but it won’t be easy to take those routes. The front office should absolutely explore every avenue, but if in the end they settle on going through one more tanking season, it could turn out to be the better option.