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The Spurs remain fully committed to their youth movement

Cam Payne and Reggie Bullock would probably be more helpful next season than some of the young players the Spurs still have on the roster, but waving the veterans is clearly the right choice.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs have agreed to a buyout with Reggie Bullock and are waving the veteran wing. The roster now stands at 16, which means only one more player has to be waived for San Antonio to be under the roster limit.

Neither Bullock’s departure nor Cam Payne’s. who was waived earlier this month, can be really considered surprising since both journeymen probably wanted to be elsewhere. But the decision to part ways with them does offer some insight into the Spurs’ thinking going into this season.

Viewing the moves strictly from the franchise’s side, they lost two solid players and two trade assets for nothing. Payne could have been a stabilizing force at point guard while Bullock would have been a low-usage 3-and-D option for a team that lacks many of those. If the idea was to field the best team possible alongside Victor Wembanyama immediately, they would have probably been a part of the rotation. If things weren’t looking good at the trade deadline in terms of the standings and the idea was to switch to a younger team, both players should have been relatively easy to flip to a contender for at least some sort of asset. It’s something the Spurs have done before and as recently as last season when they traded Jakob Poeltl and Josh Richardson.

Instead of holding on to the two veterans, the Spurs moved on before the start of the season. Again, it’s extremely likely there were talks about doing so eventually since they were acquired, as neither probably wanted to be in San Antonio, but the front office had no obligation to acquiesce to any demands here. Not long ago Thaddeus Young arrived via trade, barely played and wasn’t too happy about it but was still flipped at the deadline. The roster spot constraints surely played a part in the decision to let Bullock and Payne go, but the issue was only pressing because the front office decided to sign Sandro Mamukelashvili and second-round pick Sidy Cissoko to standard contracts. There’s little doubt the veterans who arrived via trade wanted out but it’s also pretty clear that the Spurs were not really concerned with keeping them.

What this shows is that the commitment to the youth movement and the strategy to build through the draft that started in earnest when Derrick White got traded remains in place even after the selection of Wembanyama and the raised expectations and scrutiny that come with it. Payne and Bullock are not the difference between the lottery or a playoff spot but they could be the difference between a blowout in which a few prospects look lost and a competitive matchup in one of the nationally televised games San Antonio will have this season. It was probably tempting for the Spurs to aim for a baseline of consistency by trying to keep a few competent journeymen around to fill in the gaps in the roster to give returning fans and curious onlookers a sense of quick progress in their rebuild, even at the cost of the long term benefits that playing younger guys would entail.

It’s a good sign the Spurs are not skipping any steps, even small ones at this point. It’s also encouraging that while likely still in asset acquisition mode, they don’t seem to be hyper-focusing on potentially getting another extra second-rounder down the line at the risk of developing a reputation for not being player-friendly. Working with agents to get their clients into a better situation now won’t necessarily guarantee a better relationship in the future but it doesn’t hurt to stay in everyone’s good books. We’ve seen how perception can hurt rebuilding teams that treat players as nothing but assets through previous experiments made by guys like Sam Hinkie. It feels like the front office is taking the long view and thinking about potentially having an edge years down the line when players hopefully want to be in San Antonio as the team becomes competitive.

The only question now is who will be the last cut. It’s unlikely either Doug McDermott or Khem Birch take a buyout since they are likely on their last big contract. Devonte’ Graham has another year to go after this one on his deal, which makes waiving him more costly. Cedi Osman would be a good candidate but the Spurs have reportedly been interested in him in the past and he might also be reluctant to leave money on the table since it’s unclear if there will be a lot of interest for him in the free agent market. Mamukelashvili would be the cheapest option in all likelihood but waiving him would go against the tenor of the moves the team has made recently. Hopefully a few million won’t be an issue for the ownership group, allowing the front office and the coaching staff to finalize the roster with the players they actually want around.

The first year of the rebuild went as well as possible for the Spurs, who developed some young guys, got extra assets by making smart trades, and landed the ultimate prize by getting Victor Wembanyama. But the road back to contention will be long and will require not only getting the big moves right but also having a direction to follow and making the small decisions that set up that path.

By continuing to prioritize the future and its uncertainty as represented by young players over the temporary comfort of short-term solutions embodied by veterans, the front office is continuing to show they know what they are doing in this rebuild, which is comforting.