SAN ANTONIO — The Spurs had an eventful offseason as they chose a new direction, prompting some confusion and disappointment among those who bleed Silver and Black.
The team and fan base will be in unfamiliar territory this upcoming season, and while it may be a tough pill to swallow at first, there's still plenty to look forward to. Here are the answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about the team as they head into a new era.
Q: Why did the Spurs trade away Dejounte Murray after helping develop him into an All-Star? Why make a trade that makes the team less competitive?
San Antonio’s decision to ship out their best player in exchange for nothing that will help them win basketball games next year left many fans scratching their heads. Their apparent reasoning for doing so boils down to a few main factors.
The team’s trajectory and Murray’s contract situation put the Spurs in a bit of a bind. He’s signed for another two years, after which he’d become an unrestricted free agent and likely command max money for his next deal. It seems that’s a price the Spurs were unwilling to pay, and there could be a variety of reasons for that. It’s possible that in their assessment, he had grown to near his ceiling as a player. An ace defender and a nightly triple-double threat is nothing to sneeze at, but they may not have seen him as a franchise cornerstone who could bring the team into title contention.
He helped propel the young roster to a play-in appearance, but that’s far from the team’s ultimate goal. If they had used the cap and assets to build around Murray this summer, how much closer could they have gotten to a title window for the remainder of his contract? Maybe they get to a single-digit seed, maybe they make the playoffs, maybe they even shock the world and win a series in an upset. But there would still be work to do, and at that point they’d need to make a decision about tying up a lot of cap space to pay him.
It would have been the continuation of a slow rebuild without the assistance of top draft picks, and without San Antonio being a marquee destination for free agents. Murray had a career year on a team where he was the clear-cut top option, and averaged close to a 20-point triple-double. A 25-year-old All-Star with two years left on his deal, his trade value would be at its peak this offseason. Given that the team had missed the playoffs for the last three years, it made sense for them to at least see what a team that was closer to title contention would be willing to give up.
That’s before considering that Murray might not have been keen on staying here long term. Given his choice words for the organization after the trade, they could have been heading for a much nastier breakup. The Spurs are still dealing with the aftermath of the Kawhi Leonard debacle and may have learned some lessons from it. In 2017, Leonard was an MVP candidate who took a roster built around him to a 27-point lead in the first game against the peak of the Golden State Warriors. Zaza Pachulia stepped into his landing space, and that became the end of not just the Spurs’ season, but of a title window that the team had somehow managed to keep open for almost two full decades.
When Leonard decided he no longer wanted to be in San Antonio, it reduced the Spurs’ leverage in potential trades. They surely considered packages more heavy on youth and picks, but the roster was still built around a superstar with hopes of competing at a high level. Instead of entering a full rebuild, they opted for the return that would give them the most competitive roster in the next few years.
That was DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a first-round pick that very luckily turned into Keldon Johnson. They managed to win 48 games in 2018-19, setting up a first-round date with the Nuggets which they lost in seven games. They spent the next two seasons trying to get as much as they could out of the pairing of DeRozan and late-career LaMarcus Aldridge, but they finished under .500 two years in a row and failed to make the playoffs.
Their underwhelming performance on the court brought decent draft picks to the team, and last summer they decided to lean into the youth movement by trading DeMar for picks and Thad Young, a solid vet who they basically kept in bubble wrap until they could trade him for another first-round pick.
The trade and the moves at the deadline that sent out Derrick White and Young for draft capital reflected a shift in the goals of the front office under GM Brian Wright. Winning as many games as possible had been the priority since before the turn of the century, but hadn’t resulted in a playoff series win in four years. The time had come to shift into asset acquisition mode, drafting and developing for a title window that realistically wouldn’t open for the next several years.
The Spurs posted their lowest winning percentage since the 1996-97 season when they lost three quarters of their games and drafted Tim Duncan. Still, the team had a shot at making the playoffs through the play-in game. They didn’t, and wound up with the ninth pick in this year’s draft.
This is a team that experienced an era of prolonged success that would be nearly impossible to duplicate in the modern NBA. All dynasties end, and that happened when the Spurs lost the guy who they thought would carry the torch into the next generation of winning. Since then they’ve been in NBA purgatory: too bad to make the playoffs, but not bad enough to get a top pick who is seen on draft night as a potential cornerstone. It’s arguably the worst place for a team to be.
The decision to trade Dejounte Murray was made because management realized and accepted that this young roster is currently closer to the bottom of the league than it is to the top. Atlanta’s picks in 2023, 2025 and 2027 along with a pick swap in 2026 should help the Spurs as they rebuild.
Q: Well that doesn’t sound fun in the short term. What are reasonable expectations for the Spurs this season then, and is there any bright side?
This will be the first time in 25 years that a Popovich-coached Spurs team will be expected to finish with among the worst records in the league. Vegas has set the over/under at 23.5 wins, tied for the lowest with the Rockets and below teams like the Pacers, Magic, Thunder and Pistons. They have one of the youngest rosters in the league, and one of the toughest schedules.
It’s an unfamiliar, uncomfortable and unfortunate place for the Spurs to be, but such is the reality of sports. No dynasty lasts forever, and fallow periods come no matter how successful any team is for however long. You cannot always reap, sometimes you must sow.
Winning is not a reasonable expectation, and as such the primary goal will be growth and development. If you hope to enjoy the season as a fan, adjust your expectations accordingly. There’s a championship or bust mentality in sports, and it’s understandable especially for a fan base that has seen so much excellence in the last quarter of a century. But just because it won’t happen for the Spurs this season doesn’t mean we won’t see things that make us smile and give us hope for the future.
All of these young guys will have a tremendous opportunity to play heavy minutes against the best competition in the world, learning and growing all the way. For years, the running joke has been that the draft picks will spend years in Austin stuck behind more experienced players on the depth chart, waiting for their chance. That’s no longer the reality, and Pop really seems to enjoy coaching a team like this in the later stages of his career. He has nothing to prove and everything to teach, and there’s some beauty in that.
When the season is over, a top draft pick could soothe the pain of a season that brings many more losses than wins.
Q: So… they’re tanking? Doesn’t joining the race to the bottom fly in the face of Spurs culture as we know it?
Many fans are understandably upset to join the basement dwellers of the league. One of Pop’s favorite quotes is about the stonecutter that hits the same rock in the same place over and over again, not seeing a crack until finally it splits in two. But after decades of pounding stone after stone, even the best stonecutter’s blade will become so dull that it will reach the end of its usable life. The stones are only getting stronger, and the blade is in need of replacing.
That doesn’t mean that Pop is going to instruct his guys to lose, but he knows that winning at a high level isn’t a realistic goal for a team that’s mostly too young to rent a car. The kids will keep pounding the rock, albeit with pickaxes.
Before the NBA, Pop was the head coach of D III Pomona Pitzer, where he coached a bunch of guys who would go on to become accountants and engineers. In his first season they went 2-22, including a loss to a team that had gone 99 conference games without a win. He questioned if he even wanted to coach basketball at that point. Then, he built the program up by recruiting and coaching his guys hard. They won 10 games the next season, went .500 the year after that, and by 1986 they’d won the school’s first SCIAC title in 68 years.
This Spurs season will probably look a bit like that first year at Pomona Pitzer, but the hope is that with high draft picks and serious development, San Antonio will reach the mountaintop once again. It will be tough for Spurs fans who have become accustomed to excellence to get excited about a true rebuild, but a title contender isn’t built in a day, and this team will need years to get back to glory.
Pop understands what drafting a generational talent can do for a franchise. He’ll be the first to tell you that the main reason he became the winningest coach in NBA history is Tim Duncan.
Q: Is there anyone in this upcoming draft who could be that generational talent?
Scouts regard this year’s draft class as one of the best in recent memory, headlined by a big man built for the modern game. Victor Wembanyama will be 19 on draft night, and at 7’3” with a 7’9” wingspan, the Frenchman is a two-way dynamo with mobility and perimeter skills that are exceptionally rare for a player his size. Last year he played for ASVEL, the French team that Tony Parker owns.
He didn’t put up crazy numbers when playing against grown men in Pro A, but the size and skill that he possesses make him the clear favorite to be the top pick in next year’s draft. If he continues to develop his body and game, he could become an MVP-caliber player in this league.
Wembanyama is a rare prospect, but It’s not just a one player draft. Scoot Henderson is an explosive point guard who averaged about 15, 5 and 5 last year for the G League Ignite. He has muscle, polish, and an advanced skillset, and projects as an All-Star scoring guard. He’s probably the only guy who might make the holder of the first pick think twice about Wembanyama.
Those two are the top prospects in the draft as of now, but guys like Ausar and Amen Thompson, Nick Smith, and Dariq Whitehead could boost their already high stock with how well they play this season.
The higher the pick the better, and the Spurs would obviously like to be at the top of the board. But even if they finish with the worst record in the league, they’ll need a bit of luck to get that prize.
Q: Right, so the lottery then. How do the odds work at the top?
The NBA doesn’t really like tanking, so they’ve flattened the odds a bit to discourage such behavior. The worst record doesn’t guarantee a top pick, or even come close.
In fact, the teams with the three worst records in the league will have the same odds at the top four picks: 14% for number 1, 13.4% for number 2, 12.7% for number 3, and 12% for number 4.
So at best, the Spurs would have a 14% chance of getting that top pick after a season of losing. If they have the worst record in the league there’s a 47.9% chance they drop all the way to fifth, but no further. The second-worst team will have a 27.8% chance of dropping to fifth and a 20% chance of getting sixth, and the third-worst will get a 14.8% chance at fifth, a 26% chance of sixth, and a 7% chance at seventh. The odds drop off a bit progressively from there, and the full chart is available from Tankathon here.
Q: With the Spurs increasing their marketing in Austin and a full rebuild likely hurting interest in the team and revenue, is it possible they’d relocate?
The Spurs must be aware of how losing will impact the bottom line in the short term, so it seems unlikely that management would look at decreased attendance and viewership in a down year and decide that they need to move the team. As far as Austin is concerned, tapping that market may be the best way to strengthen that bottom line and help keep the Spurs right where they are in San Antonio. Much more on that here.
Q: Could the Spurs make more trades this season?
The answer is yes, but given the answers to all of the questions above, those trades would almost certainly send established players out in exchange for future-focused packages. Jakob Poeltl, Josh Richardson and Doug McDermott are all established veterans on attractive contracts who should generate interest from contending teams through the trade deadline.
The Spurs have been a rumored landing spot for Russell Westbrook if the Lakers intend to move him, but if a deal like that happens he almost certainly wouldn’t play a game in Silver and Black. It would be a financial transaction in which the Spurs would buy one or multiple draft picks at the cost of buying out his contract. Brian Wright has shown an affinity for acquiring assets that will help this team build for down the road, and that will likely continue. Don’t expect anyone younger than 25 to be on the move, however.
Q: So how long before this team gets back to competing for playoff berths and championships?
The short answer is several years. The long answer is it depends on a lot of different variables that we don’t have great insight on yet, given the long-term nature of this project.
Where will they finish the season, and how lucky will they get on lottery night? Who will they draft? What about next year and the year after that? How quickly will these teens and twenty somethings develop, and how good will they eventually be? If they round into form sooner than expected, will they shift away from asset acquisition mode and use their cap space to bring in veterans to help them win?
What will the rest of the league look like? How good will those draft picks from Atlanta be in 2025, 2026 and 2027? What about that 2028 pick swap that they got from the Celtics in the Derrick White trade? Who will take over for Gregg Popovich, and when?
All of that is very much uncertain at this point in time. What is certain is that the Spurs have opted to maximize their potential for success down the road at the cost of right now.
Q: Given that this year’s focus will be on development, who could have a breakout season?
Pretty much everybody on the roster is poised for a career year given the tremendous opportunity in front of them. Keldon Johnson broke out last year, signed a new contract, and will be a primary option. Devin Vassell showed a lot of growth as well, and will likely be one of the team’s top scorers throughout the season. Josh Primo found himself in the starting lineup toward the end of last year, but now he’ll be the starting point guard as a 19-year-old who seems to be packing on muscle like it’s his job.
Zach Collins is about to start his first fully healthy season in the NBA, and he could become the starting center if Poeltl gets moved. Jeremy Sochan, Malaki Branham and Blake Wesley should get more run than any Spurs rookies in recent memory.
Tre Jones is the presumptive backup point guard, and Joe Wieskamp is returning and looking at a bigger role after his maiden campaign. What about Romeo Langford, Alize Johnson and Isaiah Roby? Gorgui Dieng is the oldest player on the roster at 32, and the veteran stretch big is hoping for a better year in San Antonio after an injury derailed his first stint with the team.
All of these guys will be looking to make the most of their increased opportunity. It should be fun and fascinating to see who improves the most and the fastest, and how they all come together as a unit throughout the year.