Their recent win against the Rockets got the Spurs to a positive record in March, a significant surge compared to their winning percentage before the All-Star break that has them in the run for a play-in spot. Their good stretch has also reduced their chances of landing a top 5 pick in the draft, which does not sit well with part of the fan base.
The balance between enjoying wins and thinking that they might hurt the franchise’s chances of getting the superstar it so desperately needs has understandably been a tough one to find this season for the Spurs’ faithful. But it helps to keep in mind that the time to tank has simply passed San Antonio by, in every way possible.
It’s hard to accept that fact, considering that even now the Spurs are in the bottom 10 of the league in winning percentage. The seven teams currently below them, however, feature four franchises that came into the season actively tanking (the Rockets, Magic, Pistons and Thunder) two teams that were hoping to be good but failed and pivoted to a full rebuild during the season (the Trail Blazers and Pacers) and the Kings, which seem unable to put together a winning team no matter their intentions. In order to out-tank those franchises, the Spurs would have had to either come into the season with less talent than they currently have or move or shut down several members of their core around the All-Star break. Even then, they probably would have only moved down a spot or two, since all those teams except the Pistons have continued to lose at a steady pace. This wasn’t the year.
If the Spurs really wanted a top pick by bottoming out, they needed to go for it the year after Kawhi Leonard was traded. That was the logical choice. Back then, Dejounte Murray was out for the season with an injury, Derrick White was 24 years old, and Lonnie Walker IV was a rookie. LaMarcus Aldridge probably had trade value, and so did most of the bench veterans. It’s hard to know what was true and what wasn’t at the time, but several teams reportedly offered packages for Leonard based around young players and draft capital. Even if the options weren’t enticing, if the idea was to get a high pick, they were better than landing DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl, two players who, without making San Antonio anything close to a contender, helped them reach the playoffs.
It was over for the pro-tanking crew after that, even if they didn’t realize it. The Spurs made the playoffs and had a fun series against the Nuggets. Murray was slated to return. The front office actually tried to add veteran talent in the offseason by targeting DeMarre Carroll and Marcus Morris. Things didn’t work out, and the pandemic made figuring out how big of a step back San Antonio had taken much more difficult, but then the bubble happened, which made the slim chance that the Spurs would actually consider blowing things up disappear. They understandably wanted to see if they had something with a small lineup working around DeRozan’s shot creation. The answer was a firm “maybe,” as the 2020-21 team was mediocre but not bad while incorporating a lot of the young talent the team had amassed over the years.
And that brings us to this season, in which the Spurs let go of all their incumbent veterans but entered with their three best players being a 25-year-old Dejounte Murray, a 26-year-old Jakob Poeltl and a 27-year- old Derrick White, all with a year as a starter and a playoff appearance under their belt. That trio, plus a fairly competent supporting cast that included improving young players and a veteran shooter to make things easier on offense, has easily gotten them to 30+ wins, which is simply not enough to bottom out. Even while holding out Thaddeus Young (and having a huge hole at backup center because of it), and then trading White mid-season, the Spurs simply couldn’t compete with outright tanks jobs like the one going on in Portland. Not without the risk of alienating their current core, at least.
How would they convince Murray and Poeltl, both healthy, in their prime, having career years and on contracts they are outperforming, that shutting them down for the last 30 games of the season was not only on the team’s best interests but also theirs? If the Spurs get a top three pick, they’d be selecting someone who will likely not reach peak form before Murray and Poeltl become unrestricted free agents. It’s one thing to rest them every now and then — which Gregg Popovich has done — but actually telling them that the team is giving up on a season might not sit well with them, or the younger players looking to establish themselves or get paid this summer . The Spurs have tried subtle ways to avoid going all out, but actually tanking was simply never in the cards. It hasn’t been since 2019.
The franchise has simply picked a different path back to contention. The plan seems to be to stay competitive while developing young talent and acquiring assets that could eventually be flipped for the type of transcendent star that could help the team make the leap. It’s more similar to the strategy Daryl Morey implemented in Houston before they landed James Harden than what Sam Presti is currently doing in Oklahoma City. And it could work. San Antonio has three first round picks in the upcoming draft, plus some extra second rounders going forward. They have young players on rookie contracts and potential cap space that could make any transaction easy. The White trade showed the front office is willing to pull the trigger. Whether the current road map is a better one than tanking three seasons ago remains to be seen, but it’s too late to turn back now.
It’s understandable to not be excited about the possibility of the play-in over increasing the team’s chances of getting a higher pick, but the Spurs simply had no way to out-tank enough teams to move up more than a spot or two, unless they took drastic measures much earlier in the season. Even if they had, there was no guarantee that they wouldn’t have been leapfrogged at the lottery by a team with a better record anyway.
Tanking only makes sense when done to its fullest extent, not at the end of the season to increase the odds of moving up by a handful of percentage points. And the time to actually tank passed the Spurs by a long time ago, so fans might as well enjoy the wins as they wait for a huge offseason.