The challenge will be for the Spurs to accelerate their rebuild after acquiring Victor Wembayama, but taking things slowly may be wiser for the long-term health of the franchise.
It is certain that Spurs will select Victor Wembania on June 22. After that, everything is up in the air. While getting the first overall pick is an obvious blessing, it forces the Spurs to make some tough decisions going forward.
The first instinct is to try to speed up the rebuild. Use cap space to get a solid starting point guard, bolster forward depth and regain a winning mentality to at least make a run for the playoffs in Wemby’s rookie year.
While it simply makes sense to go with that plan, the Spurs need to take things slowly for at least a year to make sure they build the right foundation. Here’s why.
The Spurs still don’t know what they have
Wembanyama seems close to a sure thing as long as he stays healthy, so the schedule shouldn’t hurt him that much. Spurs still have a lot of young players who are trying to find their place in the league and need more time to prove their worth. Bringing reinforcements can slow down the process.
Malachi Branham has shown that his mid-range pull-up has translated better than many expected in the pros, but the team has had the freedom to be a weapon because of its depth at the guard positions. Branham wouldn’t have gotten much playing time if Josh Primo hadn’t been cleared of the scandal, and injuries to players like Romeo Langford helped. Fellow starter Blake Wesley wasn’t as fortunate, as a self-inflicted injury sidelined him at the worst of the season, and even when the team benched several players, minutes became hard to come by. Both still need a lot of reps before establishing themselves as major units.
Let’s say the Spurs keep Trey Jones and bring in a veteran guard like Fred VanVleet, which would make sense if the idea is to win. Where do Branham and Wesley hang out? Jones, VanVliet (or another veteran guard) and Devonte Graham will take minutes at point guard and pick up some pieces left over by Devin Vassell at shooting guard. Playing time for young starters is simply not available. Likewise, having too many ball handlers could hurt Jeremy Sochan on offense, as he won’t get the chance to unleash more of his playmaking abilities. Allowing the youngster to go through growing pains with a long leash and minutes may hurt in the short term, but it will pay off in the long run.
There is probably no second star on the roster yet.
Assuming Wembanyama becomes a superstar or at least a perennial superstar, do the Spurs have a second star to help 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 one star is tough. Even Tim Duncan needed help. There are outliers like the 2011 Dirk Nowitzki Mavericks, but often teams need players above the middle to win titles, and the Spurs may not have one of those yet. Devin Vassell could be a Khris Middleton-type second option, but he has only played 38 games in that role so far. Keldon Johnson can be a 20-point-a-night scorer even on a good team if his outside shooting rebounds, but the concerns on the other end are real. Sochan has shown as much promise as Pascal Sicam, but it’s still too early to bank on him getting there. As mentioned, the Spurs don’t even know what they have yet when it comes to a lot of young players.
The concern with proving the existence of a second star is that a team can spend years looking for one and never find one, making the rebuild very slow. Conversely, for a franchise not in a particularly exciting market, the draft is the best way to acquire top-level talent, and allows for some degree of coordination when it comes to building rookie contracts and restricted free agency. The roster is confident Spurs can lock Wenbanyama up on a cheap contract for four years and keep him after that, but he could be on a shorter contract. The time to lose would be in the first two years of his rookie deal to find a costar that could lead to the kind of winning streak that would keep the French big man around long-term. Early playoffs don’t mean as much as a core of strong contenders in the future.
The Spurs may find a way to thread the needle, but it won’t be easy
Another loading season may not be what Spurs want, so if they are more patient, they may try to figure it out in midfield, even if they clearly understand the dangers of going for a winning approach now. Reports of San Antonio looking to get another first round pick would make sense in that situation. Finding the right trade partner can be difficult, but there are a few teams in the lottery like the Pacers and Pistons who have good young guards in place and may be interested in young wings and draft compensation. If there’s anyone in that range that the Spurs think could be Robin to Wembley Batman, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to use a lot of their resources to get them.
It would make sense to get a young veteran who has the potential to be great in the future and who will be good right away, with room to grow in Wembanyama’s side. Again, finding the right targets isn’t easy, but if the Trail Blazers decide they need a big backcourt or blow it up and are open to trading Anferni Simmons, he could get a good one. Tyrese Maxey’s availability seems highly unlikely, but he’s another name that fits the bill. The key is to target players who have shown they can perform well while still having untapped potential, but trying to find teams willing to part with them can be challenging.
There are ways for the Spurs to speed up the rebuild without damaging the team’s ceiling in the long term, but taking those paths won’t be easy. The front office should explore all avenues, but if they end up going through one more watershed period, it might be the best option.