Friday, June 21 2024
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Think about the best prospects that have entered the NBA this century. What kinds of situations did they inherit? LeBron James landed on a Cleveland team that was completely devoid of talent, yet was so good so quickly that the Cavaliers never got to stack other lottery picks around him. Anthony Davis was drafted by a Pelicans team that had a reasonable degree of financial flexibility, but they immediately wasted it by matching an expensive offer sheet on Eric Gordon and signing Tyreke Evans a year later. 

These problems compound with time. In an effort to make up for their early shortcomings, both the Cavaliers and Pelicans made aggressive short-term moves that killed their long-term hopes. Cleveland traded a first-round pick for Jiri Welsch. Its 2005 lottery pick was lost in a trade made all the way back in 1997. The Pelicans didn’t have a first-round pick finish a season in New Orleans between 2014 and 2018.

Even when you get it right, there are potential pitfalls. The Oklahoma City Thunder lucked into Kevin Durant in 2007, but followed that pick up by drafting two more MVPs in the coming years. It didn’t matter because they weren’t prepared to pay all three of them, and then they botched the James Harden trade and couldn’t recover.

All of this is meant to say that getting the generational prospect is only half of the battle. Building around that player is a process that starts years before he arrives and lasts for years after he is established. And that brings us to Victor Wembanyama.

We’ve seen star rookies join teams with cap space. We’ve seen star rookies join teams with young talent. We’ve seen star rookies join teams with excess draft capital. We’ve never seen a star rookie join a team with all of those things at the same time. San Antonio has meticulously cultivated perhaps the single most flexible roster situation that a top rookie has ever enjoyed. Just consider everything the Spurs have going for them not named Wembanyama:

  • The Spurs currently have roughly $118 million on their books for next season against a projected $141 million salary cap. They’ll add an expensive rookie with their lottery pick, but the cost of doing so can be more than offset by waiving Devonte’ Graham and his $12.6 million salary before July 1. That immediately leaves them in the range of $25 million in cap space before making any other moves, depending on where their pick comes in.
  • Hey, speaking of picks, the Spurs are currently tied for the No. 2 slot in the 2024 lottery. They also have a chance at another top pick, as they control Toronto’s first-round if it falls out of the top six. Right now, the Raptors are slated for the No. 7 lottery slot.
  • San Antonio’s future draft equity is even greater than its present. If the Toronto pick doesn’t convey this year, it remains top-six protected for the next two years. In addition, they control a top-10 protected 2025 pick from the Bulls, unprotected 2025 and 2027 first-round picks from the Hawks, and swaps from the Hawks (2026), Celtics (2028) and Mavericks (2030). There’s a protected 2024 Hornets pick in there as well, but as it is unlikely to ever convey, that turns into two second-round picks in 2026 and 2027. All of this capital puts them in the same asset ballpark as teams like the Thunder, Jazz and Nets. Practically speaking, that means that there are very few players they can’t realistically trade for.
  • The internal young talent is meaningful, if not especially starry. San Antonio’s 10 most-used players this season are all 28 or younger. Eight are 24 or younger. Devin Vassell has already inked a five-year, $146 million extension. Tre Jones‘ individual numbers aren’t gaudy enough to ink such a deal, but his impact on Wembanyama is pronounced. Spurs lineups featuring both outscore opponents by 5.2 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass. Remove Jones from the equation and that net rating drops by over 22 points per 100 possessions. Keldon Johnson is a Team USA gold medalist. Jeremy Sochan can’t play point guard on offense, but he can play just about anywhere on defense.

The Spurs aren’t asset-limited like the LeBron-era Cavaliers were. They aren’t excessively old like the Davis-era Pelicans were. They may not have big-market financial resources, but they’ve paid the tax in the past and were capable of sustaining nearly two consecutive decades of contention when they had Tim Duncan. The question for the Spurs isn’t whether or not they can build a winner around Wembanyama. It’s exactly what kind of winner they’re trying to build.

The answer is likely to be somewhat circumstantial. ESPN’s Brian Windhorst suggested on a recent radio appearance that San Antonio isn’t looking to make a major, immediate jump because of the strong, upcoming 2025 NBA Draft class. Of course, they might not have a say in the matter. The Spurs can’t shoot themselves in the foot as blatantly as they did this season when they started Jeremy Sochan at point guard for much of the early season. Wembanyama is already too good, and there’s too much evidence pointing to what basic traits work around him. If the Jones-Wembanyama duo leads to consistently positive basketball, for instance, the Spurs would have to go out of their way to avoid playing Wembanyama not only with Jones, but really any legitimate point guard to replicate the losing that defined the earlier portion of this season. What are the odds that they do that again?

The likelier middle ground is one of opportunism. The assumption has long been that San Antonio will seek a long-term back-court upgrade. That doesn’t mean they have to dive in on the top guards that are likely to be available this summer. Donovan Mitchell may not be interested in signing an extension with such a small market anyway. The Spurs have never shown much interest in players as defensively limited as Trae Young. Give it another year and perhaps the market looks a bit more appealing. Should Mitchell remain in Cleveland, for instance, Darius Garland is an obvious point guard fit as a medium-usage scorer with unlimited shooting range and experience throwing lobs. When you have the assets to trade for anyone, deciding who “anyone” means and when to strike are what ultimately matter.

In the meantime, San Antonio’s cap space gives it a chance to strike at free agents whose teams may lack the ability to fight back. Say the Spurs want to make a bigger investment in a center to protect Wembanyama physically. The Knicks are limited to around $16 million in the first season of a new offer for Isaiah Hartenstein because of their Early Bird Rights. The Spurs could top that, and perhaps do so in a bloated, short-term deal that retains flexibility. If they’d prefer to take their swing in the back court, Malik Monk has a similar restriction in Sacramento. Both are going into their age-26 seasons, right on the timeline San Antonio would likely prefer.

The relative weakness of this draft class favors teams like San Antonio with a star already in place. The Spurs can afford to go shopping for a high-end specialist. San Antonio ranked 28th in 3-point percentage this season. Normally, prospects like Dalton Knecht or Reed Sheppard would be too niche to be drafted in the top five. In a draft without stars, the Spurs could afford to overdraft someone with a harder to find skill set.

The endgame of finding the prototypical “sidekick” will always loom. San Antonio’s overall roster flexibility just allows for far more patience in finding that player. Wembanyama’s rookie contract gives the Spurs the chance to generate max cap space in either 2025 or 2026 if they prefer either free-agent class. Their depth of young talent allows them to consolidate without sacrificing depth or upside. And of course, their trade chips open just about any door the player-empowerment era puts in front of them. Eventually, somebody is going to realize that Wembanyama is their ticket to multiple championships. That will be San Antonio’s moment to strike.

Until then? The Spurs have just about everything going for them. There’s no need to rush or to force anything. They have Wembanyama, and they have everything else they need to surround him with an eventual championship roster.

Source: CBSSports.com

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