Over the past few seasons, there has been one particular debate that has taken place among San Antonio Spurs fans and pundits about whether the team should continue to try to make the playoffs as a low seed with a roster that can win 45-48 games and lose in the early rounds or to trade away their more established veteran players, let the younger players get more development by giving them larger roles on offense, and earn a few high draft picks.
This season, the team has had a rougher first several months of the than the past two seasons and they’d be lucky to hit 45 wins. Fortunately for them, the eighth seed seems like it will be easier to obtain this year. The Spurs, who have a 14-19 record, would have the 8th seed if the season ended tonight and are a game above the Portland Trail Blazers, the current 9th place team.
But, in the hypothetical situation that the season ended tonight, the Spurs’ first-round opponents would be the 27-7 Los Angeles Lakers, who would be the heavy favorites against the Spurs. In fact, 6 of the other 7 current West playoff teams would be heavy favorites against the Spurs, and the other team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, would still be the likely winner of a 7 game series.
It’s fair, then, to wonder if trying to make the playoffs at all is the right move. If the Spurs were to trade DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge and allow Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, and Lonnie Walker IV more opportunity to develop, would that put them in a better place a few seasons?
And would the lottery picks they would get while the core develops contain a player that could make the Spurs one of the best teams in the league again?
The ceiling of this group of players seems pretty clear, for the next few seasons at least. While some of the young guys can continue to improve, as long as the offense is run through DeRozan and Aldridge, this team has the ceiling of a mid-seed playoff team in the West and the floor of a late lottery team.
Unless one of the young players has unexpected growth this season or next, the Spurs will likely continue to be fighting for a playoff spot in late March or April in both of the next two seasons.
But what are sports about if not about remarkable achievements? While this Spurs team wouldn’t enter the postseason with championship potential, they would achieve something nearly as special, in my opinion, if they made it.
Making the playoffs this season would give the Spurs sole ownership of the record of longest consecutive post-season appearances in NBA history at 23.
If the Spurs were to take a step back and focus on developing their young players, becoming a contending team after they do develop wouldn’t be guaranteed. While there are many reasons to be hopeful about the Spurs’ young players, there is no current reason to believe that this Spurs’ core will good enough to compete for a championship even after their young players reach their prime.
Maybe the Spurs can find a player who is good enough to push the team to championship hopes in the draft. There are no guarantees there, either. Both Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard were drafted outside the lottery (both the 15th pick in the draft). LeBron James was drafted 1st in 2003. Kevin Durant was drafted 2nd in 2007. James Harden was the 3rd pick in the 2009 draft and Stephen Curry was selected 7th that year. Joel Embiid was the 3rd pick in the 2014 draft. Those are, to me, the best players on this season’s championship contenders (with the two best players from the Warriors’ championship run thrown in).
There is one, one, lottery pick from the last decade on that list. There are 5 lottery players total on that list that spans 6 drafts. While there are a few players that appear to be developing into that same level of player in the NBA today, it should illustrate that finding the number one option on a championship team is very difficult. Even if the Spurs were in the lottery for a season or two, their chances of finding that level of player would be very small.
So, for now, why not enjoy a record that no other team in NBA history has been able to reach? Why not push for the playoffs and make history along the way?
Championships are not the only valuable goal in sports. While this Spurs’ team may never be able to compete for a championship with its current roster construction, it may be able to set a record that might not be broken in NBA history, and that is worth pushing for.