The San Antonio Spurs have been here before.
In 1987, after finishing 28-54, they won the draft lottery and the right to select David Robinson, a 7-foot-1 generational big man out of Navy.
A decade later, following a 20-62 season, they again won the draft lottery and the right to select Tim Duncan, a 6-foot-11 generational big man out of Wake Forest .
Two picks, two Hall of Famers, five NBA championships.
Robinson didn’t make his NBA debut until 1989 because of his two-year service requirement with the Navy. The Spurs went 21-61 the season before Robinson’s arrival. Led by Robinson, fellow rookie Sean Elliott — the No. 3 pick in the 1989 draft — and then-coach Larry Brown, the Spurs jumped to 56 wins in 1988-89, finishing second in the Western Conference and reaching the second round of the playoffs.
Duncan joined a Spurs team that had won at least 55 games in three consecutive seasons before plummeting to 20 wins in 1996-97, when Robinson missed most of the season with a back injury. With a healthy Robinson and Duncan and with Gregg Popovich in his first full season as head coach, the 1997-98 Spurs won 56 games and reached the second round of the playoffs.
Both Robinson and Duncan were All-Stars and named Rookie of the Year in their respective debut seasons — with Robinson averaging 24.3 points, 12.0 rebounds and 3.9 blocks and Duncan putting up 21.1 points, 11.9 rebounds and 2.5 blocks.
Now Victor Wembanyama, a 7-foot-3½ generational big man out of France, comes to San Antonio on the heels of a 22-60 campaign as the No. 1 pick in the 2023 draft, bringing with him lofty expectations heightened by the perfect circumstances of the Spurs’ two previous No. 1 overall picks. Robinson and Duncan each led one of the three biggest turnarounds in NBA history (2007-08 Boston Celtics, +42 wins after acquiring Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen; 1997-98 Spurs, +36 wins in Duncan’s first season; 1989-90 Spurs, +35 wins in David Robinson first season). So pencil Wembanyama in for an All-Star trip to Indianapolis in February, a Wilt Chamberlain Trophy as Rookie of the Year and a Spurs trip to the second round of the playoffs, right?
It’s not that simple — and neither Wembanyama nor the Spurs is expecting to match that kind of immediate success.
“Not [skipping] any steps for me makes sense because it’s easy to make that mistake,” Wembanyama told reporters on draft night. “I’m glad I got people around me that can help me not make that mistake.”
Why the Spurs won’t contend for the playoffs this season …
Despite adding Wembanyama, the Spurs did little to upgrade their roster beyond that this summer. As a result, San Antonio has the lowest wins forecast of any team in preliminary projections for the upcoming 2023-24 campaign, an average expectation of 25.9 wins.
Although it might seem shocking for the Spurs to add Wembanyama and improve by fewer than four wins over their 22 from last season, it’s worth noting that San Antonio actually performed much worse in 2022-23 than the team’s record indicated. The Spurs were outscored by 10.1 points per game, far worse than the Detroit Pistons (minus-8.2 points per game), who finished with the league’s worst record at 17-65.
In fact, San Antonio’s 22 wins were tied with the 2020-21 Oklahoma City Thunder for the most in NBA history by a team outscored by double digits on average. Before the Thunder, only the 1990-91 Denver Nuggets had even reached 20 wins while getting outscored so badly.
If we treat the Spurs as an 18-win team (their expected record last year) rather than a 22-win team (their actual record), they are projected to improve by about eight wins. San Antonio used its salary cap space to facilitate three-team trades, taking back expiring contracts for wings Reggie Bullock and Cedi Osman, who are useful but won’t likely play ahead of incumbent starters Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell.
Meanwhile, the Spurs didn’t do anything to improve their biggest weakness: point guard depth. San Antonio was outscored by 11.8 points per 100 possessions with starter Tre Jones on the bench, according to NBA Advanced Stats, and went 2-14 in the 16 games Jones didn’t play. Yet the Spurs chose to waive veteran point guard Cameron Payne after acquiring him from the Phoenix Suns in another deal that saved another team money, leaving combo guard Devonte’ Graham and natural shooting guard Blake Wesley as the backups.
Of course, there’s a logic to this. Between Wembanyama and three players drafted in the first round in 2022 (Wesley, Jeremy Sochan and Malaki Branham), San Antonio is building around four players who are 20 or younger. Weighted by subjective projections for minutes played, the Spurs have the NBA’s youngest projected rotation.
The benefit will likely be another lottery pick to go along with Wembanyama and Sochan, the No. 9 overall pick in 2022. And San Antonio has plenty more tools to upgrade the roster looking forward. Including team options, the Spurs have 10 players under contract next season with a total of around $80 million in salary, giving San Antonio the ability to extend the contract of wing Devin Vassell ahead of restricted free agency and still have max-plus cap space.
Down the road, as the Spurs start to see their own draft picks come later in the first round, they’ll have more coming from other teams. Although some picks are protected in a way that they might not convey, San Antonio has collected five extra first-round picks via trade along with swap rights in 2026 (Atlanta Hawks), 2028 (Boston, so long as the Celtics don’t have the top overall pick) and 2030 (Dallas Mavericks).
The 2030 swap, in particular, acquired from the Mavs to take Bullock’s contract as part of a sign-and-trade for Grant Williams, symbolizes the Spurs’ apparent patience. It’s possible that swap could ultimately amount to nothing, but San Antonio timed it for after Luka Doncic’s current contract ends and just as Wembanyama — who will be 26 in 2030 — should be reaching his peak.
… and why that’s all part of the plan
Because he spent four years playing college basketball then two more years in the Navy, Robinson was 24 years and 90 days old when he debuted in the NBA. Duncan was 21 years and 189 days old after spending four years at Wake Forest.
Meanwhile, Wembanyama will be 19 years and 294 days old when he makes his debut for a team that will be significantly younger than the ones Robinson and Duncan joined.
Youth will play a pivotal role in why San Antonio is taking a slow and steady approach to improvement.
On draft night, Popovich was asked about managing expectations — both Wembanyama’s and the team’s — heading into the season.
“It’s about not skipping steps, which I say often. It’s A to B to C to D on a variety of levels. One is O’s and X’s of the game. The rules are a little bit different, obviously, than FIBA. He’ll have to get used to that,” Popovich said of Wembanyama on June 22.
“Because of all the hype, he’ll have a target on his back. So more than O’s and X’s to begin with, we’ll be most interested in setting a framework in an environment where he’s comfortable, where he can be Victor. He’s not LeBron [James] or Tim or Kobe [Bryant] or anybody else. He’s Victor, and that’s who we want him to be.”
Like Wembanyama, James was touted as a generational superstar coming into the league in 2003. But James wasn’t able to lift the last-place Cleveland Cavaliers into the playoffs until his third season in the league.
In fact, since 2009, only one No. 1 overall pick has made the playoffs: Markelle Fultz with the Philadelphia 76ers in 2017-18 (and Fultz battled injuries that season and played just 14 games for a team that was finally coming out of the Process rebuild). Half of the teams that made the No. 1 pick since 2000 needed at least three seasons to get back to the playoffs.
“I think when we set out on this draft journey a few years ago, we wanted to find pieces that were very versatile that could play with different types of players, different offensive systems and styles and, obviously, a core thing to us and what we do is the unselfishness, the body movement, the ball movement and trying to play an intelligent brand of basketball,” Spurs general manager Brian Wright said on draft night. “We think we have a young group of guys that can do that and, obviously, adding a talent like Victor just only adds to that.”
While San Antonio competed in both the NBA’s California Classic Summer League in Sacramento, California, and the Las Vegas Summer League, Wembanyama did not. With an eye toward the season and getting acclimated, the Spurs kept him in San Antonio to get practice time with players such as Johnson, Sochan and Vassell, who weren’t on the summer league squad.
“I feel like to be able to play through an 82-game season, I got to go through a lot of conditioning and level up on the energy level,” Wembanyama said from San Antonio on June 30.
When he did get to Las Vegas, Wembanyama played in only two games — in part because he was coming off a full season that ended just weeks before the draft but also because there were more chances to work out with the teammates he’ll be spending more time with on the court in the regular season. It’s all part of the slow process that the Spurs and Wembanyama are hoping will pay off in the long run.
“Some players have tried to win the championship, win a ring, for years and haven’t made it,” Wembanyama told reporters on draft night. “I don’t want to be one of those. This is going to be — my goal is going to be to get closer and closer every time to the ring and to learn how to make it.”