2023 NBA Draft

How Spurs laid the groundwork for 2023 NBA Draft to change everything

The No. 1 pick should serve as the vessel to blast San Antonio into a future of sustained success.

Get to know the French phenom and top NBA Draft prospect Victor Wembanyama.

Serendipitous timing finds San Antonio poised to draft generational talent Victor Wembanyama No. 1, weeks ahead of opening its new state-of-the-art multi-phase $500 million facility called “The Rock at La Cantera,” which sprawls 45 acres and features a human performance research center.

The truth, though, is the Spurs planned their work meticulously and worked that plan relentlessly to reach this point.

“Our future was already bright,” managing partner Peter J. Holt said back in May when San Antonio won the 2023 NBA Draft Lottery. “Now, it’s going to be through the moon.”

We’ll see. But of course, The Rock at La Cantera provides the potential launching pad. Wembanyama should serve as the vessel needed to blast the franchise into a future of sustained success more rapidly than initially expected four years ago, when the organization first targeted the 2023 NBA Draft as the one that could change everything.

Yes, San Antonio envisioned years ago what you’re about to see flash across your screen Thursday in the 2023 NBA Draft, and the club toiled feverishly behind the scenes to align on-court priorities with business goals that the No. 1 pick will likely play a role in merging, as the Spurs look to embark on another run of league domination.

Beginnings of change

The first hints of a lofty plan that stressed optionality emerged in 2020 before San Antonio travelled to Orlando for the NBA’s season restart. With long odds of advancing to the postseason for what would have been an NBA-record 23rd year in a row, the Spurs prepped for the bubble missing three starters in LaMarcus Aldridge, Trey Lyles and Bryn Forbes. The club also left behind veteran guard Patty Mills with coach Gregg Popovich stating that the plan was to develop the team’s youth while advancing causes for social justice and racial equality.

So, the Spurs tipped Game 1 in the bubble with a four-guard starting lineup featuring DeMar DeRozan at power forward alongside Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Lonnie Walker IV playing off center Jakob Poeltl. The group showcased an up-tempo style on offense, bolstered by a swarming, pestering defense as San Antonio triumphed in five of its first seven seeding games. Moving forward, the Spurs decided to stick to that more modern style of essentially position-less basketball.

“The strategy, the philosophy, the way we play is gonna stay the same [as in Orlando],” Popovich said entering the 2020-21 season.

Former Spurs player DeMar DeRozan (right) was key to helping the team stay competitive until his departure in 2021.

That meant San Antonio would beat the bushes over the next few years looking for all-around players with size that could play with or without the ball. That would allow the Spurs to play a more modern style in terms of shot profile and how they defended. Most importantly, such players would offer overall roster versatility. San Antonio craved to always utilize multiple players on the floor capable of dribbling, shooting, and passing with high-level decision-making skills. They also wanted the ability to play a five-out offense with the flexibility to lean on a center that could step out, space the floor and shoot 3-pointers.

The pending changes would come as the result of several discussions from the Spurs debating internally where they were as a team, where they were headed, and how the club played stylistically. In the end, San Antonio was forced to ask itself whether it could continue winning the old way. And if there was a chance to conduct a rebuild, how would the Spurs do it?

Before that point, San Antonio was what you’d call a middle-building team looking to remain competitive. But that approach would seemingly force the Spurs to thread the needle and hit home runs with their picks every year at the bottom of the lottery (or just outside of it) for an organization with no cap space or flexibility going forward with no future picks. San Antonio saw no pathway out of such a vicious cycle, and internally pondered how many real opportunities it would receive to build something truly sustainable that wouldn’t cap out yearly as a sixth, seventh or eighth seed. The way the Spurs were built at the time, they were fighting just to stay alive near the middle of the pack.

The club decided it was time to pivot. So, tough decisions loomed on the horizon.

Alternative approaches

Keldon Johson (left) and Devin Vassell were selected by San Antonio in the 1st round of the 2019 and 2022 Drafts, respectively.

The Spurs entered this latest endeavor with optionality at the forefront of their thinking and a young core of talented players drafted over the years starting with Keldon Johnson (No. 29 in 2019), followed by Devin Vassell (No. 11 in 2020), Tre Jones (No. 41 in 2020), Josh Primo (no longer with the team, but selected No. 12 in 2021) Jeremy Sochan (No. 9 in 2022) and Malaki Branham (No. 20 in 2022).

Having identified the 2023 NBA Draft four years ago as the ideal window to significantly speed up the rebuild, San Antonio toiled to outkick its Draft coverage, bringing aboard players versatile enough to thrive in any type of system, but most importantly they’d mesh well with teammates.  

Simultaneously, the Spurs knew they needed a Plan B just in case the picks didn’t hit.

The club understood its first-round pick in 2023 would be its most valuable asset. But it also hoped to maximize chances at bettering that selection while providing room to grow for a roster filled with young, inexperienced players. That meant losing. Probably often. Obviously, the city of San Antonio held high standards with a fanbase accustomed to competing perennially for championships. The organization didn’t want to disappoint. But the fastest way to return to that level while ensuring a sustainable future meant the Spurs needed to peel away layers of their core piece by piece with an eye toward maximizing the return in each transaction to gain future assets for potential trades.

If the organization failed to hit big on its 2023 pick, it needed flexibility for the short term with its salary cap to bring in free agents as well as Draft assets to consummate potential trades.

Big picture: The Spurs wanted to be able to pivot at a moment’s notice. If one approach failed, they would still possess the tools necessary to successfully facilitate a rebuild first put into motion back in 2018 with the departure of Kawhi Leonard.

During the summer of 2021, the club completed a sign-and-trade deal that sent DeRozan to the Chicago Bulls in exchange for Thaddeus Young, Al-Farouq Aminu, a 2025 first-round pick and two future second-round picks. In February 2022, the Spurs traded Young to Toronto in exchange for a 2022 first-round pick (that became Branham). San Antonio moved White the following February to the Boston Celtics for Josh Richardson and Romeo Langford in addition to a top-four protected pick in ’22 (Blake Wesley). The club also received a 2028 first-round pick swap in that deal.

Months later, San Antonio traded All-Star guard Murray and Jock Landale to the Atlanta Hawks in a deal that landed first-round picks in 2023, ’25 and ’27 in addition to a 2026 pick swap.

The moves continued up to the ’23 trade deadline. Nearly five years after joining the Spurs via the Leonard trade to Toronto, Poeltl became a Raptor again in a trade that sent San Antonio three more Draft picks.

In all, the Spurs currently sit on five first-round picks and nine second-rounders between 2023 and 2029 to go with a couple of pick swaps, not to mention nearly $40 million in cap space to upgrade the talent around Wembanyama if the club so chooses.

San Antonio made the treasure trove of assets possible by eschewing long-term contracts to create cap space and flexibility in the short term for asset acquisition while pursuing deals that would bring in as many picks as possible.

Johnson’s four-year extension from last July remains the club’s lone contract that stretches beyond next season.

“Obviously, a long road still ahead and a lot of work to do to build this out and get to where we want to be,” Spurs general manager Brian Wright said last month after the club won the 2023 NBA Draft Lottery. “You enjoy the entire journey. It’s not always fun and it’s not always just the great things.”

Ball and business

Managing partner Peter J. Holt helped to map out San Antonio’s transition over the last several years.

During the early discussions of the current undertaking, the organization promoted longtime GM R.C. Buford to CEO to handle the business side of the Spurs in July 2019, while Wright stepped into his current position after serving three years as the team’s assistant general manager. 

The new facility has long been Buford’s baby, and a new tool for San Antonio to gain an edge on the competition through extensive expertise in elite human performance, while improving potential free-agent recruiting with the 134,000-square-foot Victory Capital Performance Center, which is expected to be jam-packed with the latest in sports technology. Buford credits Dr. Andy Walshe, a globally recognized expert in the field of elite human performance, as one of the driving forces behind the new facility.

“The human being is one of the most complex systems in the universe,” Walshe said. “Thanks to technology, we’re starting to peel back the layers to unpack what really makes elite people operate at peak performance.”

Buford and the organization didn’t stop at the facility. They also took aim at expanding San Antonio’s market by hitting the I-35 corridor last season for a pair of games up the road in Austin, one in Mexico City and a 50th-anniversary celebration game at the Alamodome in which the Spurs broke the league’s all-time attendance record. Considered a small-market club, San Antonio played those four out-of-market home games in an attempt to deepen the fanbase from Mexico to Austin.

If the Spurs can successfully connect the dots in these places with their current international following, the club’s current small market, realistically, becomes one of the league’s largest.

That’s partly where an international phenom like Wembanyama comes into play.

Nearly every move made in terms of creating cap space and adding Draft assets the past few years aligns symbiotically with what’s unfolding off the court, as the Spurs prep to Draft yet another generational big man like David Robinson and Tim Duncan before opening a new facility in the midst of a hard push to expand the fanbase.

“Brian, R.C. and [coach Gregg Popovich] deserve a tremendous amount of credit,” Holt said. “It’s not easy to go through transition. They have laid out a plan, a vision, for getting us back to championship-winning teams. That’s our goal. We are blessed to have this amazing team that will take this Draft process and add it into the overall framework to make sure we have sustainable success, and our legacy is one that’s living.”

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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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