Can Victor Wembanyama turn San Antonio into a free agent destination?

0
27


VICTOR WEMBANYAMA’S FIRST season in San Antonio surpassed internal expectations but also fell short of delivering wins.

While many believed Wembanyama would be a force on the defensive end right away, not many believed he would accomplish what he did on the offensive end.

The No. 1 pick in last year’s draft averaged 21.4 points, 10.6 rebounds, 3.9 assists and a league-leading 3.6 blocks. The only other player in NBA history to hit those marks in a single season is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and he won MVP in both seasons that he accomplished the feat.

Wembanyama became the second rookie (joining Manute Bol) to lead the league in blocks and finished second in the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year voting. He became the first rookie in NBA history to make the All-Defensive first team. He was the unanimous Rookie of the Year.

He finished with two triple-doubles, one with blocks and one with assists. Wembanyama did all of this while hitting 128 3-pointers — fourth among rookies.

While Wembanyama experienced individual success, the team’s success did not follow.

San Antonio started the season winning three of its first five games, including a pair in Phoenix. But being the league’s youngest team caught up with the Spurs and their season was progressively riddled with losing streaks. The Spurs needed to win seven of their final 11 regular-season games just to finish with the same 22-60 record they had the year before.

The organization knew the team wouldn’t become an instant success with Wembanyama but hoped to at least finish with a better record than last season.

There is optimism in the offseason largely centered around what Wembanyama can do on both ends of the floor after his outstanding first season. The Spurs have the Nos. 4 and 8 picks in the upcoming draft along with a pair of second-round selections and tradable contracts that could create as much as $19.5 million in cap space if they waive Devonte’ Graham and Charles Bassey.

Historically, the Spurs have never chased big-name free agents, but they plan to eventually rely on Wembanyama to attract players to San Antonio. For now, it’s on the Spurs’ front office to figure out how it will build around its big man.

“We’ve always said this, our runway is not just next season, your runway is next season and beyond,” Spurs general manager Brian Wright said at the end of the season. “So how do you make the appropriate moves to set yourself up for growth and improvement in the best way possible, but also maintain the longevity?

“It’s a brick-by-brick thing that we have to do here.”


EVEN DURING THEIR dynasty years, the Spurs were never a true free agent destination.

They were able to lure LaMarcus Aldridge in 2015 and a 36-year-old Pau Gasol coming off an All-Star season with the Chicago Bulls the following summer to San Antonio. But traditionally, the Spurs develop their own talent and sign lower-tier free agents — such as Bruce Bowen, Patty Mills, Avery Johnson and Danny Green — who shine in the Texas heat.

Bowen had made one All-Defensive team in 2001 before the Spurs acquired him. Mills had two underwhelming years in Portland before finding his footing in San Antonio. Johnson was signed and waived before finding his way back in 1994 and turning into a starting point guard on the 1999 title team. Green played 20 games with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2009-10 before getting a chance in San Antonio.

Tim Duncan and David Robinson — like Wembanyama — were No. 1 picks. Tony Parker was picked No. 28 in 2001. The Spurs selected Manu Ginobili with the No. 57 selection in the 1999 NBA draft before joining the Spurs in 2002.

Still, the Spurs could become a destination for players who want to play with the one-of-a-kind superstar. Wembanyama recently said on a Ringer podcast that other players, including prospects, have already reached out to him, saying they would like to team up.

One veteran NBA player told ESPN that he believes other vets will take less money to play with Wembanyama because he could increase their chances of winning. Other vets have talked all season about how special of a player Wembanyama is.

Wright said the Spurs’ front office plans to use Wembanyama’s presence as a long-term recruiting tool.

“You would think over time, yeah, it would help us,” Wright said. “There’s a lot of things, obviously [Gregg Popovich] has been here for a long time and who he is as a leader and a coach. This whole roster growing and developing. That’s our hope and what we’re doing organizationally, business and beyond.”

Throughout the season, Popovich talked about not skipping steps. It’s something Wembanyama understands well.

“This is how it’s been my whole life, having to be patient,” Wembanyama told ESPN. “Be patient, but not always, you know. Nothing is going to stop us from pursuing it as hard as we can even though we can’t do it today. One day it’s going to pay off, all of these efforts.”

Despite the losing this past season, which included a franchise record 18-game skid, Wembanyama and his teammates managed to stay upbeat.

Popovich credited his players for sticking together.

“There were no letdowns or backbiting or blame or poor me or anything like that,” Popovich said at the end of the season. “They were dealt with tough circumstances, a couple they couldn’t handle or have any control over being young and never having played together, but it was difficult for them with spotty injuries and that kind of thing, but it’s like it never happened.

“Every practice, every shootaround, every game, no matter what happened, they were ready for the next day. And that really is a testament to their character. I really am impressed by that and grateful for it because it could have been a really ugly time losing and being on buses and planes and all that, but we ate together. We spent time together and they were special.”


AS THE SEASON progressed, so did the Spurs.

After the All-Star break, the Spurs had a 111.8 defensive rating which was 12th-best in the league during that stretch. Prior to the break, San Antonio’s defensive rating was 117.5, No. 23 in the league.

After experimenting with the best fits around Wembanyama, the Spurs found their preferred starting group in the second half of the season — Wembanyama, Tre Jones, Devin Vassell, Julian Champagnie and Jeremy Sochan — which finished with a plus-3.3 net rating in 404 minutes.

That group finished with a 117.4 offensive and a 96.6 defensive rating in 142 minutes with Keldon Johnson in place of Champagnie.

Of the two-man lineups that played consistent minutes with Wembanyama, the only two that finished with a positive net rating for the season were Jones (plus-4.3) and Vassell (plus-1.3).

Sochan started the season at point guard and moved to his traditional power forward spot in December. Once Jones took over at point guard those two had a plus-4.0 net rating and were plus-1.6 going back to Sochan’s only benching on Dec. 6.

Vassell finished the season averaging a career-best 19.5 points per game. He’ll begin the first year of a five-year, $146 million extension in 2024-25. He felt like he and Wembanyama made a lot of progress as the two worked on their two-man game throughout the season.

Moving forward, he says he’ll continue to put in the work with Wembanyama and has faith in the organization to do the rest.

“They’ve helped me develop so much and I know that they have a plan for the team,” Vassell said. “I know we want to win, we want to get back to being a championship team. So I know I trust them, I trust this organization and I’m ready for whatever comes with it.”

But even though the team showed progress toward the end of the season, it won’t dictate what happens this summer, Wright said.

“So there’s two ends of the spectrum, so it’s run it back because you saw progress and don’t change anything and it’s, ‘Hey, we’ve only won X number of games so we need to change everything,” Wright said.

“The reality is your answer is somewhere in-between. I think again, there’s certain metrics and things that we look at trying to be as objective as possible to figure out what moves make the right sense for right now.”

Whether or not the Spurs start to make a push this summer remains unknown. If they wait until next summer, they could have closer to $50 million in cap space available. Next summer, the team has its own first-round selection, an unprotected pick from the Atlanta Hawks, a top-10 protected pick from the Chicago Bulls and a lottery-protected first from the Charlotte Hornets at its disposal. Clearing those picks would free some cap space for 2025-26 or allow the team to make a bigger swing.

“I think if we stay true to what we do and we build on not only the progress we’ve seen but the established foundation that’s here, those things start to take care of themselves,” Wright said. “And the players themselves will drive that and the roster will drive that.

“I don’t think you can make the decision like, ‘Whoa, the West is really tough. You got to be 10 games above .500 to make the play-in and be like, well, ‘Let’s just hold off for a couple more years.’

“I think you got to just keep building it and allow it to organically grow.”



Source : ESPN