With new assets, Spurs break with tradition

At a trade deadline likely to be a transformative organizational moment, two things could have stopped Spurs from doing what needed to be done.

One was stubbornness.

The other was sentimentality.

But with an unprecedented flurry of breakthrough deals on Thursday, they weren’t constrained by either.

It was a good thing.

If that surprised anyone, it’s because Spurs – who for much of their history have been averse to rotation and trading – had other options. They could have kept trying to make what they had work and maybe made another run at a place of play. They could have held on to all the beloved successes they nurtured to prove that the Professional basketball doesn’t have to be a cold, tough business once in a while.

But sometimes it does.

Sometimes it takes a calculated transaction or two to breathe new life into a tradition.

Sometimes even a franchise that values ​​relationships recognizes the wisdom of cutting a good one short.

Sometimes sentimentality only hinders progress.

No one with Spurs wanted to see Derrick White go. Coming out of Colorado with the 29th pick in the 2017 NBA draft, he blossomed into one of San Antonio’s long lines of “Where’s that guy from?” Fly. On some nights, including in a memorable playoff series against Denver, he was the team’s best player on the field. For several days, he was one of the franchise’s most active players in the community.

But he’s also set to earn $72m this season and the next three, and given the number of promising youngsters Spurs have in his job, it’s become clear they can put that money to better use. So when did the opportunity arise to clear that future cap space while adding what could be a top-20 pick in what looks like a busy draft this summer?

Spurs had to do it. So White is headed to Boston, where he can use his mix of play and defense to help with a playoff pursuit, and Josh Richardson and Romeo Langford head to San Antonio. Make no mistake, though – the Celtics’ 2022 first-round pick was the real price and goal of the deal.

Nobody wanted to see Drew Eubanks go either. Undrafted out of Oregon State, he wore Interstate 35 between the AT&T Center and the G League in Austin, eventually becoming a useful big man in the NBA. But to trade Thad Young to Toronto for another first-round pick and the soon-to-be-bought job of Goran Dragic, under salary cap rules, Spurs had to include Eubanks’ contract.

So Eubanks left too. But now the Spurs have three 2022 picks who could end up in the top 20 — their own, Boston’s and Toronto’s. And, for the first time in four years, their reconstruction project has a clear direction.

They no longer try to split the difference between staying competitive and starting over. With DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge in the fold, it made sense. Now, having gathered a nice core of youngsters around Dejounte Murray, they have a chance to take out a whole bunch of tanking at once.

They might not earn much in the next two months. It could be a good thing. The top three players in this year’s draft class — Duke’s Paolo Banchero, Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren and Auburn’s Jabari Smith — are considered potential superstars. If Spurs can land one of them, plus two other talents midway through the first round, and add them to Murray, Devin Vassell, Josh Primo and any free agent they can land with up to $30 million in the upcoming ceiling space?

In this case, the growing pains should not last forever.

As things stand, Spurs have already done better than they looked when they were forced to trade Kawhi Leonard in 2018. At the time, the perception was that they were selling their best asset for nickels against a dollar. But after converting DeRozan for Young and Young for another first round, here’s Spurs’ net for Leonard and Danny Green:

Jakob Poeltl, Keldon Johnson, Toronto 2022 first round, Chicago 2025 first round and Chicago 2025 second round.

That’s not too shabby, considering the barrel Leonard had Spurs over four summers ago. In the meantime, the franchise has never had to subject its fan base to the misery of watching an uncompetitive, nurturing team. The rest of this season could get ugly, but eight tough weeks pale in comparison to what Sacramento or Philadelphia had to endure for half a decade or more.

Now, obviously, there’s no guarantee that this will work. Just because Spurs have the picks doesn’t mean they’ll select the right prospects. Just because they have a space cap doesn’t mean they’re going to sign a free agent that makes a difference.

But they finished Thursday with more upside than they had at the start of the day. And once these assets transform into living, breathing actors?

Maybe one day Spurs can get sentimental about these guys.

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Twitter: @mikefinger