The 2021-22 San Antonio Spurs rank as one of the youngest teams in franchise history with their average age being just 24. While the absence of veterans might be concerning to some, their struggles haven’t necessarily been related to a lack of experience. In fact, as the Spurs make a push for the play-in tournament, the oldest of the team’s current rotation players is just 28 years old.
Perhaps it's the concept of having a grizzled vet leading a bunch of inexperienced players like Captain America leading the Avengers, but veteran leadership doesn't make much sense on a rebuilding Spurs team. For starters, not everyone is a leader, and the Spurs have Gregg Popovich to teach the younger players. There's also something to be said for learning from experience.
Additionally, the term “veterans”, relating to the NBA, is sort of vague, to begin with. For instance, Dejounte Murray and Jakob Poeltl are 25 and 26 respectively but both players have six seasons of experience, as does Josh Richardson, technically making them all veterans.
Although having players with 10+ years of experience can be a good thing, they’re often more valuable on playoff teams, considering they've only managed to stick around by being good. San Antonio had a player like that in Thaddeus Young earlier this season, and he played well for them, but coach Gregg Popovich wisely played him in a more limited role.
Sometimes vets can be in the way
Veterans can be a crutch used to prop up bad teams while also taking minutes away from less experienced players who need them. Had Young played a bigger role on the team, both Zach Collins and Jock Landale would’ve possibly had smaller ones. That simply wouldn’t have made sense given the team’s direction because both players are young enough to possibly have a future with the team.
Last season, the Spurs featured four rotation players over the age of 30, each with more than a decade of experience. They won just 31 games and missed the postseason after losing in the play-in game. Fast forward to this season, and while San Antonio is much younger, they’ve also managed to compete for the play-in tournament.
Without veterans to rely upon, it has forced players like Murray, Keldon Johnson, and Jakob Poeltl to up their games. For instance, Murray has managed to fill the void left by DeMar DeRozan by increasing his scoring by 5.5 points per game and his assists by nearly four. Meanwhile, Johnson has steadily improved as the season has worn on, and is averaging an impressive 19.9 points and 6.8 rebounds in his first 14 games after the All-Star break.
As for Poeltl, he's also having a career year, averaging 13.4 points on 61.8% shooting, as well as 9.2 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks. Had the Spurs brought back some of their vets from last season, Murray, Johnson, and Poeltl likely wouldn’t have had career seasons and the team wouldn’t know what they have in those players.
Now the Spurs know what they have
Now, the Spurs know that Murray is an All-Star, who is playing more like a superstar in the second half of the season, and that Johnson also has All-Star potential. Additionally, Poeltl has emerged as one of the best centers in the NBA after having come off the bench to start last season. That is all useful information for the front office to have, and it will inform how they approach the draft, free agency, and the overall rebuild.
Ultimately, while San Antonio doesn’t have veterans in the traditional sense, they still have younger players like Murray, Poeltl, Richardson, and Doug McDermott, each of whom is more than experienced. The Spurs are better off without that veteran presence because it gives younger players a chance to prove themselves while playing through their mistakes without the worry of a more experienced player taking their minutes. It also provides San Antonio the chance to evaluate certain players.
That wasn't the case over the past three seasons when the Spurs tried to make the playoffs with veteran-led teams. That got the team nowhere. In fact, it delayed the inevitable rebuild for several seasons, but they've wisely changed course. This season, the focus has been on developing their young talent rather than depending on veterans to help carry them.
That's predictably come with a lot of ups and downs, but this Spurs team plays hard, and that "figure it out" approach has resulted in many young players showing a lot of improvement. That will only help San Antonio going forward as they try to compete for a championship.
However, in the meantime, they don't need much more experience than they already have. Veteran presences are overrated on the rebuilding Spurs.