Even if Spurs win lottery, gratification can be delayed

The hope is for the misery to end in May. Once the season winds down and the lottery balls are drawn, then everybody can move on, and the winningest NBA franchise of the past half-century can get back to winning again.

If only it were that simple.

The truth is it might take longer than that, even if the Spurs get lucky. To remind them of this, all they need to do is look around them in the current standings.

So far, five teams have separated themselves in what figures to be an epic race for the bottom.

For four of them, this is nothing new.

The Spurs are the fifth, and they’d love to remain the exception. They’d love to do what few franchises in their position have done before, which is to take one dramatic fall and then bounce right back up into contention. But even if they win the rights to 7-foot-4 French sensation Victor Wembanyama, they’re going to need a little more time.

And they might need a little more misery.

That’s usually how rebuilding works, even if the Spurs never had to experience it themselves. The last time they won the draft lottery, in 1997, they became an instant playoff team with Tim Duncan, but there were extenuating circumstances. For one, Duncan might have been the most NBA-ready rookie of the past 30 years. For another, he joined a team that already had David Robinson and Sean Elliott on it.

Most No. 1 overall picks don’t have that luxury, and it’s no coincidence that most of them have to wait a while before they find themselves on a playoff team. LeBron James was drafted in 2003 and didn’t make the postseason until 2006. Anthony Davis was drafted in 2012 and didn’t make the postseason until 2015. Karl-Anthony Towns was drafted in 2015 and didn’t make the postseason until 2018. And those were three of the best lottery prizes of this millennium.

The Spurs hope they don’t have to wait that long with whomever they select in next June’s draft. But that player is going to need help, and probably more than Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell can provide. The good news is that with plenty of salary-cap space and draft capital in the coming years, San Antonio should have the means to acquire that help. But it probably won’t come all at once.

Look at the other teams in the NBA’s current bottom five. The Rockets, who visit the Spurs for what could prove to be a pivotal game in the Wembanyama sweepstakes on Thursday, picked Jalen Green No. 2 overall in the 2021 draft and then took Jabari Smith at No. 3 in 2022. They have a promising future, but they’re still suffering through another season in which they’re likely to lose more than 50 games.

The Pistons picked Killian Hayes at No. 7 in 2020, took Cade Cunningham at No. 1 in 2021, then took Jaden Ivey at No. 5 in 2022. Now they’re 6-19 and trying to win another lottery.

Two years ago, the Hornets picked LaMelo Ball at No. 3. Last June, the Magic took Paolo Banchero at No. 1. Both have looked like excellent picks. Neither have proved anything close to instant saviors.

Now, none of this is to suggest that tanking is a flawed strategy, or that high draft picks are overrated. For teams in cities like San Antonio, Orlando and Charlotte, the lottery remains the best way to secure an All-Star-caliber talent. But the point is that usually isn’t a cure-all.

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Matt Lucas

Writer by day and an aspiring Artist by night. Creative thinking is what I'm all about. Lottos are one of my passions and I'm happy to be contributing to Lottery Papa News

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