Here's a look at what's in store for the Spurs this offseason after their gut-wrenching loss to the Heat in the NBA Finals.
• What’s the biggest priority for San Antonio this offseason?
Working out agreeable, cap-friendly terms with guard Manu Ginobili and walking the line of restricted free agency with center Tiago Splitter. The Spurs aren't a team in need of many dramatic changes, but they're in a position to either bring back the two Finals' under-performers or leverage cap space with their departure. The cap holds on both players are massive enough that they would need to be renounced for the Spurs to do much of anything, but that option is certainly on the table for a team that has just $41.7 million in committed salary*, and potentially less if it opts to release Matt Bonner.
If they decide to get really crazy, the Spurs could take a stab at a solid second- or third-tier free agent, but the return of both Ginobili and Splitter is a bit more likely. The former wouldn't seem to be too difficult to arrange; the Spurs are the only NBA team Ginobili has ever known, and while there's a possibility that the soon-to-be 36-year-old could retire or aim to play elsewhere, he seems awfully likely to come back on a slimmer salary after making $14.1 million this season.
Splitter, 28, is a much different proposition, if only because the Spurs have shown that they're willing to part ways with restricted free agents as opposed to overpaying them. Case in point: George Hill. San Antonio managed to dodge his inevitable pay raise by trading him to the Pacers for the terrific Kawhi Leonard two years ago. When put in that position, most teams would have played the market and matched whatever offer was necessary to avoid a downward slide after a first-round playoff exit. San Antonio instead parted ways with a Gregg Popovich favorite and an emerging contributor, preferring Leonard's potential and rookie-scale salary.
Splitter's free agency may not follow the same path, but the Spurs' course with Hill reinforced their greater -- and at times, cold -- sense of pragmatism. Splitter played a prominent role in San Antonio's improved defense this season and did great work in the pick-and-roll for most of the year. But general manger R.C. Buford undoubtedly has a price threshold in mind, which puts Splitter's fate is in his own hands; if he wants to chase the biggest offer sheet possible, he may well price himself beyond San Antonio's limits. (For reference: Splitter was paid $3.9 million this season.) Restricted free agents typically wind up sticking around with their incumbent teams, but the Spurs drive a hard bargain (even going as far as to haggle on rookie deals) and don't tend to agree to unfavorable contracts. Either way, the decision on Splitter or a possible replacement may well define the Spurs' offseason.
• How can the Spurs improve this offseason? Through free agency? The draft? Trade?
The Spurs have the ability to find a decent player with the 28th pick, but the addition of another Cory Joseph-caliber rookie isn't going to move the needle much for a team that already had a fair claim to the title this season. The opportunities available on the trade and free-agent markets, though, could allow San Antonio to make more substantial gains.
As far as free agency goes, the key -- aside from the aforementioned cap holds on Splitter and Ginobili -- is the expiring contract of Stephen Jackson. The Spurs parted ways with Jackson in April, but his $10.1 million contract very nearly pushed San Antonio into luxury-tax territory. With the expiration of his deal**, the Spurs are free to make fuller use of their committed salary, and opt to either pay Ginobili and Splitter or seek rotation alternatives with cap room. The hunt for another big man who can rotate defensively like Splitter might be a bit fruitless, but that's not to say that a Paul Millsap-type wouldn't help San Antonio in a very different way.
There will also be many trade options for the Spurs, who have the depth to adjust to any number of potential transactions. There's talent on the edges of the roster that could be flipped and replaced, though it would be interesting to see if the market value for San Antonio's role players matches up to their internal worth.
A player like Bonner, for instance, may not be worth $4 million to every team; his defense can be problematic, he relies on the creative ability of his teammates and he has but one high-level offensive skill. He's useful to the Spurs specifically because they can account for his weaknesses and use him in the rotation selectively, but not every team would be able to cover for all that Bonner doesn't do. The same could be said of players like Splitter, Gary Neal, Boris Diaw and even Danny Green, each of whom fits in San Antonio perfectly but could be over-specialized elsewhere.
Then again, the prestige of an impressive Spurs postseason run could also amplify the appeal of those very players. The market is typically kind to supporting types on championship teams, and with no Heat role players to be had the Spurs could provide the next best thing. The market for a player like Green has never been higher, and Diaw may be more coveted now than he will be at any point in the coming season. That isn't reason enough to trade either, but San Antonio's very recent and very public triumphs could make the incoming offers more interesting to the Spurs.
**Just a reminder: San Antonio would still owe Richard Jefferson $11.1 million next season were it not for this bizarre trade. Even if Jackson didn't finish out his term with the Spurs, his absence from their books makes that trade well worth it.
• Can the Spurs return to the Finals in 2014?
Definitely. The rhetoric in the analysis of aging players might make it seem like those veterans could keel over at any moment, but a slow, gradual decline is a far more common fate. We've already seen Ginobili's game trend downward, with his passes and decision-making veering more commonly toward risk than reward. But Duncan is coming off of a steely, throwback performance in which he turned away defenders at the rim and made a steady living from the low block. Someday the dream must end for one of the game's all-time greats, but so long as Duncan is beating back the advances of time, the Spurs should be in position to contend for a title. The challengers run deep in the Western Conference, but Duncan, Popovich and Tony Parker are far too good at their jobs to be buried just yet, while Leonard and Green both offer hope of what's to come in San Antonio.
Teams this good and this balanced don't just fade away, and depending on how the Spurs navigate their offseason, they could well benefit from their Finals-validated continuity and a few low-key additions. Even if they're not the hands-down favorites to win the West, they can run with the Thunder, tussle with the Grizzlies and pick apart the Clippers. Whether they again battle through to the championship round is a matter of specifics (in matchups, in offseason changes, in the West landscape), but today the Spurs stand as unquestionable contenders for the 2014 crown and an undesirable matchup for most every potential opponent. Salary information courtesy of Sham Sports.