• Kawhi Leonard's injury has cleared the stage for little-known Jonathon Simmons during the NBA playoffs. Will the second-year swingman become a member of the Spurs' future plans?
By Rohan Nadkarni
May 22, 2017

Bright spots have been few and far between for the Spurs since Kawhi Leonard went down with an ankle injury in the opener of the Western Conference finals. For every brief Manu Ginobili revival, there's been a LaMarcus Aldridge wet blanket. If there has been one ray of San Antonio sunshine during its inevitable loss to the Warriors, it’s been the play of Jonathon Simmons, the second-year swingman who has emerged in Leonard’s absence. 

Simmons, 27, has flashed considerable ability in limited minutes in each of the last two seasons. He possesses a bounciness to his game, and his athleticism often stands out next to a group of mostly geriatric Spurs. Simmons best utilizes his quickness on the defensive end, where he’s proven he can capably hound the NBA’s elite scorers. Offensively, Simmons’s game is rough around the edges, but he makes up for his streaky shooting by finding lanes to the rim and running out for easy scores in transition. (And he can dunk the air out of the basketball.)

All of this has been needed in the postseason, as Simmons has come through with perhaps the best stretch of his career with Leonard sidelined. Simmons first started to break out in the conference semifinals against Houston, when Gregg Popovich upped his playing time to match the Rockets’ smaller, faster-paced lineups. In Game 6 of that series, with Leonard missing his first game of the playoffs, Simmons helped close out Houston on the road, scoring 18 points on 8-of-12 shooting while helping keep James Harden in check on defense. 

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Since the Game 6 win against the Rockets, Simmons has averaged 16.5 points in 29.3 minutes per game. At times, Simmons has been the most reliable option on offense for the Spurs, which is a sign of his improved play (and perhaps a sign of the decline of Aldridge.) In the Warriors’ Game 2 beatdown of the Spurs, Simmons seemed like the only one who took the loss personally. He scored 22 points that night, and was singled out by Popovich after the game as one of the only players competing with the right energy. 

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Simmons’s late emergence is now something of a double-edged sword for the Spurs. After years of clawing his way through the D-League, Simmons will be a free agent this summer, and he will rightfully be looking for a significant payday in what could be the only major contract of his NBA career. San Antonio is wise enough not to base Simmons’s contract on a small sample size, but the team also isn’t in a great position to let him walk.

The Spurs’ off-season figures to be a little complicated. If Pau Gasol exercises his $16 million player option—and it’s hard to imagine him making more on the open market—San Antonio’s cap flexibility will be fairly minimal. Patty Mills will also be a free agent, and with Tony Parker’s injury and age concerns, Mills will likely have to be retained on a substantial contract, unless Popovich is ready to roll with Dejounte Murray.

The Spurs will have the right to match any contract Simmons signs this summer as he is a restricted free agent, but his market could get out of hand if a young team with ample cap space makes a big offer. It won’t be the end of the world if San Antonio is forced to let Simmons walk, but then the Spurs would be losing a young-ish wing with promising potential without an easy way to replace him. 

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Looking ahead, a Mills-Simmons-Leonard-Danny Green foursome could be hellacious defensively, and that group also wouldn’t be easy to defend on the other end, especially if Simmons can become a more consistent shooter. As long as the NBA continues to trend smaller, players like Simmons will skyrocket in value because of their versatility. 

Whatever happens this summer, Simmons has earned the raise he has coming to him, not only because of his success during the playoffs, but also because of the hard work he’s put in since reaching the NBA in 2015. While he’s been one of the few positives since Leonard’s injury robbed the Spurs’ chances of making the West finals a series, there’s a chance Simmons could be playing himself out of San Antonio.