While the NBA playoffs are still going, the 2017 off–season is rapidly approaching for many teams with massive decisions to make.CBA expert Danny Lerouxbreaks down the major challenges and opportunities for theSan Antonio Spurs in The Crossover's NBA Summer Preview series.
San Antonio’s first season without Tim Duncan continued their remarkable run of 50+ win seasons, finishing with the league’s second-best record and making the Western Conference finals before losing Kawhi Leonard to an ankle injury and falling to the Warriors in a sweep.
After clearing space in 2015 to bring in LaMarcus Aldridge, the Spurs have stayed fiscally responsible and look to have another opportunity for significant change next summer. However, what they do this summer both with their own free agents, like Patty Mills and Jonathon Simmons, and potential new additions could dramatically alter both next off-season and the future of the franchise.
Here are three key storylines to watch for the Spurs this offseason:
Pau Gasol’s player option: The Spaniard’s $16.2 million player option is the linchpin of San Antonio’s off-season because it drastically shifts their relationship to the salary cap line unless they are willing to trade him. With Gasol, the Spurs will likely function as an over-the-cap team and make decisions accordingly. If he opts out, it becomes much easier to be a force in the free-agent market this summer. It helps that Gasol’s decision will have to come before the start of free agency, so San Antonio will have time to adjust.
2018: Even if Gasol opts out, the Spurs’ books line up better for a massive opportunity next summer. Aldridge and Danny Green have player options they will likely decline and Tony Parker’s contract expires at the same time, meaning only Leonard’s team-friendly contract will remain on a remarkably clean ledger. That parallels 2015 when they signed Aldridge while retaining their core, and next off-season would provide the opportunity to build the next great Spurs team around Leonard. If that thinking holds, San Antonio’s front office will be reluctant to make major waves this summer unless they can do so through value contracts or one-year deals.
Changing the Timeline: While 2018 makes the most sense for a shakeup, there are free agents good enough to shift that schedule up a year. Chris Paul and Gordon Hayward are the two clearest fits, though Paul already being 32 makes it harder to imagine him as a central long-term piece playing next to the 25-year old Leonard. That age discrepancy makes the 27-year old Hayward a more compelling option that could create some fascinating lineup possibilities for Popovich. It will also be fascinating to see how 31-year old Kyle Lowry fits in to the Spurs’ thought process, particularly if he were willing to take less than his full maximum. This path could also look more appetizing if San Antonio does not love the 2018 free-agent crop, which likely includes Paul George, DeAndre Jordan and DeMarcus Cousins.
Potential Free Agents: Pau Gasol ($16.2m Player Option), Patty Mills (Unrestricted), Dewayne Dedmon ($3m Player Option), Jonathon Simmons (Restricted), Manu Ginobili (Unrestricted), David Lee ($2.3m Player Option), Bryn Forbes (Non-Guaranteed) and Joel Anthony (Unrestricted)
Likely Summer of 2017 Cap Space: None
Realistic Maximum Summer of 2017 Cap Space (using $101M estimate): $23.6 million
2017 Draft Assets: Own first (29th overall) and second (No. 59) round picks.
Potential Targets: San Antonio should use a go big or go home approach, since the prospect of massive salary cap space in 2018 makes patience incredibly valuable. Other than max-caliber players who could be running mates with Leonard for seasons to come, they should train their sights lower and follow their own path from last summer. For the Spurs, it would be better to find the next Dewayne Dedmon than pay to retain the current one. It is hard to predict which players will fall through the cracks of free agency but centers Willie Reed and Jeff Withey; wings Reggie Bullock and Jodie Meeks; and point guard CJ Watson could all fit the bill.
Pressure Scale: 6. In many ways, the Spurs’ biggest challenge this summer will be the resisting of temptation. They are a title contender with a young MVP candidate but would be better served waiting until next off-season to strike unless the right player comes along now. The toughest decisions will likely come with their own free agents, as Mills has grown so much in his six years with the franchise and may need to fill a larger role while Parker recovers from a ruptured quad tendon. Retaining the Aussie at a decent price again would be ideal but appears altogether unlikely.
That will be more likely with hyperathletic swingman Simmons, because he is a restricted free agent subject to the Gilbert Arenas provision, meaning the first two seasons of any offer sheet cannot pay out more than the Non-Taxpayer Mid-Level exception (about $8.4 million per year) but can jump after that a la Tyler Johnson and former Spur Boban Marjanovic last season. Even so, San Antonio has a strong foundation and a bright future to steel their resolve.
State of the Franchise: Holding Pattern. It would not be devastating for the league’s second-best regular season team to hold firm, particularly if Gasol opts in. That coupled with a potential Mills departure could mean a less dominant team next season, but the long-term benefit would easily be worth the cost. Having so many key players under contract already means the front office will not be spread too thin at the start of free agency. They can go hard after the cream of the crop for the first few days and then see what players other teams whiff on if the stars say no.
Like many other franchises, the worst thing the Spurs can do is limit their future flexibility for inadequate talent. But their decision-makers have built and maintained a powerhouse for a reason and appear unlikely to fall into that trap. The Spurs are also fascinating because making a big free agent splash would likely require them to trade established talent, which would be rare but not unprecedented as they unloaded Tiago Splitter and Boris Diaw in the last two summers. It would likely take a more painful move, like trading or waiving Parker, to clear space for a big fish this summer so that prospect certainly increases the potential intrigue.