After one of the weirdest stories in recent league history consumed the San Antonio Spurs’ season, the franchise is in a very, very different place than it was at the beginning of the 2017-18 season. Optimism about Kawhi Leonard’s thigh injury turned to pessimism and then turned to questioning of everybody involved. The stoic, media-unfriendly Spurs culture has worked for them for 20+ years, but it bit them here—there was much speculation about Leonard’s injury and very few answers from the team. Eventually, Leonard sought a second opinion, people within the organization questioned his toughness, and there is much to fix within the Spurs that has nothing to do with their cap sheet or on-court play. LaMarcus Aldridge, who this time last year was unhappy enough in San Antonio to request a trade, was able to mend fences with Gregg Popovich and was phenomenal in Leonard’s absence, earning All-NBA Second Team honors for his improved defense and continued efficiency despite being the only key offensive piece for the Spurs. The result of the Aldridge rift is precisely what San Antonio hopes happens with Leonard this summer: Popovich sits down with one of his star players and makes the necessary changes to the team to accommodate him, then that guy signs an extension to stay with the Spurs long-term.
From a team-building perspective, the Spurs are entirely at Leonard’s mercy. Due to his All-NBA accomplishments the two seasons prior to this injury-riddled year, San Antonio will be able to put a supermax extension on the table: five years, $219.2 million, starting in 2019-20. If he meets with Popovich and signs the extension, all is well. If he doesn’t, then that’s when things get interesting for both player and team, because Leonard will be a free agent in 2019. If he’s not willing to lock in $219 million after the season he just had, then Popovich will have no choice but to trade him. San Antonio are confident in their ability to recreate whatever connection between team and superstar fell apart over the past year, but with just three weeks to the beginning of free agency, it would make sense that they’re also having preliminary trade discussions internally.
If they do trade Leonard, every team in the league will put in their bids, but it’ll only be a team with a combination of young players and future assets who will be able to pry him away from the Spurs. Philadelphia and Boston immediately come to mind as teams that can put together trade packages nobody else can match. The 76ers have young players in Markelle Fultz and Dario Saric, as well as the tenth pick this season and a 2019 pick from the Lakers to include in a Leonard deal. The Celtics have two young stars on the wing in Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum in addition to protected firsts from the Clippers, Memphis, and Sacramento. Not everything mentioned would have to go back to San Antonio in a Leonard trade; given Leonard’s injury situation, the Celtics might play hardball over Tatum, who already looks like he’ll be an All-NBA-level player within the next few years. Whichever trade package San Antonio chooses in this alternate universe, they’d do so to kickstart a rebuild, rather than try to get back commensurate talent to continue to compete at the highest levels in the Western Conference.
Leonard’s situation greatly affects a number of his current Spurs teammates, from Danny Green and Rudy Gay with respect to their player options and free agents Tony Parker and Kyle Anderson this season to the older players already under contract who did not sign up for a long-term rebuild, including Aldridge, Pau Gasol, Patty Mills, and Manu Ginobili.
Parker’s free agency is mostly a moot point—it’s unfathomable that he’ll be anywhere but San Antonio and it should just be a matter of negotiating a much smaller salary for him now that he’s coming off the bench behind Dejounte Murray. He’ll either come first or last in the Spurs’ signings; if they’re going to remain over the cap, then it doesn’t matter when they sign him and they might as well wait until they have all their other business completed to see how much money is left under the tax to give him most of that difference, and if they’re going to trade Leonard and get significant cap space, then they’ll want to agree with him early so his $23.2 million cap hold can be replaced with his much more modest salary and open up even more space.
Green and Gay will be extremely keen to know of Leonard’s decision before their player option decisions are due in late June. While Green can likely opt out and wrangle more money out of the Spurs or another team, indications are that Gay will probably opt in if the team is going to be competitive next season but could get the mid-level exception from another team if he were to leave. Both players would fit with a rebuilding team well, but neither is particularly likely to want to stick around unless Popovich can get Tatum or another equivalent rising star in a Leonard trade. Green is slated to make $10 million next season but may choose to opt out even if it lowers his 18-19 earnings—he’ll turn 31 the day after the 2018 NBA Draft and can’t assume that he’ll be able to continue his production next season heading into 2019 free agency. It would be better for him to opt out and either come back to San Antonio on a longer deal or sign the full mid-level exception with another team, which would lock in $36.8 million over the next four years on what is likely his last chance to make real money in the league. Gay is about a year older than Green (he’ll be 32 in August) and should have similar thoughts about locking in a longer deal if he can.
San Antonio also has a trio of restricted free agents on whom the Spurs’ decisions aren’t solely based on Leonard’s. Kyle Anderson had a very strong year in the wake of Leonard’s injury and showed himself to be a viable replacement in that combo forward role—he was great defensively and upped his efficiency and usage across the board in 2017-18. Still a relatively low-usage player, the Spurs would never consider Anderson a like-for-like swap for Leonard, but he did a great job in the latter’s continued absence last season. San Antonio can make Anderson a restricted free agent by tendering a qualifying offer, which will be a no-brainer decision for them no matter what path Leonard chooses. He may have to go out and get an offer sheet from another team before the Spurs decide whether or not to match, but Anderson should get a significant raise from his previous salaries. Further down the roster, role players Bryn Forbes and Davis Bertans will also likely be restricted free agents and will generate interest from other teams. Both guys aren’t starter-level players, but Forbes can light it up off the bench and Bertans brings floor spacing from the big man positions.
The future of the Spurs is in Leonard’s hands. If he and Popovich can work out their differences, then San Antonio will be right back into the title conversation next year with some small additions on the fringes. If he has to be traded, then we might be in for something we haven’t seen since 1996-97: a Western Conference playoffs without the San Antonio Spurs.