What is dead may never die. The San Antonio Spurs have been in the playoffs for the vast majority of my lifetime and it looks like that streak won’t be stopping any time soon. I’m embarrassed to say how many times I’ve written them off, how many offseasons I looked at their roster against the best teams in the Western Conference, and thought, “This has to be the year.” And yet, like clockwork, there they are. I’m late to this realization, but simply penning them in for a playoff spot at the beginning of each year seems like the right move to make.
Going into 2019-20, San Antonio will be able to bring back just about everybody from the roster that pushed the Denver Nuggets to seven games in the first round of the playoffs. A few bounces go differently in that final contest and the Spurs could have been the ones in the conference finals; they would have made for a very interesting matchup with the Portland Trail Blazers. Of their main rotation players from last season, only Rudy Gay is a free agent and they’ll have Early Bird rights (my favorite kind of Bird rights!) on him, should he want to come back. After a pair of one-year contracts with the Spurs, perhaps Gay will want to sign up for a longer-term deal, but they’ll be able to do just about whatever he could reasonably require, now that they can go to up to 175 percent of his previous salary to re-sign him.
Should Gay decide to move on from San Antonio, the Spurs can open up about $10.3 million in cap space without much difficulty. It’s obviously not enough money to drastically overhaul their roster, but between that space and the $4.8 million room exception, they’ll be able to find a couple of rotation players to fit around DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge, and their slew of young guards. In particular, whether they use the $9.2 million mid-level exception or $10.3 million in cap space, the Spurs needs forwards. Gay’s return would mitigate this need to an extent, as would the potential return of unrestricted free agents Dante Cunningham and Quincy Pondexter, both of whom could give the Spurs deep bench minutes at forward, but getting a true rotation-level forward in free agency should be the club’s primary focus.
They have three picks in this year’s draft, which should help them bolster their depth quite a bit. A pair of first-round picks at Nos. 19 and 29 will give them two chances at a forward, depending on availability. There should be a slew of wings/forwards to pick from at either spot, from Rui Hachimura to Keldon Johnson to Luka Samanic to Cam Johnson. Should the Spurs be keen on a forward with either pick, they should be able to find someone they like.
They could also use a young big man to give them minutes off the bench. Grant Williams would be a hybrid big man who plays the game the way San Antonio likes to play it, with post touches and smart passing rather than pace-and-space attacks. Goga Bitadze would be absolutely perfect for them, whether they have to trade up to get him or he falls to No. 19, with his particular skillset on both ends of the floor.
Big man depth is easier to find in free agency than forward depth, which may be a reason to strike on forwards in the draft and with the majority of their free agency money. They also have a pair of centers in Aldridge and Jakob Poeltl, even though Aldridge usually starts at the 4. If the club had more forward depth on the roster, then Aldridge could slide back to the 5 and Poeltl could play off the bench.
Perhaps the Spurs’ biggest offseason acquisition will be the return of Dejounte Murray from a torn ACL that kept him out for the entire 2018-19 season. Taking into account Derrick White’s emergence and Lonnie Walker’s continued growth going into year two, the Spurs have a formidable young guard trio; they’re going to tear opposing offenses apart with a Murray-White backcourt, especially if they can find a defense-first forward to help hide DeRozan even further.
There’s precious little information leaking out of San Antonio, which is business as usual as long as Kawhi Leonard isn’t involved, so there’s a chance they’re working on a trade that will overhaul their roster in a major way and we won’t know it until it breaks. Aldridge represents an interesting trade target for a top team looking for a score-first big man, since his $24 million for 2020-21 is only $7 million guaranteed. A cash-strapped team could even plan to stretch that remaining $7 million if need be and treat his $26 million contract for 2019-20 as a functional expiring deal. Despite having half their roster full of big men a few years back, the Sacramento Kings would be an interesting destination for Aldridge, should the Spurs decide to cut bait.
The issue with an Aldridge trade is that San Antonio still wants to compete at a high level, so unless they’re getting back someone who can help them do that, they’re not going to be very receptive to offers for one of the central figures of their squad. Perhaps instead teams could inquire about the availability of one of their young guards; Bryn Forbes could help a team in need of shooting on his very cheap expiring deal, while one of Murray or White could be seen as somewhat duplicative in San Antonio’s long-term plans and be shipped to a team with a need for a defender on the perimeter. There are certainly a number of teams with playmakers at the point guard position who don’t fulfill their defensive duties particularly well and could use a player like Murray or White next to them to take the top defensive assignment each night.
Whatever the Spurs decide to do with their summer, you can bet they’re still trying to compete for a playoff run. Head coach Gregg Popovich is essentially year-to-year at the end of his coaching career and has very little time or patience for a rebuild, so any move he and the organization decide to make to change up their roster will continue to fit his contention timeline.