With up to approximately $50 million in potential salary cap room, the San Antonio Spurs enter a pivotal offseason with limitless possibilities. There are so many different paths the Spurs could decide to venture down that it’s overwhelming to even contemplate what lies ahead in the coming days. Up until this point, the Spurs have been very conservative since the end of the Championship Era — but the time is now to select a path.
With the free agency period beginning on Monday afternoon, San Antonio’s short-term and long-term intentions will be much clearer 24 hours from now. While there will be many unknown until after the free agency period tips off and a lot of factors will remain out of their control, I believe that the Spurs can have a successful offseason as long as they take the following steps.
1. Embrace the Rebuild
Yes, the Spurs have made the playoffs for 22 consecutive seasons and counting (ignoring seasons that were disrupted by COVID-19, as is only fair), but all good things must come to an end. In recent offseasons, it made some sense to attempt to keep the window open by all means necessary — including the reckless gamble of trusting a Morris twin at his word.
Alas, the window is closed and the latch is engaged. The Spurs front office needs to collectively look into the mirror and say the one word that hasn’t been uttered in San Antonio for more than two decades: rebuild. It’s time.
A rebuild doesn’t have to be painful; I’m not talking about (or advocating for) a tank. That said, the front office needs to realize that the Spurs are no longer one lucky bounce (or one veteran) away.
What does embracing the rebuilding look like in real life? It’s simple, really. The only rule that needs to be followed is they can’t sign an older player to a multi-year contract (or trade for an older player on a multi-year contract). Derrick White, the elder statesman of the current core, is 27 years old, thus the front office should consider anyone older than White as too old.
The rule should also apply to San Antonio’s current free agents. Patty Mills has been a fantastic teammate and an inspirational leader, DeMar DeRozan has been extremely productive and has handled a difficult time in Spurs history with class, and Rudy Gay has done everything asked of him. Thank all three of them and the rest of the free agents (Gorgui Dieng, Trey Lyles, etc.) — just don’t hand any of them a multi-year contract offer.
2. Max Out John Collins
John Collins of the Atlanta Hawks doesn’t jump off the page as a maximum contract player. The 23-year-old has never been an All-Star and might never become an All-Star. But at 5:01 p.m. CT when free agency begins, the Spurs need to call Collins and offer the max.
The youthful power forward out of Wake Forest is coming off a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals. Collins entered the NBA as a raw big man but he’s always been statistically productive — and last year he began to prove that he can positively impact winning. Offensively, his A+ athleticism makes him an elite finisher at the rim. He has also hit 40% of his three-pointers over the last two seasons and his free throw percentage is steadily climbing, so it can be assumed with confidence that he can add much-needed shooting to the Spurs.
Moreover, Collins is a low-mistake player who appears to be making strides defensively. He can block shots and saved the best defensive stretch of his career for Atlanta’s unlikely run to the ECF.
Collins is a restricted free agent, so the Hawks will be able to match any offer the Spurs make. The only chance the Spurs have of acquiring his services is to throw a max offer at him and hope Atlanta gets cold feet. It’s a little bit of an overpay for what Collins is now but it’s also clearly a move the Spurs need to make. San Antonio has the money and there might not be any other suitors offering Collins the max, which would give the Spurs an inside track on a young, talented big that shouldn’t be ignored.
Ultimately, expect Collins to remain with the Hawks — one way or another. But let’s hope San Antonio at least makes Atlanta sweat by offering a max contract at the opening bell.
3. Lure Lauri Markkanen
I’ve gone back and forth regarding whether I want the Spurs to try to sign Lauri Markkanen. I love him and I hate him at the same time. But with free agency about to commence, I’ve settled on the idea that the Spurs should indeed try to sign him.
The case for Markkanen is simple. He’s a 24-year-old power forward with a sweet shooting stroke. He hit 40.2% of his three-pointers last season and he’s been a prolific scorer since entering the league. He’s athletic and coordinated for a seven-footer. He doesn’t turn the ball over, foul, or shoot mid-range shots. I repeat, of Markkanen’s 521 field goal attempts last season, only 24 were from mid-range. For DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge, that’s a total they could reach in a game.
The case against Markkanen is also clear. He’s not a good defender — his feet are too slow to defend forward and his toughness is too lacking to hang as a full-time center. That lack of toughness also makes him a poor rebounder and an even worse shot blocker. He’s also never been accused of being a player who enjoys the art of passing the basketball.
Despite his very real flaws, I believe that luring Markkanen is the right move. First of all, he potentially has more upside than first meets the eye once you factor in the reality that his career never took off after an outstanding rookie season. In fact, he’s actually worse now than he was as a rookie. That shouldn’t happen and maybe wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t been trapped in the three-ring circus that’s been the Chicago Bulls franchise over the last few seasons.
Second of all, not only is his fit as an efficient floor spacer on the current team seamless, Markannen’s ability to shoot the ball will help San Antonio cultivate their next star player. Without a sharpshooter in the starting lineup, the lack of spacing could hinder any development efforts.
Finally, Markannen’s flaws will be partially masked on the Spurs. Jakob Poeltl is quick enough to defend on the perimeter and a stout rim protector, so the agile Austrian is a good partner for the frigid Finn. San Antonio also has strong rebounding and rim-protecting perimeter players, so his weaknesses in those areas will be easier to live with than they would otherwise be.
I believe the Spurs should attempt to lure Markkanen with a three-year deal. Opening negotiations with a three-year, $45 million deal should get his attention. If he wants to rediscover the footing that once had him as one of the most promising young bigs in the league, Markkanen should realize San Antonio would be a pristine spot for him to land. He’d have stability, a spot in the starting lineup and no one in South Texas would complain when he shoots a perimeter shot — as long as it’s from behind the three-point line.
4. Snatch Talen Horton-Tucker
Talen Horton-Tucker? Yes, Talen Horton-Tucker. Hear me out before you dismiss the thought of signing this 6-foot-4 enigma who will be a restricted free agent of the Los Angeles Lakers.
First, he’s 20 years old. He just wrapped up his second year in the NBA after being drafted in the second round of the 2019 NBA Draft. But if we learned anything of San Antonio’s selection of Joshua Primo, it’s that the Spurs aren’t intimidated by the thought of taking on a youthful project. Just like Primo was the youngest player in the draft, Horton-Tucker is the youngest potential free agent target.
Second, even though he only averaged 20 minutes per game last season, it’s clear that Horton-Tucker is an NBA player. How good he’ll become isn’t known but he’s already useful. I believe he has shown starter-level upside. In fact, the Lakers were hesitant to deal him at the trade deadline because of his long-term potential, even though it would have aided their short-term championship aspirations.
Third, his height doesn’t tell the entire story. The Spurs don’t need another 6-foot-4 guard but it’s important to note that Horton-Tucker has a burly body and an ungodly 7-foot-1 wingspan. You can get away with playing him at any position other than center due to his length and strength.
Fourth, the chances of Horton-Tucker being a complete bust are low due to the all-around nature of his game. He has potential as a scorer, passer and defender. He stacks up well to San Antonio’s perimeter talent when comparing what he did last season on a per-100 possessions basis.
Horton-Tucker turned the ball over a lot, fouled a lot and didn’t shoot well from three-point territory, but there was also a lot to like. He’s tops in the chart in steals, second in assists and tied for second in free throws attempted. Compared to Keldon Johnson, Horton-Tucker bested him in points, assists, steals, blocks and three-point attempts. I like Johnson better as a prospect but they’re probably closer as prospects than any Spurs fan would ever admit.
Unlike Markkanen, Horton-Tucker wouldn’t be a natural fit. The fact that he’s a poor three-point shooter is less than ideal. The fact that he’s a restricted free agent means the Spurs will need to shell out more than he’s worth to get him, which is also not ideal.
How much would it cost to steal Horton-Tucker from the Lakers? He’s covered by the Gilbert Arenas Provision, which limits the contract he can sign to four years and approximately $80 million. I wouldn’t want the Spurs to go all the way up to $80 million — but I wouldn’t be upset if they went up to the $55-60 million neighborhood. As much as the Lakers like him, I’d be surprised if they matched an offer that expensive.
If the Spurs can get Horton-Tucker, they’d add a really good prospect to their stable of prospects and they’d take away perhaps the best trading chip the Lakers have. A small market team hitting the Lakers with a body blow? It wouldn’t be a cheap win-win but it’d be a win-win nonetheless.
5. Avoid Costly Mistakes
This free agent class has a lot of tempting names for a shooting-starved team that is also lacking when it comes to talented bigs. Although I can understand the temptations, I think the Spurs should pass on all of the following players.
Duncan Robinson – Tim David might be the best shooter in the league — but I don’t think he’d be worth the $15 million or more per year it’d take to sign him. He’s 27, so he’s not exceptionally young, and he’ll never be a strong defender. More importantly, the Heat relentlessly run him around screens — and that wouldn’t happen in San Antonio’s offense. Take him out of Miami’s sets and he’s not nearly as lethal.
Evan Fournier, Norman Powell and Tim Hardaway Jr. – While their shooting would be great to add to San Antonio’s mix, they’re not young (28, 28 and 29, respectively), don’t play positions of need and they’re better fits on championship contenders.
Spencer Dinwiddie and Dennis Schroder – Too old (28 and 27, respectively), too ball-dominant, too expensive and not enough upside for a rebuilding team.
Jarrett Allen – He’s one of the better young centers in the league but the Spurs can’t justify paying him $18-20 million per year with Poeltl on the roster.
Richaun Holmes – Like Allen, wouldn’t be a big enough upgrade over Poeltl to justify breaking the bank.
Kelly Oubre Jr. – He’s talented and athletic but not a good shooter, has a subpar feel for the game and no longer has potential star upside. Add in possible character red flags and Oubre’s not worth the hefty contract he’d demand.
Will Barton, Reggie Bullock and Alec Burks – Too old (30).
Josh Hart, T.J. McConnell and Alex Caruso – Too limited.
6. Weigh Sign-and-Trades
This is the step where the Spurs should consider dealing DeRozan, Mills, and/or Gay in sign-and-trade transactions. While something worthwhile may arise, the front office shouldn’t hold their breath — or hold up their offseason machinations.
From San Antonio’s perspective, they’d need to get compensated really well for a trade to be worth it. For example, DeRozan for an expiring contract and a first round draft pick might be enough. Getting an interesting young player in return might also be palatable.
That said, prioritizing a sign-and-trade just to ensure one of those three players doesn’t leave without compensation would be unwise. Without something valuable in return, the Spurs would be better off using their cap room elsewhere.
Specifically, DeRozan is a sunk cost at this point. The hands of time cannot be unwound. It’s okay to let him leave without getting anything in return.
7. Weaponize Cap Room
At this point in their offseason plan, the Spurs will know how much salary cap space they have left. Depending on what happens, the Spurs could have all $50 million or they could have nothing.
If San Antonio has cap room, they need to weaponize it before moving on to the final step. By that I mean being open to the idea of taking on contracts in return for draft capital. There will invariably be desperate teams looking to shed money in order to make their numbers work. I’d be thrilled if the Spurs could land first round picks by helping other teams maneuver under the cap or luxury tax.
Even though the pick of Primo was a head-scratcher on some levels, I still trust this front office’s ability to draft. Until it’s proven differently, I believe that the Spurs are the best drafting team in the league. With that in mind, first round picks in their hands are even more valuable than they are league-wide.
8. Survey Rental Market
After the first seven steps are complete, the Spurs should look for players willing to sign one-year contracts. This would allow San Antonio to carry forward their cap room to next summer while potentially filling areas of need.
The primary need this team has is a floor spacing big man. Collins or Markkanen would fill this need. If the Spurs miss out on both, it’s vital to find a player who can step into this role.
Kelly Olynyk is 30 years old but if he’s willing to sign a one-year contract at an inflated amount ($14 million?), he’d be a solid fit. Otto Porter Jr. is more of a wing than a big but he’d be good enough. Even dropping down to players like Georges Niang and Mike Muscala would fill the glaring need.
If DeRozan, Mills or Gay want to return to the Spurs on one-year deals, this is where that’d fit in the offseason plan. I don’t think any of the three would accept a one-year deal to return — but if DeRozan, Mills or Gay want to come back for another season and all of the other offseason steps have been explored, that’s totally fine.
To say this is an important summer for the Spurs would be an understatement. They need to get it right. It’s daunting, yes, but it’s doable.