Beginning on Sunday, the San Antonio Spurs can talk to free agents and try to lure a big fish to South Texas. If things go to plan, the Spurs will be armed with a mid-level exception deal that can be maxed out at approximately $39 million over four years. Who will San Antonio target in free agency? Honestly, it’s difficult to say.
With the MLE to offer, the Spurs won’t have enough money to sign a player who easily fits into their puzzle — like, say, Bojan Bogdanovic. To open up enough salary cap space to sign a player like Bogdanovic, the Spurs would have to trade DeMar DeRozan or salary dump multiple players (with Marco Belinelli and Davis Bertans the two likeliest to be dumped in such a scenario).
However, speculation has cooled recently regarding possible roster rejiggering. Thus, unless something changes on that front, the Spurs will need to make do with the MLE and select one of these imperfect unrestricted free agent targets.
Possible Spurs Free Agent Targets Using The MLE
While Thaddeus Young isn’t the most exciting possibility, he checks a lot of boxes. The 31-year-old was a captain and locker room leader for the Indiana Pacers, and was nominated for the NBA’s teammate of the year award. Safe to say, the character-conscious Spurs will smile upon his intangibles.
On the court, Young is a 6-foot-8, 221-pound power forward. For today’s NBA, he has good enough size for the position and his skills are varied enough to allow him to thrive. Defensively, he’s stout. He’s strong enough to hold up against the burly power forwards, yet mobile enough to stay on the court against small ball lineups. Though he doesn’t block many shots, he racks up a lot of steals for a forward.
Offensively, Young scores at a healthy clip (20.1 points per 100 possessions), set a career-high in assist rate last season (4.0 per 100 possessions), has the ability to hit three-pointers and doesn’t turn the ball over much.
There are a couple areas that temper the excitement about Young. Firstly, while he has three-point range, he’s a low volume shooter with only mediocre accuracy. Over his last three seasons with the Pacers, he hit 34.6% of his threes on 3.0 attempts per 100 possessions. Those numbers don’t stand out enough to qualify him as a modern day stretch four. Secondly, he’s not a good defensive rebounder (6.5 per 100 possessions). To put that in perspective, that’s 11% fewer than Bertans, a notoriously pathetic defensive rebounder.
On the other hand, advanced stats love Young. For his career, his teams have almost always been better with him on the court; his career on/off is +5.2 points per 100 possessions. Real plus-minus (RPM) graded him as the 10th best power forward in the NBA last season. Only five power forwards averaged as many minutes as Young (30.7) and had a higher RPM: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, Pascal Siakam, Draymond Green and Blake Griffin.
Another similarly sized power forward option is Al-Farouq Aminu, who has spent the last four years in the starting lineup for the Portland Trail Blazers. The 6-foot-9, 220-pounder is a worldly fellow, a glue guy in the locker room and someone who avoids the media spotlight, so his intangibles check out.
Like Young, Aminu defends really well — both inside and outside. However, as you can see in the stats, there are a handful of notable differences between these two players:
Aminu is basically a fifth option type. He doesn’t shoot or score at a high level, and doesn’t create plays for others. However, he’s a very strong defensive rebounder and limits his mistakes. Compared to Young, he’s much more of a three-point threat — although still not the volume that would classify a player as a floor spacer in today’s league.
Advanced stats are also a positive on Aminu’s side. The Blazers were 10.0 points better per 100 possessions with him on the court last season. He finished 13th in RPM at power forward and graded out as a positive influence on both ends of the court.
The 28-year-old is a couple years younger than Young and is solid across the board. Young has the higher offensive upside (both scoring-wise and passing-wise) but Aminu wouldn’t come with the blatant weakness on the defensive boards and is a better three-point shooter.
A third player in the same vein as Young and Aminu is 29-year-old JaMychal Green. The 6-foot-9, 227-pounder is a little bit bulkier and is more able to play small ball center. He split last season between the Memphis Grizzlies and the Los Angeles Clippers.
On paper, there is a lot to like about Green:
Of the three, he’s the best scorer, rebounder, shot-blocker and three-point shooter. Since breaking into the league with the Spurs back in 2014, Green has gone on to solidify himself as a productive NBA player. As the league as gotten smaller, quicker and more perimeter oriented, Green has become more valuable.
That said, there are a few reasons why I hesitate to put Green on the same tier as Young and Aminu. First of all, he’s not much of defender. Green doesn’t have good instincts, fouls a lot and isn’t very mobile for a modern power forward. He also struggles to fit into team concepts on the offensive end.
Green’s issues are magnified when you look at advanced stats. The Grizzlies slightly outscored opponents when Green was off the court. When he was on the court, they got slaughtered to the tune of 11.5 points per 100 possessions. That negative on/off split has been a theme throughout Green’s career and held true after he was traded to the Clippers.
His RPM is also in the toilet. Green ranked 90th out of 94 power forward and was equally as bad on offense and defense.
Can the Spurs overlook his advanced stats and trust that he’ll be a better fit in their system? It’s possible; I wouldn’t necessarily be against signing him. He’s talented and still seems to be getting better. One source of optimism: Green was really good in the playoffs against the Golden State Warriors. In that series, he averaged 21.8 points per 100 possessions and 10.6 rebounds, while hitting 12-of-23 three-pointers.
It appears as if Frank Kaminsky’s career on the Charlotte Hornets has come to an end after four years. The former 9th overall pick was allowed to become an unrestricted free agent and he’ll hit the market without much fanfare.
However, I think the 26-year-old is intriguing enough for the Spurs to consider signing. A seven-footer who weighs 242 pounds, Kaminsky is the size of a center but he has enough perimeter skill to play power forward. Statistically, he compares favorable to the above players:
While he wasn’t allowed to play much last season for the Hornets (he was stuck behind a plethora of other bigs), he produced when he hit the court. He scored at an extremely high rate, aided by impressive rates of free throws and three-pointers. He also rebounded well enough and flashed some passing ability.
As for his fit on the Spurs, there’s a lot to like — beginning with his three-point shooting. Unlike the previously discussed trio, Kaminsky classifies as a true stretch big. His passing would also be a fit in the system.
The worry with Kaminsky is his defense. His lack of mobility would require his long-term position to be center, even though he has the skills to be a power forward on offense. As a center, he’s a really poor shot-blocker and lacks strength as a post defender. That said, his on/off splits and RPM both show him as being a positive defensively (and overall) last season for the Hornets.
All in all, Kaminsky would be a gamble but his upside — if he survives defensively and thrives offensively — is worth pondering.
If the Spurs want to go for the player with the most realized talent who might be available for the MLE, Marcus Morris would likely be the target. Unlike the aforementioned players, Morris comes with a reputation of being a hothead who has had a few character concerns over the years. But, again, his basketball playing ability is quite impressive, as anyone who has watched the Boston Celtics in recent years can attest.
The easiest way to explain Morris is he’s Rudy Gay with more mobility, more defensive versatility and a quicker release on his threes. Morris is legitimately capable of defending both forward spots. On the flip side, he’s not as strong as Gay on the boards and isn’t as good of a passer.
Is Morris worth adding if Gay is brought back? Probably. He’s three years younger, versatile enough to play a wide variety of roles and his modern game and skill-set would mesh well with the rest of the group.
Another path the Spurs may opt to travel is upgrading their three-point shooting after finishing last in attempts during the 2018-19 campaign. If that’s their goal, there’s no better option with the MLE than Terrence Ross. The 28-year-old has spent the last three seasons with Orlando Magic and has developed into one of the deadliest three-point bombers in the league.
Think of him as a supercharged Marco Belinelli:
Ross at 6-foot-7 and 206 pounds is bigger and longer than Belinelli, so he’s able to get his shot off even easier. Defensively, Ross is sub par but he’s much, much closer to league average than Belinelli. His size mixed with his elite jumping ability allows him to play small forward and even small ball power forward in a pinch.
Though not an amazing fit on San Antonio’s currently constructed roster — mostly because it’d be difficult to find a starting spot for him — Ross is definitely an option to target with the MLE. His shooting alone would make life a lot easier for his teammates.
If the Spurs want to go the veteran route, Trevor Ariza makes a lot of sense. At 6-foot-8 and 215 pounds, he’s a natural small forward who can also play at power forward in certain match-ups. He’s a long, smart, competitive defender who plays a winning brand of basketball on that end.
Offensively, he’s mostly a three-point shooter these days. Last season, which was split between the Phoenix Suns and the Washington Wizards, Ariza shot 33.4% on 8.8 attempts per 100 possessions. He’s a 35.1% three-point shooter for his career, so he’s not a marksman but he’s also not a liability. In addition to his shooting, he’s an underrated playmaker who limits his mistakes.
As the 34-year-old ages, I could imagine him morphing more into a Robert Horry or Boris Diaw type player. The stats are similar when you compare Ariza’s campaign last year to 2014 Diaw and 2005 Horry:
Ariza is the biggest threat from distance of the three but he doesn’t have the classic big man skills of those two, namely blocking shots and rebounding.
Fitting Ariza into the starting lineup wouldn’t be easy. If DeRozan is moved to shooting guard and Ariza starts at small forward, that combination might not be quick enough. If DeRozan starts at small forward and Ariza starts at power forward, that combination might not be strong enough.
However, in terms of simply adding a piece to the mix who can help win games and complement others, Ariza is a veteran option that stands out.
Which Of The Free Agent Targets Will The Spurs Go With?
Young and Aminu stand out in terms of attainability, value, and on-court and off-court fit. Either one could come in and easily slide into a starting gig.
Green and Kaminsky offer higher risk, higher reward options. Both could thrive in San Antonio but, just as easily, both could eventually be relegated to the end of the bench.
Morris and Ross are long shots. It’s questionable whether the MLE is enough to land either one. Even if it is, will the Spurs look past Morris’ character questions? Is Ross enough of a need?
Ariza wouldn’t move the needle a whole lot due to his age and the iffy fit but he’s the type of veteran the Spurs have historically targeted in free agency.
Check out the restricted free agent bigs and the restricted free agent wings that the Spurs may be interested in. Let us know in the comments below which player you believe the Spurs should target this offseason or join the discussion on the forum.