Why the Spurs Must Reach the Salary Floor and the Best Ways to Proceed

With the NBA’s free agency period beginning on Friday at 5pm CDT, a new set of rules governing the league’s salary floor will have a notable impact on how the San Antonio Spurs conduct business this offseason. Last season, the Spurs operated well below the salary cap for the duration of the campaign. This season, that will no longer be possible.

By rule, NBA teams have to reach the salary floor, which is set at 90% of the salary cap. Previously, teams had all season to reach the floor and could carry cap space into the regular season. If a team didn’t reach the floor, the team’s players were given a bonus at the end of the season to make up the difference. 

The only team in the NBA that finished below the salary floor last season was the Spurs. San Antonio missed the floor by approximately $14 million. As a result, every player on the roster received a bonus worth up to approximately $750,000, according to a team source. 

Starting with the 2023-24 season, the salary floor rules are completely different:

-Instead of at the end of the season, teams must reach the salary floor by the first regular season game. With the latest salary cap estimation at $136 million, that would mean a cap floor of approximately $122.4 million. 

-Rather than giving bonuses to their players, teams that don’t reach the floor have to write a check to the NBA to make up the difference. The amount of that check will count against the salary cap. If the cap is $136 million and the floor is at $122.4 million, that means no team could enter the season with more than $13.6 million in salary cap space. 

-As further punishment, teams under the salary floor after the first game of the regular season won’t be allowed to complete any transaction that results in a reduction of salary. Additionally, teams under the cap floor won’t get a full share of the distribution from the taxpaying teams. Last season, that distribution was worth approximately $10.5 million. For the 2023-24 season, teams under the cap floor will forfeit half of the distribution. In following seasons, the entire distribution will be forfeited. 

Current Spurs Salary Cap Situation

The Spurs have ten players under contract next season.

Keldon Johnson – $20,000,000
Doug McDermott – $13,750,000
Devonte’ Graham – $12,100,000
Zach Collins – $7,700,000
Khem Birch – $6,985,000
Devin Vassell – $5,887,899
Jeremy Sochan – $5,316,960
Malaki Branham – $3,071,880
Blake Wesley – $2,504,640
Charles Bassey – $2,500,000

San Antonio also still owes Joshua Primo $4,341,600 for the upcoming season.

In total, the Spurs owe the above 11 players a total of $84,157,979. Once Victor Wembanyama signs, which will happen in a matter of days, he will make $12,158,760 for the coming season. That will increase San Antonio’s total salary on the books to $96,316,739.

After Wembanyama’s signing, with the salary floor expected to be $122,400,000, the Spurs will still need to add approximately $26,100,000 in salary to reach the floor. 

Re-signing Tre Jones will likely add somewhere between $9 million and $12 million. After that, more salary will be added when the Spurs re-sign some of their other free agents such as Keita Bates-Diop and Sandro Mamukelashvili.

In a scenario where Jones, Bates-Diop and Mamukelashvili all re-sign, the Spurs will still likely need to add somewhere in the neighborhood of $10 million in order to reach the salary floor.

However, if Jones decides to play on his $5.2 million qualifying offer to become an unrestricted free agent next summer and Bates-Diop signs elsewhere, the Spurs would need to add nearly $20 million to the books. If Jones and Bates-Diop depart in free agency, that number would be even higher.

All told, one way or another, it appears likely that the Spurs will need to add somewhere between $10 million and $22 million to the books in order to safely reach the salary floor.

Could the Spurs Ignore these New Salary Floor Rules?

Considering that the Spurs were the only team under the salary floor by the end of last season, the franchise has to feel at least somewhat targeted by these new rules. However, winning the Victor Wembanyama lottery surely eases any discomfort they may have felt when learning of the updated regulations. 

Could the Spurs stubbornly refuse to change their gameplan to hoard cap space in the face of these new rules? No, unfortunately, that wouldn’t make any sense. There’s no sticking it to the man in this situation. Even if San Antonio’s ownership group tells the front office to limit spending in order to maximize profits, ignoring the new rules doesn’t save any money. In fact, the franchise would lose money due to missing out on half of the distribution from taxpaying teams.

Add in the fact that the Spurs would face stricter rules when making trades during the season and there’s simply no justification to enter the regular season below the salary cap floor. San Antonio would lose the excess cap space, lose half of the distribution and face ongoing penalties. Thus, it is extremely safe to say the Spurs will enter the season at or above the floor.

San Antonio’s Options to Reach the Salary Floor

1) Go Big-Game Hunting in Free Agency

Adding the salaries of San Antonio’s ten current players, the dead money owed to Primo, the rookie contract for Wembanyama and the qualifying offer for Jones, the Spurs would still be approximately $34 million below the salary cap. With that amount of money to lure players to South Texas, the Spurs could decide to go after one of the big free agents on the market.

Signing a Fred VanVleet, Cam Johnson or Brook Lopez to a big money contract would add enough salary to the books that the Spurs wouldn’t have to count pennies to make sure they reach the floor.

2) Thread the Needle

If the Spurs want to continue to maximize cap space going forward, they could try to land exactly on the cap floor. To do that, they’d need to quickly finalize contracts with their own free agents (namely Jones and Bates-Diop). Once that’s done, they’d have to throw a sizable one-year contract at a free agent to reach the salary floor.

In this scenario, the Spurs reach the floor but do minimal damage to their long-term salary cap outlook. In fact, they could easily open up more than $50 million in salary cap space next summer as long as they don’t add any big contracts to the books this offseason. 

3) Guesstimate What’s Needed

Considering that the mid-level exception is worth about $12 million this season, the Spurs could simply go ahead and begin the free agency period offering a one-year, $15 million contract to players that they deem worthy. At that figure, teams that don’t have salary cap space could find it difficult to compete. Also, adding a $15 million contract should be enough to reach the cap floor once Jones, Bates-Diop and Mamukelashvili are brought back into the fold.

The Spurs could even bump it up to $20 million if there is uncertainty regarding the futures of Jones and Bates-Diop.

4) Trade for a Sizable Contract

To reach the salary floor, the Spurs don’t have to rely on signing a free agent. An even more straightforward way to reach the salary floor would be to trade for a contract that another team no longer values. For the cost of a second round pick or two, San Antonio could go out and get a useful player.

We saw a recent example of this exact option when the Utah Jazz traded a second round pick to the Atlanta Hawks for John Collins. By completing this trade, the Hawks unloaded a contract they no longer wanted and the Jazz added a starter whose salary allows them to get closer to the floor.

5) Rent … with a Safety Net

Over the last couple seasons, the Spurs have essentially rented out their salary cap in exchange for draft picks. Can the Spurs keep salary cap space open throughout the summer with hopes of a desperate team coming along at some point?

It’s certainly possible — but the Spurs would need some sort of safety net that would allow San Antonio to reach the salary floor before the start of the regular season. One possibility is to simply rely on the fact that there are always NBA teams looking to shed unwanted contracts.

Another even safer way for the Spurs to do it would be to have one of their free agents wait until late in the summer to finalize their deal. For example, the Spurs could tell Bates-Diop that if he’s willing to wait to sign, he can have whatever unused money the Spurs are left with below the salary floor. If Bates-Diop ends up getting, say, $10 million for waiting and the Spurs avoid getting punished for not reaching the salary floor, no tears would be shed by either party. 

Which Road Will the Spurs Most Likely Take?

The word I continue to hear is that the Spurs want to see how their current roster meshes with Wembanyama. Avoiding “big, costly mistakes” is, I’m told, the primary objective this summer. 

Of the five options mentioned above, I think the third option is the most likely. That looks like the best way to add a player they want without negatively impacting the team’s future. The second option is similar but the Spurs could miss out on free agent targets while trying to finalize contracts with their own free agents. 

That said, none of the five options would surprise me. The first option is the least likely — but even that one has to be at least somewhat tempting to the front office. Adding Wembanyama and a big-time free agent could catapult the team back into the playoff picture as soon as next season.