The Spurs Surprisingly Straightforward Free Agency Outlook

On the surface, the San Antonio Spurs appear to be a team in the midst of a chaotic transition period less than a year after their franchise player abruptly demanded a trade. But digging deeper, it becomes clear that the franchise is destined for a remarkably unremarkable offseason. Wholesale changes are unlikely to be made until next summer, at the earliest.

While it’s true that the coaching staff would undoubtedly prefer to bring back a mostly intact roster in order to foster the much-ballyhooed corporate knowledge that was lost in last offseason’s upheaval, the leading reason why this summer promises to be a quiet one can be found in the dollars and cents.

The Spurs will be busy in the 2019 NBA Draft, with two first round picks (picks 19 and 29) and a second rounder (49th overall), but free agency could very well be limited to one significant addition. In fact, with how the salaries add up, San Antonio is actually incentivized to keep the team together.

The Spurs have 11 returning players under contract, plus they’re still on the hook for approximately $5.1 million of Pau Gasol‘s contract after buying him out back in March. All told, San Antonio has a total of approximately $99 million in salaries heading into next season. The salary cap for the 2019-20 season is set to be $109 million.

The team’s only free agent of note is Rudy Gay, who is coming off of a one-year, $10 million deal. As always, the Spurs can either re-sign Gay or renounce their rights to him in order to open the most salary cap room possible.

However, here’s where things get a bit counterintuitive. In a scenario where the Spurs renounce Gay and don’t use their first round picks (either trade the picks away or select draft-and-stash prospects) to save money, the maximum amount of cap space they can open up is a shade under $9 million. 

On the other hand, if the Spurs re-sign Gay for a market value amount, they will qualify for the mid-level exception of a little bit more than $9 million. Not only is the MLE worth more than the cap space they can open up, they’d be free to proceed in the draft without concern for the salary cap implications.

Thus, the math ends up being simple: it’s better to re-sign Gay and have more money to work with in free agency than to lose Gay, lose draft flexibility and end up with less money for free agents.

What makes the decision even easier is the fact that bringing back Gay is likely a beneficial move. 

1. The 32-year-old is coming off perhaps the most efficient season of his career. He set career-highs in two-point percentage, three-point percentage and rebounding rate. His assist rate was up 50% over his first season with the Spurs, while his usage rate dropped to its lowest point since his rookie season. 

2. The Spurs were demonstratively better when Gay played well. Including the playoffs, the Spurs were only 16-18 when Gay scored ten points or less. When he scored more than ten points, the Spurs were 35-20. That’s the difference between a 34.5-win pace and a 52.2-win pace. 

3. Advanced statistics smiled upon Gay. When he was on the court during the regular season, the Spurs outscored opponents by 4.0 points per 100 possessions. When he was on the bench, the Spurs were outscored by 0.5 points per 100 possessions. RPM (real plus-minus) graded Gay as the team’s second best player on a per-minute basis and a top ten player at his position in the league, no matter if you classify him as a small forward or a power forward. 

4. Considering Gay relies mostly on size and length to score in isolation situations, he should age reasonably well. He’ll have to transition more and more to being a full-time power forward but he appears to be capable. It’s not a stretch to imagine he could navigate down the Robert Horry-like route: enter the league as a SF and extend his career as a PF.

5. He fits the DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge timeline. It’s very unlikely that he’d command an extended contract. Additionally, by all accounts he not only gets along with DeRozan and Aldridge, he serves a mentorship role for the team’s up-and-coming players. 

Unless a team falls in love with Gay and offers him a lucrative, multi-season contract, it shouldn’t be too complicated to bring him back into the fold. Would a team give him three-plus seasons at the MLE? Unlikely. Would a team with salary cap space use it on Gay? Even more unlikely.

Gay made $8.4 million in his first season with the Spurs. This year, he made $10.1 million in his second season. When free agency begins, the Spurs can offer him a one-year, $12.1 million contract. If that doesn’t get it done, the Spurs can partially guarantee a second season to match outside offers.

Preferably, the Spurs are able to get Gay back on a one-year deal to maximize their potential salary cap space next summer. However, a two-year contract is palatable, as it corresponds with what is likely to be the DeRozan and Aldridge window.

Going longer than two years on a Gay contract would be unwise. That said, if it comes down to it, the Spurs can use their Early Bird rights to sign Gay to a fully guaranteed two-year contract worth more than $36 million. That should be more than enough to match any offer he gets on the open market.

After the draft and with the inevitable re-signing of Gay, the Spurs could turn their attention to how to best use the MLE. While they are allowed to split the $9-plus million MLE, with how the roster is constructed, it’d likely be best to consolidate their spending and use it on a single player.

Sure, the roster isn’t exactly brimming with talent, but it does — due specifically to the return of Dejounte Murray and the hopeful ascension of Lonnie Walker IV — have most of the available minutes already accounted for going into next season. 

Even with those lowball estimates for each player’s minutes per game, there are only 16 more minutes available for a tenth man. Considering it’s unlikely that any of those nine players will be dropped completely from the rotation barring a notable addition, there’s already a minutes crunch — and that’s not even factoring in Walker, Marco BelinelliChimezie Metu or any of the three draft picks. 

Viewing the roster by position paints a similar picture.

Point guard and shooting guard are already stuffed to the gills. If another player is added at either one of those positions, it’d probably do more harm than good as a deserving youngster (namely Derrick White, Murray or Walker) would see a minute reduction. 

It’s now clear that DeRozan is a full-time small forward; during the playoffs, that was basically the only position he played. Considering his rebounding prowess and his deceptively poor lateral quickness on defense, SF makes the most sense for him going forward — and he’s going to eat a lot of those minutes as long as he’s around.

Adding a bigman would come with the consequence of negatively impacting minutes for either Davis BertansJakob Poeltl or Gay. 

How should the Spurs spend the mid-level exception? The most obvious answer is to use the MLE on a defensive, rangy wing to fortify the backup small forward and power forward spots. San Antonio doesn’t have a defensive small forward on their roster, nor do they have an athletic power forward who can both move out on the perimeter defensively and hold their own in the lane. But note, adding such a player for the MLE likely bumps Bertans out of the rotation — or possibly, but less likely, Poeltl (if the MLE player can also play center) or Gay (if he’s a scorer).

The other, less pressing, need is a third string center (unless Metu takes a giant step forward). However, it’d be a questionable decision to invest too much here because, barring injury, it’s virtually impossible that the player would be in the rotation during the 2019-20 season. And in today’s NBA, third string centers are a dime a dozen. 

If the front office is pleased with the current depth of the rotation, the other leading option is to use part of the MLE to bring over 2015 first round draft pick Nikola Milutinov. The 24-year-old center prospect is highly regarded … but a rotation featuring both him and Poeltl isn’t going to happen as long as Aldridge is still around, so this would be a move done with the post-Aldridge future in mind. The rest of the MLE, in this scenario, could be used to bring in a long-term prospect that may help the transition when the DeRozan and Aldridge window closes.

Compared to most Spurs summers, this one appears to be easy to predict, as there just aren’t many avenues to travel down that make a whole lot of sense. In forthcoming writeups, I’ll investigate various topics including:

-The best fits in the 2019 NBA Draft
-Specific MLE possibilities
-More on the pros and cons of opening up cap room this summer
-Player by player reviews and projections
-Estimating Milutinov’s NBA value
-How long to extend the DeRozan and Aldridge window
-The nuclear option to blow up the team next summer
-Max free agent hunting in 2021

LJ Ellis