It feels too early to be in offseason mode, but the NBA waits for no one. As the playoffs continue, players on teams that have already been eliminated have started to opt in and out of their contract options.
The Spurs have three players in control of their own contract status: Danny Green, Rudy Gay and Joffrey Lauvergne. While Joffrey’s decision won’t have a big impact on San Antonio’s offseason plans, whether Green and Gay stay under contract matters. If they opt in, the Spurs will get to keep a couple of important role players at a good value. The trade-off, however, is that having both back in the fold will mean carrying a very similar roster into next year, since it would be extremely hard for the front office to carve out cap room to target high profile free agents if both return.
We might not have news on this front for a while, as Green has until June 27th to decide and Gay until June 29th. But just in case they follow other guy’s leads and make up their mind earlier, let’s take a look at the factors that might make them think twice before opting out and what the Spurs’ chances of retaining them are if they do.
It’s a bad time to be a free agent
Most years, both Green and Gay would be locks to opt out, but 2018 is not like most years. The league is feeling the effects of the great spending spree of 2016, when a huge cap spike brought along by a new television deal that year left teams with money to spend and no idea of what a good contract looked like in such a new economic climate. The result was an abundance of bad, long-term deals that are still on the books. That means fewer teams have cap space this summer and a lot of front offices will be looking to shed salary to avoid the luxury tax instead of add to their payroll.
Which means that this is a bad offseason in which to be a free agent. Green and Gay surely know that. Most good teams have no money to spend. Some have the mid-level exception at their disposal, which is less than Danny would make if he opts in and essentially the same Rudy would make. Bad teams do have some cap space but they will likely rent it out for assets. Even if some try to upgrade their roster, they won’t likely be interested in aging role players. That just leaves the 76ers and maybe the Lakers (if they first land a star) as the two potential playoff teams with enough cap space to make either a sizable offer. Few options out there seem better than just staying another season in San Antonio.
The way the market is shaping up should give both Green and Gay pause before opting out. There’s no guarantee that next summer will be more player-friendly, but some 2016 contracts will have expired and some might be easier to move. Waiting one more year before hitting free agency could be attractive for either player.
Opting out means something different for Gay than for Green
Players don’t necessarily opt out hoping to change teams. Sometimes, they simply want to get a longer or better deal with their current team. It’s actually a common practice around the league among players who have outplayed their existing deal. Most front offices would prefer to keep them on a relatively cheap, expiring contract, but it’s not rare for them to simply bring them back if the new terms make sense.
That seems like a real possibility for Green. He could opt out to explore the market while also negotiating with the Spurs. As long as they don’t renounce their Bird rights to him, they can go over the cap to re-sign him to a contract up to the max. Green is not coming off a particular good year, but he’s a reasonably durable two-way wing who shouldn’t decline athletically too severely in the next few years. The front office might decide that paying him in the low eight figures — somewhere between Courtney Lee and Joe Ingles money — is worth it, especially if the plan is to reload and try to contend. Or he might decide it’s worth it to re-sign long term while giving up some money in order to remain with a team he’s expressed love for several times.
Green might opt out and return. But if Rudy Gay opts out, he likely gone because Gay’s situation is quite different. The Spurs don’t have Bird rights to him, which means they could only re-sign him using cap space or an exception. The most he could make in San Antonio in the first year of a new deal would be 120 percent of this past season’s contract, which comes around to $10 million. That’s not a lot more money than the $8.8 million he would make on his current deal or on a mid-level exception salary elsewhere. Also, unlike Green, Gay doesn’t have a history with the Spurs that could warrant a desire to spend the rest of his prime in San Antonio, locked up into a single contract that could quickly fall below market value when money frees up in a year or two.
Both players might wait to hear from Leonard before making a decision
Rudy Gay joined the Spurs because he wanted to escape dysfunction, make the playoffs and make a deep run. He made the postseason after a surprisingly turbulent year in San Antonio, but couldn’t get past the first round. If Leonard doesn’t commit to San Antonio, there’s very little motivation for Rudy to stay when he could make the same money on a team with better prospects.
As mentioned, Green can opt out without limiting his options as badly as Gay. Yet doing so if Leonard is not set to continue as a Spur would be risky. If the Spurs have to rebuild, they might decide against signing a long-term contract with a 30-year-old who has very little untapped potential left. Green might be forced to look for another team in that situation. If Leonard commits to the Spurs, they might not be able to afford losing a key role player as they attempt to make a run at the title next season.
Just like everything else, whether Gay and Green exercise their player options could be tied to how the situation with Leonard plays out. That’s just one more reason to hope for some clarity on The Kawhi Issue as soon as possible.