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The solution to the Spurs’ small forward problem might be right in front of them

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The Spurs have several options at SF this summer, including an existing one.

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The 2018-19 Spurs were perhaps the most makeshift roster the NBA’s Golden Standard has sported in quite some time, maybe even for the entirety of the Gregg Popovich era, and a lot of that was due to their lack of a true small forward. With perhaps their best-ever at the position forcing a trade and taking the next-best option the Spurs had with him (Danny Green), combined with the departure of a few other capable fill-ins like Kyle Anderson and Manu Ginobili, that left the Spurs with an abundance of guards and bigs but little in between.

With 11 roster sports currently filled (not including Rudy Gay, whom they plan on convincing to stay) and little more than the mid-level exception to work with, it’s hard to imagine the Spurs adding a true game-changer at the position, but there are still options.

Draft

The Spurs currently possess three 2019 draft picks: 19th, 29th (via Toronto), and 49th. It’s not hard to imagine that 29th pick going towards a draft-and-stash prospect (or possibly being traded) since first round picks are required to sign a guaranteed contract with the team that picks them if they aren’t already under contract elsewhere, and adding two rookies would give the Spurs even less wiggle room with the roster than they already have.

Still, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t swing for the fences if the right player(s) fall into their laps. R.J. Barrett and DeAndre Hunter should be gone by the time the Spurs pick, but players like Nassir Little and KZ Okpala — who have wide-ranging projections in mock drafts — could be steals if available at 19th, and there are several other promising wings like Sekou Doumbouya, Cam Johnson, and Matisse Thybulle expected to go in the first round who could maybe even be snatched at 29th (which would be symbolic considering the Spurs’ history at that spot).

Even if the Spurs do draft a small forward this summer, like all rookies he will have to prove to Pop that he’s NBA-ready and work even harder become a starter. That doesn’t seem likely unless they trade up for someone like Barrett (which is another possibility but less likely since the Spurs are lacking in trade prospects), and steals like Kawhi Leonard don’t come around every year no matter how stellar the Spurs’ reputation at finding them is, but there are other possibilities if the draft doesn’t produce right away.

Free Agency

Again, the Spurs are working with little more than the mid-level exception this summer: projected to be worth about $9.2 million this year. In looking at the top available SF’s, the Spurs could work with that. As previously mentioned, they plan on retaining Gay, and they can do that with his Bird Rights while keeping the mid-level and bi-annual exceptions open. Anyone above him on that list can be considered out of range without a big trade, and we’re approaching this under the assumption that the Spurs aren’t making any drastic changes this summer (unless the right offer comes along).

Beyond that, there are still some good options available. The MLE would be a pay drop for Trevor Ariza, who earned $15 million this season, but at age 33 pay drops start becoming expected, and he might take that discount if it means returning to a playoff team. He would be a great get for the Spurs if they’re looking for a veteran presence with playoff and championship experience. Other veteran possibilities include Thabo Sefolosha and Wilson Chandler.

If they want to get younger and more athletic, Kelly Oubre Jr. is another possibility. He’s a restricted free agent with the Suns coming off the fourth year of his rookie contract. They have some decisions to make in deciding how high they’re willing to go to keep him, but it might be more than the Spurs can offer. Even so, he is not a good three-point shooter and would have to work on some attitude issues to play for Pop, so that’s something to think about.

Stand pat

Suppose none of the above options work out, or the Spurs’ do draft or sign a playable SF; depending on who it is he’d have some big names to unseat from the starting line-up. Dejounte Murray will be back and resume the spot he earned before his injury (presumably in place of Bryn Forbes). DeMar DeRozan is not coming off the bench, and with the trust he built this season Derrick White will likely at least begin the season as a starter unless someone unseats him (quite possible if they get a player like Ariza) or Pop sees the need to make him a glorified sixth man.

Assuming that trio does start, the Spurs will have to get creative, but the solution may still be right in front of them. At 6’7” DeRozan was forced to be the starting small forward this season while playing alongside Forbes and White, but he would still revert to point guard-by-default on offense because he was their best distributor and play-maker, leading the team with a career-high 6.2 assists. However, on defense the result was him often being outmatched not just due to his own shortcomings on that end, but also from being out-sized at the position.

This is where Murray and his 7-foot wingspan comes in. He showed an ability to guard up to the 3 spot during his All-NBA Defense performance in 2017-18. Him replacing Forbes in the line-up will make them better on defense than last season’s 20th ranked squad simply by default, but it will also allow the Spurs to hide DeRozan on the opponent’s weakest shooter while allowing Murray and White to do the dirty work, which would also allow DeRozan to save more energy for offense.

There’s still questions regarding that trio’s ability to space the floor on offense, but if two of them improve as three-point shooters it will go a long way towards preventing a return of the 2017-18 Spurs starters (elite on defense but couldn’t score to save their lives). White has shown he has the touch from outside, and hopefully a year of real experience under his belt will improve his confidence in letting the ball fly without hesitation, which is when he thrives.

Also, Pop pretty pointedly hinted during his end of season presser that he wants DeRozan to add the three back into his arsenal next season, so expect him to work on that. Murray has also been working on adding an outside shot to his game since last summer, but we never got a chance to see if it came to fruition this season. If it does, that will add an entirely new dimension to the Spurs offense and allow more proven facilitators in White and DeRozan to create the offense. Even if Murray can simply be reliable from the corner it will do wonders for their spacing.

There’s also that whole other option of retaining Gay and starting him at SF, meaning Jakob Poeltl starts at center, but even then Pop will want options for when the match-up requires small ball, which slides Gay over to PF. Also, although he likely won’t be starting this season, Lonnie Walker IV possesses similar physical traits to Murray with higher upside, so despite being 6’5” maybe he’s their future at the position.

Regardless, SF was and remains the Spurs’ most glaring hole on the roster. Even if the Spurs sport a similar roster to next season, they would probably prefer to start building that position for the future instead of forcing their larger guards to improvise. Time will tell what they do to address it either now or in the future, but even if nothing happens right away, they still may have at least a temporary solution right in front of them.