With the 2020 NBA season finally over a mere ten days before the 2020-21 season was originally set to begin the pandemic struck, the focus can finally shift to the draft and free agency. There’s a lot of uncertainty about essential data right now, like what the salary cap will actually be, but for fans of teams like the Spurs, who have important decisions ahead, there are pressing questions that need answers.
As we wait for the concrete information, we can still deal in estimates that at least provide a guide to how this offseason could go. With that in mind, here are the three biggest questions about free agency regarding the Spurs and their likely answers.
Could the Spurs have cap space if DeMar DeRozan opts out?
In short, yes. How much cap room would be determined by their willingness to make other moves and where the actual cap is set.
It’s unlikely the cap will drastically drop, according to NBPA Executive Director Michelle Roberts, which makes sense. Neither players nor owners should want the landscape to change too dramatically. That being said, it’s unlikely that the cap rises to the $125 million it was predicted to be set at before the pandemic. As an estimate, let’s use the latest projection available, which sets the cap at the same place as this season, at $109 million.
If DeRozan signs elsewhere, the Spurs could carve out around $18.5 million in cap space, but they would have to make some tough decisions to get there. First, they would have to trade their first round pick for a future one, then renounce Bird Rights to Marco Belinelli and Bryn Forbes, then waive Trey Lyles and Chimezie Metu, and finally let Jakob Poeltl walk. In doing so, they would be losing five rotation players from last season. When it comes to the guards, they have depth to make up for it, but losing the big men would make them severely shorthanded, since they would essentially be down to Rudy Gay, LaMarcus Aldridge and Luka Samanic. They could potentially get Drew Eubanks back for cheap and maybe draft someone who plays either power forward or center with their second rounder, but unless they actually use the cap space on a big, they would be extremely thin down low.
There is some potential for the Spurs to get significant cap space if DeRozan walks, but there are too many factors involved to consider it likely, and there could be some downside.
Can the Spurs keep Poeltl and add someone while avoiding the luxury tax?
With all the uncertainty surrounding this offseason, it’s probable that DeRozan will stay. If that’s the case, the Spurs will act as an above the cap team that can only use exceptions to make additions. The concern would then be to remain under the luxury tax limit.
Assuming DeRozan is back in the fold but Metu, Belinelli and Forbes leave, the Spurs would have $116,712,009 in committed salary, plus an $11,264,658 cap hold on Poeltl. Predicting the market for Poelt is hard, but considering veterans like DeAndre Jordan and Taj Gibson got $10 million a year, it’s reasonable to assume that as a younger version of those players, he will be looking for an eight-figure contract. Let’s say he takes $10 million per year to return to San Antonio, which is less than what Dewayne Dedmon got last offseason and around what Dwight Powell signed for. That would put the Spurs at just over $126 million in committed salary for 11 players. To that number we have to add the salary of the 11th pick, worth $3.5 million, bringing the number at around $130 million.
The luxury tax this season was set at around $132 million, which would mean the Spurs would be very close to it. They would still have cap exceptions but they won’t be able to use them without fully committing to paying tax for a team that won’t contend, which seems extremely unlikely. In fact, if Poelt costs that much, they will probably have to waive Lyles to save some money, since Lyles only has $1 million guaranteed on his $5.5 million deal, or make another cost cutting move.
It will all depend on how much Poelt gets paid and where the tax line gets set, but if DeRozan stays and the Spurs re-sign Poeltl, it’s unlikely they will be able to make any significant addition via free agency and could actually be forced to lose Lyles to avoid the tax.
Will the Spurs have cap space to make a splash after next season?
Beyond this season, the Spurs currently only have one sizable contract on the books: Dejounte Murray’s. Other than Murray’s $15 million, at this point they only have players on rookie deals with contracts extending past 2021. With the exception of the DeMarre Carroll debacle (Carroll will be on the books until 2022), San Antonio has done a good job of keeping its cap sheet clean.
Now it’s the time for long term decisions. As mentioned, Poeltl is entering free agency and will probably be re-signed. Derrick White is eligible for an extension, and it might benefit the Spurs to sign him to one, just like they did with Murray, before he potentially ups his value on a bigger role next season. Then there’s the question about DeRozan. He could decide to opt out and re-sign for less money but more years, which could be enticing for the Spurs despite their youth movement. Even if he just plays out this year along with all the veterans, the cap holds for DeRozan, Aldridge, Gay and Patty Mills would be massive, which will mean in theory, the Spurs won’t have cap space until after next season unless they renounce the rights to all of them.
The Spurs could easily have at least one max salary slot during the 2021 free agency, but it would require them to not make trades that add too much long term salary and to essentially go all in on their youth movement by letting all their veterans go after next season. Whether they will be willing to do that remains to be seen.
**All salary information courtesy of Basketball Insiders.
Correction: This article originally stated that the luxury tax line for this year was set at $124 million when it actually was set at $132 million.