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What DeMar DeRozan exploring free agency could mean for the Spurs

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DeRozan wants to explore his options, but that doesn’t mean there’s no chance he returns to San Antonio.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

DeMar DeRozan will explore his options in free agency, reports The Athletic’s Sam Amick and John Hollinger.

The news isn’t shocking, but considering the veteran wing is in the middle of a fantastic statistical year as the leader a playoff contender and will be one of the biggest names in next off-season's free agent class, it’s big news.

DeRozan entering free agent was inevitable after negotiations on an extension with the Spurs died out, but we are getting closer and closer to the moment in which both the franchise and its star player will have to make a big decision. So let’s look at what DeRozan entering free agency — while not committed to returning — would entail.

The Spurs could still keep DeRozan

The first thing to remember is that unless or until DeRozan actually rules out a return, the Spurs will have a decent chance of keeping him. There are two reasons for it: 1 - they can pay him more than anyone else, and 2 - there likely won’t be a lot of good destinations available for DeRozan in free agency.

Since the Spurs have full Bird rights to DeRozan, they can offer him a max salary starting at 35 percent of the cap, with eight percent yearly raises on a contract up to five years long. Other franchises can also offer DeRozan 35 percent of the cap, but only for up to four years and with five percent yearly raises. The difference might seem negligible, but in practice it means San Antonio can offer DeRozan up to around $230 million over five years while other teams can only offer up to around $170 million over four years. On shorter contracts the difference between what DeRozan could get elsewhere as opposed to in San Antonio decreases, but it’s still a few million. Since it might be the last big contract the 32-year-old could sign, that margin could be meaningful.

Maybe money is not a big factor for DeRozan or maybe the Spurs don’t want to break the bank on him, but that still doesn’t mean DeRozan is out for sure, because he’d have to find a good landing spot, which could prove challenging. There are only a handful of teams that are projected to have at least $30 million in cap room to offer DeRozan, and none of them are contenders. Things could change by the time free agency finally rolls around, but right now it seems that in order to join a team that is clearly better than the Spurs, DeRozan would have to sign for a discount. Maybe DeRozan will be willing to do that or maybe he’ll take a big salary on a bigger market like New York, but there really aren’t a lot of attractive options for him.

DeRozan seemingly being open to leaving the Spurs means there’s a good chance he’s not on the roster next season, but it doesn’t mean he should be considered as good as gone. There’s still a chance he stays in San Antonio. Hopefully he decides early on in free agency what he wants to do, though, because...

A drawn out negotiation with DeRozan could limit the Spurs’ options in free agency

It makes a lot of sense for DeRozan to want to explore the market, but the Spurs will likely need a prompt answer once free agency begins, or ideally even before that, in order to use their cap space to make moves.

There are three main ways the Spurs can use their cap room. The first involves re-signing DeRozan and potentially adding another big piece. If they let all the other veteran free agents go, the Spurs could sign DeRozan to a big contract and still have money left over to make a mid-sized addition worth around $10-12 million. They could also bring back DeRozan and some of the other veterans to operate as an over the cap team and have the mid-level exception available. Basically, if they want DeRozan and he commits early, they can work on improving the team with veterans.

If DeRozan leaves, the Spurs can simply let every other veteran leave and use their close to $50 million in cap space to add free agents. There’s not a lot of star power in this class, but there are some intriguing names available, especially in restricted free agency. The Spurs would probably need to act fast to have a chance with someone like John Collins or Jarrett Allen, so knowing if they’ll have money to throw at them early in the process will be invaluable. Knowing early would also allow them to have several opportunities to make an addition, as they could strike out on one target but quickly move on to the next. A few days could be the difference between actually having a shot at prying away a desired target or watching them slip through their fingers.

The third way of using the cap space would be to rent it out to teams looking to clear cap room to pursue free agents, which, strangely enough, might actually include DeRozan. To use a random example, maybe the Hawks decide they want to be big players in free agency again and need a team to take on Danilo Gallinari’s $20 million deal and are willing to part with a draft pick or one of their young players to make it happen. Or the Thunder decide they want Al Horford gone and are willing to offer some of their excess first rounders to make it happen. The Spurs could swoop in and take either of those deals in which they essentially use their cap flexibility to add assets by taking on unwanted salary.

With or without DeRozan coming back, the Spurs will have a lot of work to do this offseason, in which they’ll finally get to use the cap room they have so carefully carved out. The more certainty they have early on in the process about how much of it they’ll have available, the better, so no matter what DeRozan’s decision ends up being, let’s hope he makes it as soon as possible.