The San Antonio Spurs season ended in round 1 of the Playin Tournament at the hands of the Memphis Grizzlies, and they are now heading into one of their most important offseasons in franchise history. They have continued to stick to the strategy of trying to make the playoffs while building from within, which in some ways has worked and in others — one particularly obvious — it has not.
Having missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time franchise history, and with a good chunk their veteran rotation hitting free agency, the Spurs will have plenty of issues to address this offseason, beginning with the five below — from who to keep (or not) in free agency, to filling out certain positions.
DeMar DeRozan — should he stay or should he go?
The instant DeMar DeRozan decided not to sign a contract extension last offseason, this was always going to be the biggest question heading into this summer. While he helped lead the Spurs to their NBA record 22nd-straight playoff appearance in his first season here, the last two seasons haven’t been successful in that regard. This is not to say he is entirely to blame for that, but it does present a conundrum.
On one hand, DeRozan is the Spurs’ only consistent offensive threat who can create for himself, and there were most certainly games he single-handedly won for them. On the other, there are questions around whether he’s a hindrance to the development of the younger players, and while a definite top 50 player in the league regardless of what ESPN says, his ceiling is lower than the best players on most playoff teams. Despite being given the reins to the team with LaMarcus Aldridge’s early injuries and departure, he was unable to lead the team to the postseason, and he lived up to his reputation of falling apart in elimination games during the playin.
So if DeRozan can’t lead the Spurs to the playoffs —whether it’s fair to put all that weight on his shoulders or not — is he worth keeping around, or should they move on? The Spurs will have the money this offseason to either resign him or go after another big-name free agent (or two), but the odds are slim that they’ll attract anyone better than him. That being said, he will likely be seeking the final max or near-max contract of his career, and while he likely isn’t worth that to the Spurs, he also might be willing to take a bit of a discount to join a contender or help a playoff team take the final step into contention status (the Knicks have been mentioned a few times).
Knowing the Spurs, they will likely extend him an offer under the max, and he will likely test the free agent market and take his time making a deal. It’s hard to know whether or not he’ll be a Spur next season, and there’s pros and cons either way, but if he is, hopefully it’s for the right price and the right number of years.
Lonnie Walker’s contract extension
The Spurs didn’t have a hard time offering Dejounte Murray and Derrick White extensions. Despite missing an entire season with a torn ACL, they had seen enough from Murray to know he was worth it, and his current 4-year, $64-million deal is looking more and more like a steal. White’s 4-year, $73-million extension kicks in this summer, and while he’ll need to stay healthy to live up to it, his two-way value has shown in his absence just as much as his presence.
Walker’s value after three seasons has been more difficult to gauge. He didn’t get consistent playing time until this season, and even then his play has been inconsistent. When he’s on, he’s an athletic, near unstoppable machine who can shoot from all three levels, but he’s still prone to disappearing for stretches that can extend anywhere from a quarter to games at a time. There’s little doubt he still has plenty of untapped potential that the Spurs would like to exploit, but at what cost?
His team option has already been picked up for the 2021-22 season, but the question is do they offer him an extension this summer, which would kick in next year and keep him out of free agency, or should they hold out, make him determine his market value in a contract year, and possibly risk restricted free agency next summer? He hasn’t done enough to earn the same level of extensions as Murray and White, so it will likely come down to how much the Spurs are willing to offer (maybe something like 4 years, $50 million?), how much he’s willing take, and if he believes he’s worth more or will be a year from now.
Patty Mills and Rudy Gay
If there was one factor that drastically swayed outcomes this season, it was the production of the Spurs bench, especially from Gay and Mills. When both were on in the first half of the season, the Spurs were nearly unstoppable, with that unit often making the runs the Spurs needed to build enough separation to win games. But as the second half wore on, injuries piled up, and the grind of the schedule started to wear on them, the second unit became unreliable.
Patty Mills in particular struggled mightily. Over the final 31 games of the regular season, he averaged just 8 points per game on 34.4% from three, 36.3% overall. For a Spurs team that otherwise severely lacked three-point shooting, this was especially painful for the offense. Mills frequently looked out of gas, and the question now becomes if the 32-year-old is truly over the proverbial hill, or if he will be back to himself with a normal schedule next season. Because of Mills’ struggles, Gay, while somewhat inconsistent, was the often Spurs only reliable source for points off the bench.
Both hit free agency this summer, and both could still have value for the Spurs going forward. They will likely receive offers from the Spurs this summer, as well as ones from more attractive destinations. While I am of the belief that Mills has earned the right to stay if he wants, it has to be for the right price. Not that I see him demanding too much, but the Spurs should not overpay him at this point. The same can be said for Gay. Bottom line: they should try to keep one, if not both veterans for leadership purposes, but don’t over-offer.
Jakob Poeltl — who should be in contention for an All-NBA Defense team this season — has pretty much solidified himself as the Spurs starting center of the near future, so the questions now lie with who backs him up. Drew Eubanks had some great games this season and showed he belongs in the NBA, but he was completely outmatched against teams with decent back-up bigs. He’s an amazing third option to have — better than most, in fact — but not quite good enough to be the first off the bench.
Gorgui Dieng was a late addition and had his moments, but he was also robbed early of a chance to earn a spot in the rotation due to a shoulder injury moments into his debut, and Eubanks took full advantage of the second chance he was given. Because of that, the sample size needed to gauge if Dieng truly is the answer at backup center is too small. He has always wanted to be a Spur and will likely have interest in staying, so the Spurs shouldn’t hesitate to keep him at a low cost, but that shouldn’t stop them from either shopping free agency or looking to the draft for another solid center.
The Spurs need a true power forward
This position was a conundrum for the Spurs all season. The two starting forward positions were basically split between DeRozan and Keldon Johnson out of necessity, but power forward is not either of their natural positions. Besides Gay, the only other natural power forwards on the team were Trey Lyles and Luka Samanic. The former hardly played despite being solid last season and was later injured, and the latter showed some flashes when given a chance but was not ready for primetime NBA quite yet.
With Lyles likely gone and Gay’s status up in the air, next season should be Luka’s chance to break into the rotation. Consistent playing time along with his coach’s confidence could do him wonders, but whether he’s ready or not, the Spurs will still need more from that position. If DeRozan returns this might be a moot point as far as finding a starter, but whether it’s through the draft, free agency, or in-house, the Spurs need to start building depth at power forward, even if it means forcing Samanic into action and letting him learn as he goes (which he took in stride when given the chance last season).