The San Antonio Spurs are facing one of their most consequential free agency periods in recent history. The Spurs have remarkable salary cap space and intriguing, if not truly elite, young talent. They have a lottery draft pick. They have a stable and competent front office and coaching staff. They also have some limitations. San Antonio as a city will never be able to attract players on its own merits the way New York, LA, or San Francisco do. Despite some great young players who have outperformed expectations, San Antonio still lacks elite talent, and the talent they do have is concentrated at the guard positions. And our financial limitations are greater than some franchises; the luxury cap is a bigger concern for San Antonio than it is for Golden State. With that in mind, I have three big picture goals for the Spurs this office season:
One, I want them to maintain their current competitiveness. I don't necessarily mean here that I want them to find a replacement for DeMar DeRozan, or sign veterans in anticipation of competing for a playoff spot in the 2021-22 season, but it does mean that I don't want to shop our young talent for draft picks, and I don't want the Spurs to take on bad contracts that might inhibit our ability to sign fresh talent over the next few years (although in the right circumstances, this may be a reasonable move, especially if it is an expiring contract and nets a draft pick in the 2022 draft).
Two, I want to continue to develop and expand our young core. Even without elite talent that makes a team competitive as it is currently situated, a large group of exciting young players is a strong place to be in for future competitiveness. For example, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander will never lead the Clippers to a championship, but by developing him, the Clippers were able to put together an enticing package for Paul George. Similarly, the Brooklyn Nets were competitive, though not elite, before KD and Kyrie came to town, but by having young talent that they could use as assets, the Nets were able to be a landing place for the two All-Stars and create a strong supporting cast around them.
Third, I want the Spurs to be efficient and maximize their assets. For instance, a sign a trade with DeMar DeRozan or Rudy Gay for young prospects and draft picks should always be on the table, regardless of what we get in return, because otherwise we may lose them for nothing. Just because the front office has cap space doesn't mean it has a lot of room for error and should overpay a player. Shrewd and opportunistic moves by the front office now may pay dividends in the future. Which is really just my way of saying that even if we can't see the end of the road, by being diligent now, we can generate our own luck in the long run.
With these goals in mind, I have my idea about what a perfect offseason would look like. For the record, this gigantic piece isn't a list of independent transactions that I think work in a vacuum. It's one proposal with several transactions that, in my opinion, work well together in concert. And this isn't the only result that I would be happy with this offseason. In fact, I don't expect our offseason to look exactly like this but I do expect the Spurs to do a good job this summer. I plan on being pleasantly surprised. Ultimately, this is an article based off of musings I've had during Bachelorette commercial breaks, while taking the dog out for bathroom breaks at lunch, or while re-watching Friends for the fifth time. This piece was primarily drafted on a lazy, rainy, Saturday morning. It's not my day job and for the people whose day job it is, I'm sure they'll come up with creative and nuanced solutions that haven't crossed my mind. But here we go:
1. The Spurs should draft with the 12th pick.
I know, I'm really going out on a limb with this one! To be honest, I'm starting with a point I feel a lot of ambivalence about; it's just the first thing to really happen in free agency. I don't think the Spurs want to burn the assets to jump into the top six spots and there doesn't seem to be a lot of difference between the talent available at seven versus twelve. Additionally, I think there's a lot of young prospects with exciting attributes. Like many others, I think the Spurs should draft a frontcourt prospect, but there's a lot of prospects who I think fit that bill. I like the look of Kai Jones, and his Texas roots are a plus. If Scottie Barnes drops to twelve the way Haliburton dropped in 2020, I think the Spurs should jump at the chance to add the Florida State forward. Corey Kispert? Yeah, definitely seems reasonable. Basically, give me the best available player who's at least 6'6" and I'm pretty happy with the draft. And then sign whoever we pick to a standard four-year rookie deal at 120% of the rookie scale. That's about $4 million in the first year.
Oh, and as far as the 41st pick of the draft goes, I'm totally deferring to the front office. It's a second-round pick; if it turns into something great, that's amazing! If it doesn't, I wasn't expecting it to anyways and it won't affect whether I consider the offseason a success.
2. The Spurs should trade DeMar DeRozan to the Los Angeles Lakers
Alright, now we get into something a little less conventional. This sign and trade would work well for all the parties involved. It's a win-win-win. DeMar DeRozan is a free agent and will probably be looking for a contract in the realm of four-years and $120/million. He also still needs a ring. He can't sign with the Lakers unless there is a sign-and-trade and the only teams that have the cap space to sign him, with the Spurs and the Knicks being likely frontrunners, won't be nearly as competitive. The Lakers also learned this last year that they desperately need a third star. While DeRozan will never be the top dog on a championship team, he could be a great third option. And the Spurs, well, the Spurs shouldn't pay DeRozan to stay unless he takes a significant haircut, and this way, they get something instead of nothing.
But first, let's discuss the Laker's finances. In a sign-and-trade, salaries don't have to match, but it's still important for teams to stay under the luxury tax. If Montrezl Harrell picks up his player option, the Lakers' contracts total $121 million, over the soft cap (projected to be about $112 million), with 6 players on the roster: Lebron, AD, Harrell, KCP, Marc Gasol, and Kyle Kuzma. They also have $4.99 million in dead cap space from the last year of Luol Deng's contract (LOL!).
In order to acquire DeRozan, they have to send back enough salary to keep them under the $142 million hard cap (the luxury tax apron). So, a trade of DeRozan for the last year of Deng's contract ($5 million) and Kuzma ($13 million) would put the team at about $133 million with DeRozan on the team. The Lakers may be willing to trade Kuzma because (1) they are the quintessential win-now team, (2) Kuzma isn't ready yet to be a legitimate third option on a contender, and (3) his contract is the only one they have that makes this work. The Lakers would then be able to fill out the team with draft picks and minimum contracts while the Spurs would acquire Kuzma, a young gifted forward who has underperformed expectations but who fits the Spurs' timeline and may still have untapped potential on a reasonable contract. I hope this is a legal trade, because I think it would make a lot of sense for all parties involved.
3. The Spurs should guarantee Drew Eubank's $1.7-million-dollar contract.
After the DeRozan sign and trade, and assuming the Spurs sign the 12th pick to a max rookie contract, the Spurs would have taken $22 million out of their cap space; Kuzma's $13 million, Deng's $5 million, and the $4 million for our first-round pick. They should exercise their team option for Eubanks and add his 1.7 million-dollar contract to that as well. Eubanks brings hustle, a good locker room presence and is a serviceable back-up and a great third-option. His contract is a bargain for the team.
With these first three moves in mind, experts tell me that the Spurs would have about $29 million remaining in cap space as well as a $5-million-dollar exception going into the heart of free agency to sign free agents and fill out the roster. They would also have eleven players on the roster: Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV, Devin Vassell, Keldon Johnson, Jakob Poeltl, Luka Samanic, Tre Jones, Drew Eubanks, Kyle Kuzma, and the 12th pick of the draft. That leaves between 2-4 roster spots open, and two two-way contracts to fill as well.
4. The Spurs should sign Lauri Markkanen to a four year, $80-million-dollar contract.
We have now gotten to the heart of my free agency strategy; pry Markkanen away from the Bulls. A former lottery pick who has played for a dysfunctional program and three head coaches in four years, Markkanen has a sweet stroke away from the basket and loads of untapped potential. It's no coincidence that his best season was the most recent; the one immediately after Chicago completely revamped its front office and hired a coach who has an exceptional track record when it comes to player development; Billy Donovan. Markkanen provides the kind of raw upside that this team is light on and has the potential to grow into an All-Star forward.
This signing would work for a host of reasons. First, at $20 million a year, which seems to be the upper end of what the Spurs would have to spend to get Lauri, he's on a really reasonable contract. A 23-year-old, former all-rookie, 7'0" player who shoots 40% from three and can rebound is worth $20 million a year in today's NBA. It's not All-Star money, but it's starter money, and Markkanen is worth that much today, not even taking into account the chance that he develops into an All-Star over the course of the contract.
Second, he fits really well with what the Spurs are building right now. At 23-years old and at the end of his rookie contract, he fits snugly into the Spurs' timeline. The Spurs aren't going to win it all in 2021-2022, and Markkanen would have the opportunity to grow with our core and develop into a better player a year down the road. He also plays a position and provides a skill set that our team currently lacks. Although a line-up with Poeltl and Markkanen on the floor together would be insanely tall, it would also probably work. Jakob and Lauri bring fundamentally different skill sets to the game and could be complimentary pieces. In addition to bolstering our size in the frontcourt, Markkanen would add sorely needed three-point shooting. It's not the worst thing in the world if the Spurs slightly overvalue a power forward with a good three point shot this offseason.
Third, his biggest flaws can be covered up by the current Spur's team. Markkanen's biggest flaw is his defense. In his career, he has averaged .5 blocks per game and .7 steals per game. His defensive rating is somewhere around 112. BUT, this guy would be on the floor with Jakob Poeltl, Keldon Johnson, and a ball-hawking back court. He's a better defensive player than DeRozan, would be playing his natural position, and we don't need him to be a stopper at the rim; we already have one of those! And when it comes to on-ball defense, and defending the three, Markkanen isn't the same liability that he is in the paint. If used correctly, as the stretch-4 that his offensive skill sets are most conducive for, even if he doesn't improve defensively (which in and of itself is likely if he joins the Spurs organization), Markkanen's defensive blind spots will be covered up by the rest of our line-up.
Finally, and this is important, but Markkanen doesn't work with the Bulls. The Spurs ability to sign Lauri to a decent contract ultimately comes down to a bidding war with Chicago. And the Bulls, with the Vucevic trade, made a move to win-now. They don't have time to wait on Markkanen to grow into a third piece along Vucevic and Lavine. That was apparent in the second half of the season, as Markkanen was forced into a reduced role, despite playing the best ball of his career. Chicago is also over the cap. They're not going to match a $20-million dollar a year offer for Markkanen when they could acquire a PG like Spencer Dinwiddie at a similar price tag and address a true positional need on the team. The Spurs should be optimistic about their attempts to pry Markkanen away and there's even a chance that the Spurs could get Markkanen for as low as $15-16 million a year.
Regardless of the final price, even if it rises to the $20 million dollar a year level, Markkanen is a low risk, high reward signing for the Spurs. If he doesn't grow into more than a replacement level starter in two years, his contract will still be a valuable trade asset if nothing else and he would remain a complimentary player to other players if they grow into All-Star talents. And there's the undeniable possibility that Markkanen could be the player on the roster that blossoms with a change of scenery. The Spurs have to spend money this offseason and there aren't any other young players in free agency that provide the same tantalizing fit, high floor, and high ceiling combination that Markkanen does for the Spurs.
5. The Spurs should re-sign Patty Mills to a three year, $24-million-dollar contract.
We've talked a lot about the Spurs' youth movement, and it is definitely in full swing. That's very exciting. But every young team needs a veteran presence to "coach", provide stability, and be the calm influence under pressure. Patty is the consummate cheerleader and is already excelling in that role. In an offseason where the Spurs should probably let their other free agency veterans walk, Patty should prove the exception to the rule. He's been with the Spurs FOREVER, knows the ropes, and is a great locker room presence. It also doesn't hurt that he can shoot the three on a team that was terrible last year beyond the arc. I think the Spurs might have to pay as much as $10 million a year for Mills, and as little as $5 million a year, but I really think $8 million a year for the next three years (so that his contract comes off the books at the same time as Dejounte Murray and when he is 35) is fair for both sides.
6. The Spurs should target a back-up center with the $5-million-dollar exception.
With thirteen players on the team, and some combination of Kuzma, Markkanen, Samanic and potentially our 12th pick in the draft at the four, our biggest remaining area of need would be a back-up center for Poeltl. Eubanks can serve in that role in a pinch, but he's really a great third option and doesn't quite have the athleticism to be a true back-up at the 5. That said, I don't think we should pay big money for a back-up center.
That said, my obvious first choice for a back-up center in free agency would be Sacramento's Richaun Holmes. However, it would be an absolute coup for him to sign for less than $10 million a year, and unless he really wants to come to the Spurs, I think it's unlikely we have the cap space to sign Holmes as our back-up center.
My second choice is a bit more realistic, but also seems like a bit of a reach: Mitchell Robinson. Robinson will be a restricted free agent this summer, but I think if the Spurs offer him $5 million a year, the Knicks will probably match it. Of course, it's the Knicks, and Robinson is coming off of an injury plagued year, so they could always surprise us! If the Spurs could pry Robinson away, he's a 22-year old, 7'-0" center with considerable upside who rebounds and blocks shots well and has a decent eFG%. The downside is that he's never attempted a three-point shot in the NBA and he shoots free throws about as well as Jakob Poeltl. But then again, we'd be asking him to be a back-up center, not a starting point guard.
I think the most realistic option may be Gorgui Dieng, who we could probably sign for $5 million. Dieng clearly wants to play for the Spurs, and he offers a different skill set than Poeltl, which is refreshing. He also played well in limited minutes for the Spurs this season and would be a very serviceable back-up next year. Finally, while he doesn't fit the youth timeline, he could bring an additional veteran presence to a young team that could be invaluable in the long run.
Ultimately, I'd be happy with any of these signings. I'd also be happy with using all or part of the room exception on relatively unproven young players like New Orleans's Wenyen Gabriel (RFA) or Orlando's Moritz Wagner (FA). As long as the Spurs don't spend too much on whomever they sign as a back-up center, they could either sign a veteran presence, or invest in an unproven young talent, and I'd feel okay with the signing. And this path isn't mutually exclusive from one of the earlier suggestions; the Spurs would have an extra roster spot at this point. If they like the look that one of these guys bring to the team, they probably will have the space to offer them a spot, or at least bring them to training camp. Overall, I think that the Spurs should invest in a back-up center, it's a low risk high reward signing, and they shouldn't spend too much money doing it.
7. The Spurs should sign Keita Bates-Diop and their second-round pick to the two-way contracts.
With a pretty full roster, that leaves only two more moves I want to see the Spurs make this offseason; use their two-way contracts and extend Lonnie. With regards to the two-way contracts, I have pretty conventional ideas.
One, I really liked what I saw from Keita Bates-Diop in limited minutes last season and I think he's eligible for one more two-way contract. He also plays a position (SF/ PF) where we desperately need depth. I don't expect Bates-Diop to play real minutes in the NBA next season, and he's already 25, but it's a two-way contract and this would be his first full season with the team. I think we should see if he can become a role player on the team a-al-Eubanks.
Two, I'd sign our second-round pick to the second two-way contract. We have an open roster slot, so the Spurs could always sign them to a three-year contract like the one Tre Jones or Chimezie Metu received, but I think Quinndary Weatherspoon and Chimezie are good cautionary tales; second round picks don't usually carve out a role on the team. It's a second-round pick and the Spurs may not want to commit a roster spot to the player over the long term. Since the two-way spot is available, I'd prefer it go to our second-round pick.
8. The Spurs should extend Lonnie Walker IV and give him a four-year, $48 million-dollar extension.
Finally, and this is a bit forward looking, but I would like to see Lonnie Walker IV get a contract extension this summer. Lonnie Walker is the reliable player that Dejounte or Derrick were when they each signed contract extensions; but he still is a net positive on the court, provides important three-point shooting, and has tantalizing potential and athleticism. I don't think LWIV should get $16 million a year like Dejounte, but I think anything up to about $12 million a year would be really reasonable. At $12 million a year, there's a good chance we get fair value back on the contract (even if he doesn't grow into a star, I don't think we've seen his best yet) and if we have to trade him down the road, he's on a very movable contract. A SG who's athletic and can shoot the three has a place in the NBA. This isn't a decision that really effects the upcoming season, but it's a decision that has to be made this offseason, and I'd like to see the Spurs lock up LWIV for the next four years on a reasonable contract.
Conclusion: If these 8 things happen, what will the Spurs look like in 2021-2022.
For starters, this is roughly what our depth chart would look like if all of this happened:
PG: Dejounte Murray, Patty Mills, Tre Jones
SG: Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV
SF: Keldon Johnson, Devin Vassell, Keita-Bates Diop
PF: Lauri Markkanen, Kyle Kuzma, Luka Samanic,
C: Jakob Poeltl, back-up center, Drew Eubanks
Unclear: 12th pick, 41st pick
The biggest downside of this roster is a lack of star power. There aren't any All-Stars on this depth chart and while with development and luck this team might make the playoffs, their ceiling would be a first-round exit. That said, I don't think there's a realistic way to get a more competitive team this offseason and think the positives of this roster would outweigh the negatives.
First, this would be an incredibly young team that has fully embraced the youth movement. Patty Mills, and perhaps Dieng is he remains on the roster, would provide a veteran presence, but otherwise, everyone on the team would be in their early- to mid-twenties. Second, despite it being a young team, it would be a team with a lot of continuity and institutional knowledge. When we consider the age of this team, we forget that these guys know how to be Spurs. Poeltl has been a Spur just as long as DeRozan. Dejounte Murray and Derrick White are on their second contracts with the team, and overall, the team would be returning at least eleven players. Continuity and stability are great things for development and chemistry.
Third, this roster increases the team's ceiling. These offseason moves would add three players (Kuzma, Markkanen, the 12th pick) to the roughly half a dozen we already have on the roster who could conceivably become All-Star talents. Fourth, this roster is much more balanced. It adds offensive talent and bolsters our thin front court, especially at the PF position. It allows Keldon Johnson to move back to his more natural SF position.
Fifth, it keeps the Spurs pretty flexible going forward. There are no behemoth contracts on this roster; everything is movable. Over the next several seasons, if the Spurs find themselves in a position where they need to clear space for a max extension of one of their own players, or where they need to sign or trade for a marquee free agent, they'll be able to clear contracts relatively easily and make the space. This also doesn't inordinately tie up cap space going forward. The most significant future commitments would be Derrick White's $18 million in 2024-25, Markkanen's $20 million in 2024-25, and Lonnie's $12 million in 2025-26. This creates a structural flexibility that will allow the Spurs to retain homegrown talent as they are faced with decisions about extending players like Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell over the next few seasons.
Finally, and I mean this seriously, but this would be a fun team to watch. Whether or not this offseason is a success will depend, in some part, on how much I enjoy watching the Spurs next year. After all, sports are about entertainment. I always want to win, but I don't need the Spurs to win it all to enjoy watching them throughout the season. They may not win it all, but this roster would be an exciting team to watch, full of players that will be easy to root for.
I'd love to see these moves happen. I would equally enjoy some constructive feedback in the comments. Thanks for reading. Go Spurs Go!
Epilogue: If we don't do a sign and trade with DeRozan, what do we do with that $18 million?
Oh, there would be so many options... but I think focusing on the frontcourt would probably still be the way to go. I'd honestly be okay using some of that money to bring Rudy Gay back or sign JaMychal Green as a veteran presence. I think a real run at Richaun Holmes would be reasonable and a Poeltl-Holmes center rotation would be great. $18 million would be a legitimate bid for Duncan Robinson, though that would probably get matched by the Heat. Maybe we use part of that space to pry Josh Hart (RFA) from New Orleans? Do you think the nephew would sign with San Antonio for that much? I'm just spit balling here, but I'd be okay with any of those options.
 To be fair, it's looking like no one will ever be leading the Clippers to a championship.
 Markkanen has shot 36.6% from 3 over his career but shot 40.2% from three in the 2020-21 season.
 Don't @ me, that was a joke!