The general consensus about the Spurs’ offseason, now that it seems essentially over, is that while it was a little boring, it went well. San Antonio needed shooting, big forwards, and more alternatives at the center spot and addressed all those issues. None of the additions are transformative, but they are pragmatic and sensible.
A more pessimistic read is possible, though. Essentially, the Spurs needed to make big moves to take a step forward and instead mostly tinkered by switching their veterans for others. They remain mediocre and flawed, but just in a new way. No one should get too much praise for basically making lateral moves.
Both perspectives are valid if we only focus on the immediate, but the long view elevates this offseason from merely fine to potentially very good because of how it set the franchise up for the big swing it will inevitably need to get back to relevancy. What the Spurs didn’t do — commit to a lot of long term salary and send out assets for marginal upgrades — is as important as what they did do.
It’s common knowledge that the Spurs have a lot of interesting pieces but need top tier talent. Because they have refused to outright tank, their chances to get their big star through the draft are low. There is elite talent outside of the top, but it’s simply harder to find a cornerstone the lower a team picks. San Antonio will continue to hope for the best when they select a prospect, but they’ll need a lot of luck to land their guy if they keep picking outside the top five. Fortunately, now they have given themselves two other ways to get the star that would make the roster they have been building make sense immediately: free agency and a trade.
The free agency option requires cap space. The Spurs, while addressing needs, made sure to retain a significant chunk for next offseason, and ways to carve out even more. The sign-and-trade transaction with the Bulls netted them two expiring contracts combining for $24 million, while the addition of Zach Collins on a partially guaranteed contract could allow them to shed an extra $3.6 million easily. Next offseason they will also have Jakob Poeltl, whose contract expires in 2022-23, as a perfect piece to send out if more room is needed. San Antonio should have enough space for a max contract and potentially two, if they make additional moves. To be fair, they had similar flexibility this summer, but no real targets, so it just made sense to delay big additions and be careful with their spending, which is exactly what they did.
Rolling over cap space while plugging holes is impressive enough, but the Spurs also improved on the war chest available for trades in the process. Along with the expiring contracts they got for DeRozan, the Spurs received extra draft capital. One of the players that came back, Thaddeus Young, could have resale value at the deadline. The Spurs also brought in veterans who mostly play off the ball to complement the play of the young guards, who could see their trade value rise significantly on a bigger role. Even the way the Zach Collins contract was structured makes it a potentially good trade asset, as it would make it easy to include it to match salaries but the team receiving him could instantly waive him to reduce their payroll. Despite not having any single elite asset, San Antonio has enough good ones of different kinds to put together a competitive package for a star.
Now, having future cap space and good trade assets doesn’t guarantee anything. The Mavericks have been chasing a star in free agency ever since breaking up their championship team with no luck. The Celtics had more draft assets than seemingly half the league combined at one point and didn’t really managed to turn them into lasting cornerstones via trade. For both teams, the way to get the stars they needed ended up being the top of the draft. But we’ve also seen front offices that have succeeded in the alternative paths. The Daryl Morey Rockets finessed their way into James Harden by accumulating assets and pouncing at the right time, for example. It’s harder to find an example of a non-glamour team netting an elite free agent, but second tier stars like former Spur LaMarcus Aldridge have made those moves.
Whether the position the Spurs are in will result in a return to contention is up in the air, but for now it’s noteworthy that at least we are starting to see a path to finding a star that doesn’t require hitting big with low lottery picks, which is a welcomed sight after the past couple of years. Even fans who are not fond of Ben Simmons’ game should be encouraged by the fact that the Spurs appear on most lists of potential destinations for a 25-year-old former No. 1 pick with three All-Star appearances. Unless they add salary in a trade mid-season, they will also be mentioned as a potential landing spot for next summer’s top free agents. That’s exciting, which is not a word that has been associated with much of what the Spurs have done recently.
At some point, however, that excitement might turn into impatience. Just like it happens with players who show potential but never turn it into production, the fact that the Spurs have the tools to eventually make a leap may lead to frustration if they fail to do so. Even those who agree that it makes sense to first see what the Spurs have in their current core will be subjected to rumors about hypothetical trades and future free agency plans. Expectations were low in recent years regarding a real transformation, as San Antonio seemed committed to its veterans and internal development, but the success that the front office has had in creating a framework that makes a big move possible will change that. Eventually, Brian Wright and co. will actually have to deliver.
There will be time to worry about the actual results in the future, but for now the front office deserves praise for the work they’ve done. There are no guarantees that all this preparation will pay off, but it’s good to know the Spurs seem to be actively trying to put themselves in a position to take the big swing they need now that they’ve moved on from DeRozan.
Everything can change in a heartbeat, and doing things right isn’t always rewarded in the NBA, but there’s still value in getting the process right. In that sense, the Spurs seem to be moving in the right direction.