It’s an exciting offseason for the Spurs. They have three first round draft picks and, as we explained, could be one of the few teams that has major cap space to sign a free agent to a max deal. There’s a good chance there will be major changes to the roster before the tip-off of the 2022-23 season.
Even if they can’t land any of the big names, there are also other ways in which San Antonio can turn its cap space into an asset. Their options include renting it out, using it to extend their future free agents or rolling it over into next offseason. Some possibilities are more realistic than others, but let’s take a look at all of them.
The Spurs could try to lock down their current core
Asides from Keldon Johnson and Romeo Langford, there are three Spurs that are eligible for an extension: Dejounte Murray, Jakob Poeltl and Tre Jones. In theory, San Antonio could extend their contracts this offseason while also including a big signing bonus using their cap space that could make all three well paid this upcoming season while leaving them with very team friendly contracts the rest of the way, similarly to what the Thunder did with Nick Collison years ago.
The reason why this is unlikely to happen is that all three players are already arguably underpaid, and the most the Spurs can offer in an extension is 120% of their current salary. As an example, on a two-year extension, in Dejounte Murray’s case, he’d go from earning around $16.5 million in 2022/23 to $20.6 million in 2023/24 and $22.2 million in 2024/25. He can likely get more than that by playing out his current contract, entering free agency and re-signing with the Spurs or signing elsewhere. Now, if the Spurs include the max signing bonus, it would take Murray’s salary in 2022/23 immediately to $23 million, but in the following two years of the extension, his salary would decrease. The chances of Murray or the massively underpaid Poeltl agreeing to this type of extension are very low, although it might not hurt to ask.
Tre Jones is another story. The young guard might be more tempted to take a four-year extension worth a total of, say, $16 million and get a singing bonus that would pay him more than he’s earned so far. But the benefits to the Spurs are probably not significant enough to motivate them to do it and Jones might decide to bet on himself and play out his deal.
The Spurs could rent their cap space or facilitate trades
A more realistic option involves San Antonio taking a page out of Sam Presti’s book and simply renting out their cap space. In the past few years the Thunder received draft picks to take on the contracts of Al Horford, George Hill and Derrick Favors. The Spurs could do the same with other veterans in order to get more assets.
A good example of a trade that San Antonio’s cap space could help facilitate involves the 76ers and Tobias Harris. General Manager Daryl Morey is reportedly trying to make something big happen, but it’s unlikely any team forced to trade a star would want Harris back in a deal. There have been rumors about Bradley Beal potentially being the target for Philadelphia, but the Wizards would simply have no use for a veteran on a gigantic contract who also plays the same position as Rui Hachimura and Deni Avdija. They would almost surely prefer getting Tyrese Maxey and and a huge trade exception.
The Spurs could simply be the third team that makes it all work by taking Harris’ contract into their cap space, which would allow the Sixers to match contracts while also saving the Wizards a huge amount of money. For their troubles, they could get future first round picks from Philadelphia and, potentially, Washington. They could also slot Harris as their starting power forward and hope that his value increases until he can be flipped again, which is what the Thunder did with Horford.
There are simpler examples in which instead of being involved in complex multi-team trades the Spurs just take a bad contract into their cap space. Teams that are in or close to luxury tax territory might want to shed salary, and front offices who have made mistakes by signing or trading for expensive players (hello again, Tobias Harris) might just look to dump them, even if it costs them a pick or two. If that’s how the Spurs want to use at least part of their cap space, they should have no problem finding opportunities.
The Spurs can just roll over their cap space to next season
If they can’t secure their main free agency targets and the offers to rent their cap room are not satisfactory, the Spurs also have the chance to simply roll over their cap space to next season.
The Spurs could have around $40 million in cap space in 2023. To get there, they would have to avoid signing anyone to a multi-year deal this summer and hold off on extensions. That projection includes the salary of their three first round picks. It also includes the cap holds of Keldon Johnson and Jakob Poeltl on their books, which means the front office could use all of the room available and then go over the cap to re-sign the two current starters using their Bird rights. Tre Jones has a small cap hold that could be included as well, and San Antonio will have full Bird rights to him that season, so they should also be able to keep him. The rest of the free agents would have to be renounced. In order to carve out even more room, the front office could move Doug McDermott for someone on an expiring deal.
There are some big names that are slated to enter free agency that summer, including current MVP Nikola Jokic, but it’s probably too early to know who will be available. Still, as we covered, cap space can be used in other ways. Maybe next summer a star who is under contract will force their way out, and the Spurs would be in prime position to acquire them. There is a case for going this route if none of the top 2022 free agents want to play in San Antonio.
There are some potential drawbacks to this strategy, however. First, not offering Keldon Johnson an extension now could backfire, as his value could increase over the next season. Second, it’s hard to create a cohesive team when most of the players are on the last year of their contract. The Spurs could mitigate most problems with chemistry by keeping familiar faces like Keita Bates-Diop and Jock Landale around and throwing a big one-year deal Lonnie Walker’s way, to essentially bring back the same team, but not using the cap space at all could be a waste. Signing a few level-headed veterans who understand the situation to one-year deals could make sense, but the improvement would probably be limited. Either way, it would make for a pretty boring offseason, but it could be better than throwing multi-year deals to role players.
The Spurs should shoot for the moon this summer and try to add one of the big names in the market in free agency or use their cap space and assets to land a star via trade. A big splash is clearly needed, so being overly cautious might not be the play.
While expectations should be high, it’s still good to know that even if they can’t really pull off anything big this offseason, there are ways they can still use their cap space to replenish their treasure chest or use it carefully enough to allow themselves a second chance at a major move next summer.
The Spurs have plenty of options, which is always a good thing.