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How the Spurs should approach Free Agency

The Spurs looked towards the future on draft night, and free agency should be no different

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at San Antonio Spurs Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

Now that the dust has settled on the 2022 NBA draft, teams are turning their eyes towards free agency to fill out their rosters. The San Antonio Spurs have the ability to free up enough cap space to be major players in free agency, but it is important that they don’t overplay their hand by committing long-term money to players who won’t move the needle or who may impede the development of the young roster.

The Spurs’ current roster

I’ve already detailed the Spurs’ salary cap situation in a previous article, but now that the Spurs have officially made all three first round selections and have fully guaranteed Zach Collins’ salary for the upcoming season, the Spurs will have 12 fully guaranteed contracts heading into free agency. This doesn’t include the non-guaranteed contracts of Keita Bates-Diop, Tre Jones, and Jock Landale. Jones should be a lock to have his salary guaranteed for the upcoming season, especially with rumors swirling about the Spurs potentially trading Dejounte Murray. Jones is the only other natural point guard on the roster and will be inexpensive relative to his on-court production. Lonnie Walker IV is the only other major question mark of the Spurs’ own impending free agents, and we’ll talk about that more later on.

Assuming the Spurs guarantee the contract of Jones, renounce the rights to all their free agents and exceptions, and there are no additional trades, the Spurs should enter free agency with 13 players under contract and roughly $32 million in cap space, as the NBA has set the salary cap for next season at $122 million with the tax line set at $139 million. That’s a lot of available cap space but not a lot of available roster spots.

Avoid marquee free agents

The Spurs are not “one player away” from being a title contender. Murray is an all-star, and Keldon Johnson’s current trajectory could get him there in the future, but adding a max player like Zach LaVine or Bradley Beal to this young roster doesn’t make a lot of sense. It would eliminate a lot of the financial flexibility the Spurs currently have and would impede the development of the young guards already on the roster.

There are a couple restricted free agents in Deandre Ayton and Miles Bridges who both would fit the roster better in terms of timeline and roster construction. The issue with Ayton is it will be difficult to build a championship caliber team with him making $30+ million a year and without a pick-and-roll maestro like Chris Paul feeding him the ball. It would also likely require a sign-and-trade with the Suns, would would unnecessarily cost the Spurs more assets at a time when they need to be collecting them.

Bridges is a bit undersized at the 4 and probably wouldn’t move the needle much for the Spurs. Plus, the Charlotte Hornets appear to be interested in clearing cap space in order to ensure they are able to re-sign Bridges at all cost.

Shore up the center position

A lot of those around NBA circles expected the Spurs to draft a center, with Jalen Duren’s name being routinely attached to the Spurs at 9. Personally, I’m glad the Spurs went in another direction. With Jakob Poeltl as the starter and Collins backing him up, center is not a short-term need for the Spurs. That said, they could afford to look for some depth and versatility at the position, especially considering Poeltl is entering the final year of his contract and Collins’ entire salary is non-guaranteed next season.

Forget Ayton. The big the Spurs should be targeting in free agency is Ayton’s former teammate Jalen Smith. He has been linked to the Spurs ever since the Spurs acquired Thaddeous Young from the Chicago Bulls last offseason, though a trade never materialized. That’s probably a good thing considering the Suns declined Smith’s third year option, which means that had the Spurs traded for him during the season, the most they would be able to offer him this summer would be $4.67 million.

The next question is whether or not Smith is even worth that much money in the market. While it remains to be seen, I can guarantee you the Suns regret not picking up his option last summer. He played pretty well for Phoenix when given the opportunity, and when he was traded to the Indiana Pacers at the deadline, he averaged 13 points, 8 rebounds, and 1 block in 24 minutes a game. He also shot 37 percent from distance in roughly 4 attempts a game. Smith was the number 10 overall pick in the 2020 draft and is just 22 years of age. I believe there is still a lot of untapped potential in his game, and I’d love to see the Spurs’ developmental staff get a crack at him.

I’m not saying that the Spurs need to live or die by this signing, but he’s young, has high upside, can space the floor, fits the timeline of the Spurs’ roster, and can play both the 4 and 5 positions. He should also be relatively inexpensive to sign, especially compared to what it would cost to steal Ayton from the Suns. A big rotation of Poeltl, Collins, Smith, and Jeremy Sochan would be really solid. These are the types of players the Spurs need to be targeting.

Let Lonnie Walker IV walk

From a personal standpoint, this one is a bit painful for me. I love Lonnie. I think everybody does, but the unfortunate reality is that in his first four season with the Spurs, he never displayed a level of consistency that would make the Spurs’ front office comfortable with investing in him beyond his rookie contract. Even if the price is right, I would let Lonnie try to jumpstart his career with another franchise.

The Spurs don’t have a lot of roster spots available this summer, and they have more pressing needs than a scoring guard off the bench. Primo will be looking for an increased role, and the Spurs just drafted two more guards. Blake Wesley is almost certainly going to spend the majority of next season in the G-League, but there’s a real possibility that Malaki Branham can crack the rotation. He’s probably the most NBA ready out of the three rookies and can naturally fill Lonnie’s role as a bench scorer who sometimes plays defense. Even if Branham ends up spending most of his time in the G-League, the Spurs still have Josh Richardson and Romeo Langford to soak up Lonnie’s minutes.

Make trades around the fringes of the roster

These Murray trade rumors are making my ears bleed. I don’t understand why a small market team would consider trading somebody they drafted and developed into an all-star. I understand that nobody on the roster should be truly untouchable, and maybe the Spurs are just trying to see if a godfather offer exists, but trading Murray only makes sense if the Spurs have decided to go from stealth tanking to openly tanking.

I’m also a firm believer in keeping Poeltl, at least until the deadline. I also acknowledge that a future starting lineup of Poeltl, Sochan, and Murray could present some spacing challenges on offense. Maybe the Spurs sign Jalen Smith and he proves to be a solid center whose skillset better aligns with that of Sochan. At that point the Spurs could consider trading Poeltl.

Doug McDermott and Richardson, on the other hand, should be on the trade block all summer and up until the trade deadline. If a playoff team believes either of them are worth a first round pick, then I expect a deal to get done. Otherwise, having them on the roster to help the youngsters both on and off the court is a great consolation prize.

Take on salary for draft assets

The New York Knicks have made it painfully obvious they will do whatever it takes to sign Jalen Brunson. They just acquired a bunch of first round picks by trading the 11th pick in the 2022 draft, so the Spurs should be looking to take on the remaining salary for Nerlens Noel and/or Alec Burks in exchange for one of those first round picks.

The Charlotte Hornets would be another option, with Gordon Hayward being the most obvious candidate. The Hornets want to clear cap space to re-sign Miles Bridges, and keeping both Bridges and Hayward would almost certainly put them over the tax line, which may not be acceptable for a fringe playoff team in a small market. Hayward has two years remaining on his contract, so trading for him would be a much tougher pill to swallow, but if the price is right, it should be something the Spurs consider.

I’m sure there will be other options, but those two teams come to mind as the most obvious choice if the Spurs go this route.

Final thoughts

While this doesn’t exactly have to do with free agency, extending Johnson needs to be one of the top priorities of the Spurs’ front office this summer. At only 22 years of age he’s nowhere near a finished product, so locking him in at a reasonable price seems like a no-brainer at this point.

I know this wouldn’t be a very exciting summer if it were to unfold this way, but I believe that this roster can become something in the future. Murray is an all-star. Poeltl is one of the best traditional centers in the NBA. Devin Vassell and Johnson are two wings who have shown a lot of promise early on in their respective careers. Plus, the Spurs have four 19 year-olds on the roster. All of these players need time to develop. They can’t afford to sit on the sidelines as some high priced veteran comes in just to get the Spurs a couple more wins next season.

The Spurs gave us championship-caliber teams for two decades. As fans, it’s now our turn to return the favor by showing patience during this rebuilding process. It’s not always pretty, but I believe it’ll be worth it in the end.