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The 2017 San Antonio Spurs Exit Interview

The Western Conference finals did not go as planned. Now, the franchise enters an offseason that could drastically change the team’s makeup for years to come. Here are five questions they’ll need to answer.

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

The Spurs’ season ended when Kawhi Leonard landed on Zaza Pachulia’s foot in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, knocking him out for the rest of the series. The last three games were a formality, with San Antonio losing by a combined margin of 62 points, including a 129–115 loss on Monday that officially sent them home. The most frustrating part for the Spurs is they were trouncing the Warriors on the road when Kawhi went down, and there’s no way to know if they could have kept that up had he stayed healthy. San Antonio has to make a lot of decisions this offseason without knowing how wide the gap is between it and Golden State, the biggest hurdle standing in the Spurs’ way.

The first season of the post–Tim Duncan era went by without a hitch in San Antonio. The Spurs integrated veteran free agents Pau Gasol and David Lee into the frontcourt rotation, while also adding a badly needed dose of athleticism in the form of Dewayne Dedmon, a 27-year-old dunking machine whose career got a second wind in San Antonio. There could be even more change coming this summer. Game 4 seemed like a farewell party for Manu Ginobili, who started a playoff game for the first time since 2013 and was serenaded by the home crowd when he came out in the fourth quarter. After the game, Manu said he would take some time before making a final decision, but even if he returns to play as a 40-year-old, he may not be the same player.

A franchise that has traditionally been thrifty during the offseason will have to open up the checkbooks to keep this team together. Jonathon Simmons and Patty Mills are also entering free agency, and they will attract a lot of interest. The Spurs have a history of convincing their players to take less money, but there’s no guarantee that will work this time around, especially if the Popovich disciples in Philadelphia and Brooklyn can offer the two bigger roles. No matter what ends up happening, the Spurs’ future is bright: They have a superstar in his prime and the most well-run organization in the league. There are a lot of moving parts in San Antonio, but they could be the team with the best chance of upending the Cleveland–Golden State duopoly. Here’s a look at the five big questions facing them this offseason:

Can LaMarcus Aldridge Be Their Second Star?

Aldridge, a veteran who signed in free agency and likes to hold the ball, was always an uneasy fit with the homegrown culture in San Antonio that emphasizes ball movement. After making the All-Star team in his first season with the Spurs, his play slipped dramatically this season, raising doubts about his long-term future with the organization. Other than a great Game 6 in their second-round series against the Rockets, when he put up 34 points and 12 rebounds without Kawhi, his playoff performance has been even worse than his regular-season showing. He struggled against the size of the Grizzlies, the speed of the Rockets, and the overall dominance of the Warriors. The Spurs needed more from him, and he couldn’t give it.

Aldridge lost his shooting touch in the postseason, going from shooting 146-of-345 (42.3 percent) from 16 to 24 feet in the regular season to only 18-of-57 (31.6 percent) from that area of the floor in the playoffs. He has always been the king of the long 2-point shot, and he has to be incredibly efficient from that range to justify the amount of shots he takes. Part of the issue was Tony Parker’s absence, as Aldridge didn’t have another guard who could consistently turn the corner and create open jumpers for him. Kawhi’s injury didn’t help either, since it allowed the Warriors to gear up their defense to stop him. Aldridge has never been a great playmaker, and he struggled to read the floor and make the right pass when doubled by a swarming Golden State defense.

The biggest issue for the Spurs is that Aldridge’s contract, which goes for two more years and $43.8 million, prevents them from making any other moves in free agency. If they could somehow get him off the books, they could conceivably make a run at a star like Chris Paul or Gordon Hayward, downsizing their roster to give Leonard another complementary perimeter playmaker. It’s unclear if either player would be willing to take less money to come to San Antonio, but the idea has to be tempting to the Spurs if they think that Aldridge, who will turn 32 in July and is going into his 12th season in the league, has peaked.

How Much Money Will It Cost to Re-sign Jonathon Simmons?

Simmons has flashed a lot of potential in his first two seasons in San Antonio, and he put it all together over the past few weeks. He outplayed James Harden on both sides of the floor in Game 6, and he averaged 15.3 points and 3.3 assists a game and shot 41.4 percent against the Warriors. Simmons went from getting a DNP-CD in Game 2 of their first-round series against the Grizzlies to establishing himself as the Spurs’ second-best player in the playoffs. He has become a starting-caliber player on the wing, and his combination of size (6-foot-6 and 195 pounds), athleticism, and shooting ability would make him a great fit on almost every team in the league.

Thanks to the Gilbert Arenas provision in the CBA, which tries to make it possible for teams to retain young players even when they weren’t first-round picks, Simmons can’t make more than $8.4 million next season, and the Spurs would have the right to go over the cap to match any offer up to $7.7 million. However, a team with enough cap space could backload a contract offer that would put San Antonio in a difficult position financially, barring some major reshuffling in its payroll. Simmons would make an awful lot of sense playing next to Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons in Philadelphia, and it’s not like Brooklyn has anything to lose by throwing money at him.

If the Spurs re-sign Simmons at an expensive enough rate, they may have no choice but to make him a starter, which would force an interesting dilemma for Gregg Popovich. He has historically liked to play two traditional big men and a point guard, but Kawhi and Danny Green are already entrenched at the wing positions. San Antonio could move Kawhi to power forward in order to keep all three wings on the floor, which would modernize their offense. However, they have found a lot of success by zigging when everyone else is zagging, so it’s unclear if Popovich would be willing to take such a drastic step.

What Happens at Point Guard Going Forward?

Tony Parker, who turned 35 in May, is no longer the player he once was, but he is still productive, and he had the second-highest net rating (plus-8.9) among Spurs rotation players in the playoffs behind Kawhi. However, it’s unclear how effective he will be after tearing a quadriceps tendon during their second-round series against the Rockets. Serious injuries at Parker’s age can easily derail even a Hall of Fame player’s career: Kobe Bryant was never the same player after tearing his Achilles at the age of 34. Parker could retire rather than suffering through what will be a lengthy rehabilitation process, though his $15.4 million salary next season should encourage him to return.

Patty Mills was able to step in and fill Parker’s shoes comfortably against the Rockets, but, like the rest of the team, he struggled against the Warriors once Leonard went down. Mills, who has been Parker’s understudy in San Antonio for the past six seasons, could be ready for a bigger role after averaging 9.5 points and 3.5 assists in 21.9 minutes a game in the regular season. He will be an unrestricted free agent in the offseason and will have no shortage of suitors. While there will be a lot of more talented point guards on the market, including guys like Steph Curry, Chris Paul, George Hill, and Kyle Lowry, Mills will be an attractive option for teams looking to shop on a budget.

If San Antonio is able to clear enough cap space, Hill could be a third option at the position. The former Spurs point guard will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason following a breakout campaign with the Jazz. Hill already knows Popovich’s system, he’s much better defensively than either Parker or Mills, and he’s more capable of assuming a bigger role in the offense at this stage in his career. Utah will likely make a big push to re-sign Hill, but his fate with the Jazz could be tied to what ends up happening with Hayward. Hill and Mills could end up switching spots, since Mills’s ability to fill it up from behind the 3-point line would be a good fit on a Utah team that needs more offensive punch and gets a lot of playmaking from the wings.

Is This It for Manu Ginobili?

Manu got a Viking funeral worthy of a player his caliber in Game 4. After looking finished in the first round against the Grizzlies, when he didn’t score a single point in the first five games, he recaptured the magic over the past few weeks. His block of Harden in the final seconds of Game 5 against the Rockets may have saved their season, and he was incredible against the Warriors, averaging 13.8 points and 2.8 assists a game and shooting 58.8 percent. When you watch him nutmegging David West or rising up for a dunk in traffic, it’s almost impossible not to root for Manu to come back for one more season.

Replacing him won’t be easy, even at his age. Manu had a net rating of plus-10.4 in the regular season, and he was one of the key figures on a second unit that blew teams off the floor. His ability to handle the ball and run the point at 6-foot-6 allowed Mills to focus on scoring while still defending opposing point guards, and his ability to be a playmaker allowed him to impact the game even on nights when his shot wasn’t falling or he couldn’t get to the rim. The Spurs may need to turn more to younger players like Dejounte Murray and Kyle Anderson next season to help fill Manu’s role coming off the bench, as both have shown flashes of playmaking ability in their time in the NBA.

How Much Can the Spurs Expect From Their Young Players?

San Antonio has always been a franchise that built from within, and it has an interesting group of young players who could be ready to ascend into bigger roles next season. The injuries to Parker and Kawhi in the playoffs have created more of an opportunity for young guys like Murray, their 2016 first-round pick; Anderson, their first-round pick in 2014; and Davis Bertans, a second-round pick all the way back in 2011. Murray and Anderson came up huge in Game 6 against the Rockets, and the playmaking and defensive versatility they provide could be huge for the Spurs next season.

Murray, at 6-foot-5 and 170 pounds with a 6-foot-9 wingspan, has the size and athleticism to fill a number of roles on the perimeter, and he would have gone much higher in the draft were it not for questions about his outside shot. Anderson has been up and down in his three seasons in the NBA, but he still has a very intriguing offensive skill set for a player his size, while Bertans has shown hints of high-level shooting and finishing ability as a new-age stretch 4. Combine those three with free-agent signing Dewayne Dedmon, who started for most of the season before falling out of the rotation in the playoffs, and the Spurs have some interesting pieces around Kawhi. They also have the rights to Nikola Milutinov, a 22-year-old center who just played in the Euroleague Final Four, although it’s unclear when he will come over to the NBA.

The nice thing about playing for San Antonio is that Popovich isn’t afraid to go deep into his bench in the regular season, and his preference for resting older players means he finds time for every player on his roster at some point in the year. However, when it comes to the playoffs, Pop is still a fairly traditional coach reluctant to throw younger players into the fire. Just look at how much time it took him to play Simmons. The Spurs’ ceiling over the next few years could depend on just how good their next generation of players is, and how quickly they can earn their coach’s trust in the biggest moments.