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The Spurs Are the Sleeping Giant of Free Agency

Sure, they’ve been linked to Paul George trades and Chris Paul, but there are a multitude of other options (some of them extremely unconventional) that could keep them among the NBA’s elite

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Update: Shortly after this piece was published, news broke that Chris Paul has been traded to Houston.

If the NBA provided SparkNotes for this past month’s happenings — from the Jimmy Butler blockbuster to David Griffin’s departure — hidden in the back pages would be news that Pau Gasol opted out of his $16.2 million contract with the Spurs. The Gasol gossip might seem trivial, but it could trigger a significant summer splash in San Antonio.

Gasol will re-sign for more years on a "smaller annual salary," Adrian Wojnarowski reported. This means the Spurs will have the cap relief to bring back the band or try to make the big-boy moves they’ve been rumored to be chasing. David Lee is also expected to opt out of his $1.6 million deal and leave, while LaMarcus Aldridge and Danny Green were floating around in trade talks last week. Dealing one or both of Aldridge or Green (along with renouncing a number of their free-agent cap holds) would free up enough space to acquire a player on a max contract (and possibly even add a second). There have been rumblings that the Spurs could pry Chris Paul away from the Clippers, and last weekend, Marc Stein said the Spurs "aggressively" pursued a trade for Paul George.

With Gasol (and likely Lee) opting out, San Antonio’s guaranteed money total drops to roughly $75 million. The Spurs’ cap situation is complex with an endless list of variables, cap holds, and the uncertain retirement status of Manu Ginobili. But $75 million is the raw number, and with a projected cap of $99 million, they are effectively within striking range of carving out enough space for a max contract.

To be clear, these moves could simply better enable them to re-sign some of their pending free agents like Jonathon Simmons, Dewayne Dedmon, and Patty Mills; and then to possibly add two of their draft-and-stashes in center Nikola Milutinov and wing Adam Hanga. Chances are they’ll lose someone this offseason, though chances are also high that it won’t be all that consequential. Look at the history of homegrown Spurs who left in free agency: Boban Marjanovic, Aron Baynes, and Gary Neal all left, but none have been able to replicate the same success they had in San Antonio. Cory Joseph hasn’t made the leap yet (though he might get the chance in Toronto should Kyle Lowry leave). Stephen Jackson is the only notable player who went on to do better things — and he left way back in 2003. The Spurs have a way of maximizing their own talent that other teams have failed to replicate.

Jumping into the free-agent pool and making a splash had never been San Antonio’s style until two years ago. In 2015, the Spurs wooed Aldridge away from the Blazers, convincing him to not sign with the Suns, and then got a meeting in the Hamptons with Kevin Durant last summer. For two decades, the Spurs were the NBA’s model of success as they ran their organization by emphasizing continuity, drafting, and development. Circumstances have changed, though. To be an elite team in this next stage of the superteam era, it’s not enough to simply foster the talent on hand. This summer could be the official end of "Built, Not Bought" in San Antonio.

The Spurs Have Conventional Choices to Make

Kawhi Leonard will always give the Spurs a shot. He’s a generational talent who will be just 26 years old next season. He’s only getting better. Maybe his dominance explains San Antonio’s aggressiveness this summer. It’d be a shame if his prime years were wasted. But if there’s any weakness to Kawhi’s game, it’s playmaking. Leonard needs a partner at point guard and right now he’s without anyone viable. Tony Parker is 35 and suffered a ruptured quad tendon — which is as serious as it sounds. Charles Barkley’s career ended at 36, with the same injury. Parker won’t be back until midseason, and at that point you have to wonder what version returns, if he returns at all. At the least, the productive portion of Parker’s career could be over. It’s sad, but it’s the truth and the Spurs must think about their other options. The only other point guards on San Antonio’s roster are Dejounte Murray, who is still extremely raw despite showing positive signs as a rookie, and Derrick White, who the Spurs drafted just last week. Neither of them is exactly ready to carry the load deep into the playoffs.

That’s why San Antonio’s interest in CP3 makes sense. Paul is arguably the greatest point guard of this generation and it’s easy to see him fitting into Gregg Popovich’s system because, frankly, Paul could fit in anywhere. A four-year max deal (with a player option on the fourth year) for Paul could bridge the gap between the present and future. The Spurs could remain a title contender while also developing youth off the bench.

The problem is that Paul will be tremendously expensive, at roughly $150 million over four years. San Antonio’s depth and cap flexibility would be crippled if they were to sign him. To add Paul at the max, they’d need to start by saying goodbye to Mills, Dedmon, and Simmons, plus trade Danny Green for picks or low-cost players. But if Gasol is re-signed and Milutinov comes over from Olympiacos, the plan gets even more convoluted. If Ginobili decides not to retire, it’s nearly impossible.

Let’s pretend for a moment that Ginobili retires; Mills, Dedmon, Lee, and Simmons sign elsewhere; Milutinov signs, rookies White and Jaron Blossomgame sign, and Gasol re-signs to a deal that’ll pay him $8 million in 2017–18. This all feels fairly realistic, yes? Great. Under this scenario, the Spurs would then have roughly $12.3 million in cap space. Trading Green brings them to $21.5 million. They’d still be about $13 million short of having the cap space to offer Paul the max. To get there, they’d need to dump Aldridge or Parker. Sheesh.

With that cascade of numbers, the Paul plan starts sounding a lot less viable and more like a pipe dream. It’s certainly still a possibility, but the amount of hoops to jump through and poles to limbo under quickly becomes overwhelming. There’s an argument to be made that a stop-gap point guard like George Hill, Derrick Rose, or Jrue Holiday makes a hell of a lot more sense than moving heaven and earth to sign Paul. They’d all be cheaper and San Antonio could get to that price point far more easily without losing important role players like Simmons and Dedmon, too. According to the San Antonio Express-News, there’s mutual interest between the Spurs and Hill, who "has long desired to reunite" in San Antonio. Now this seems realistic.

But we just went from talking about the Spurs chasing one of the greatest point guards ever, and then we’re coming off the heels of them reportedly pushing for George. It seems extreme to go from those big fish to Hill, who seems more like a backup plan. There has to be another plan that isn’t quite CP3 plus PG13, but also not as meh as Hill plus re-signing the core.

The Spurs Could Also Swing for the Fences

Let’s step into NBA Dream World and think about other options that might interest the Spurs, rather than the conventional Paul or Hill routes. Perhaps it’s time to reconsider San Antonio’s need for a specific type of point guard. Because in today’s league, that player could be anyone. He can be brutish like LeBron James, long like Giannis Antetokounmpo, athletic like John Wall, or teeny-weeny like Isaiah Thomas. Point guards are playmakers, and playmakers aren’t confined to any one size or shape.

Blake Griffin is one of the NBA’s best playmakers at the power forward position, and it’s easy to see him taking on a power guard or point forward role in a different situation. There has been no indication that the Spurs have interest in the Clippers free agent, so we’re just speculating here, but it’s exciting to consider the idea of Griffin playing in Popovich’s motion offense after spending years of playing alongside a ball-dominant point guard. Griffin is an elite ballhandling and passing big; putting him on the Spurs, where the ball whips around and moves side to side, would be intoxicating. Griffin has proved that he’s fully capable of making plays in transition, out of the post, or on the short roll:

What I’m obsessed with is the idea of Griffin being used in the Draymond Green offensive role — with a heavier dose of high pick-and-roll. I wrote in-depth last August detailing a plan for the Clippers to use Blake like the Warriors use Draymond, with J.J. Redick or Paul screening for Griffin like Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson would for Green. It didn’t happen that way. The Clippers have used Griffin in pick-and-roll, but it’s usually a structured set that featured DeAndre Jordan screening for Griffin at the elbow, and then rolling. It looked like this:

We rarely saw Griffin in more traditional high-pick-and-roll actions like this:

Griffin is a force attacking downhill against a rotating defense, so it’s a shame we didn’t see more of it with the Clippers. The results could have been potent; we know how effective Green is in that role, and Blake is a superior ball handler, passer, and decision-maker. If the opponent switches, Griffin could punish the smaller man on the post, and if they don’t, he could have easy driving lanes to the rim, where he’s an elite finisher. As The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks wrote Tuesday, "There’s no synergy between the Clippers’ best two players, which is why they have consistently been less than the sum of their parts." That wouldn’t be the case with the Spurs, where the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. Popovich could unleash Blake 2.0.

Yeah, yeah — Griffin carries risk (he’s played an average of 54 games over the past three seasons). But as covered on Monday, Griffin also carries an extremely high reward at a potentially cheaper price. League front-office executives and agents that I’ve spoken with wouldn’t be surprised if Griffin receives less than the max given his major injury history. But even Griffin at a discount would still force the Spurs into uncomfortable maneuvering. Some combination of Danny Green, Parker, and Aldridge would have to be moved. Depending on other decisions — like re-signing Simmons — trading Aldridge without taking much salary back would bring them close to creating max space. That might be enough. All of this is complicated with so many variables. I’m sorry, that’s the reality of the NBA.

Obviously, I’m operating under a hypothetical scenario. The Spurs wouldn’t dump Aldridge for cap space without a commitment from Griffin. But if they could get something back of value — whether it’s picks or young players — then dumping Aldridge for Griffin is a decision you’d make 100 out of 100 times.

Let’s dive deeper into the possibilities. Their free-agency spree could go even further, of course. The Spurs could essentially free up roughly $60 million in cap space, if they want to push for two max-level players.

If I were the Spurs, I’d also be pushing for Gordon Hayward, whether it’s in place of Griffin, or in addition to him. Hayward possesses the perfect Spursian traits — he’s an efficient scorer and a good decision-maker, he can make plays off the bounce, he plays unselfishly, and he defends well. Again, there has been no indication that the Spurs or Hayward have interest in each other — Woj confirmed league rumblings on Monday that the Celtics are angling for Hayward and George. The Celtics can think big, and so can the Spurs. But San Antonio would have to take radical, perhaps unpopular measures.

I would trade Tony Parker in a heartbeat if it meant freeing up cap space to acquire Griffin and Hayward. Would it be cold-hearted to trade Parker? Yup. But would it help the team win? Without question. Parker’s major injury creates serious doubt about his future. Besides, trading Parker could only mean goodbye for now, not goodbye forever. Parker could conceivably miss all of next season, then sign back with the Spurs in 2018 for the veteran minimum — players are allowed to sign back with the team that traded them one year after the initial deal. The only cost in a Parker trade would be attaching some asset, like a draft pick, along with him to make taking on his $15.5 million salary worth it for the receiving team.

If the Spurs go to these extreme lengths, they could sign Griffin and Hayward (or some other combination of max-caliber players), still retain Gasol and Simmons, and bring over Milutinov and Hanga. Their roster would be friggin’ loaded. Mills’s production would be replaced by Murray and White. Dedmon would get replaced by Milutinov. Simmons could take on a greater role with Green gone. Hanga, an athletic wing out of Hungary, could be San Antonio’s next great international gem from the second round. They could then fill their roster with players on the veteran minimum hungry for a ring, like Vince Carter.

It’s unclear what the Spurs are up to. We know they’ve reportedly chased after Paul George and have the hots for Chris Paul. As R.C. Buford pointed out after the draft, they’ve won 128 games over the past two years and made it to the conference finals. But to beat the Warriors, the status quo might not be enough. They’re a top-three team with cachet around the league. They have a franchise player set in stone, and the theoretical flexibility to shoot for the stars. And they have young, cheap talent ready to enter the rotation. For years, the message had been to not underestimate the Spurs during the season. Now it might be time to treat them with the respect they deserve in the offseason.