The typically drama-free Spurs underwent some turmoil during the 2018 offseason. Having lost faith in the team after the way his quad injury was handled, Kawhi Leonard – the superstar who was supposed to lead the organization into the post-Tim Duncan/Manu Ginobili/Tony Parker era – asked for a trade.
The Spurs, who don’t often make blockbuster deals, granted his request, sending the star forward to Toronto in a four-player trade that saw another All-Star (DeMar DeRozan) land in San Antonio. Gregg Popovich‘s squad didn’t miss a beat, winning 48 games and extending its NBA-best playoff streak to 22 consecutive seasons. But with Leonard no longer around, the Spurs’ path back to championship contention looks murkier.
Here are five key questions facing the franchise this summer:
1. Are the Spurs content to move forward with DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge leading the way?
As noted above, the Spurs generally don’t head into offseasons – or trade deadlines – looking to shake up their roster with deals involving core players. Assuming they continue to operate that way, we can probably count on seeing a 2019/20 team that looks pretty similar to the 2018/19 squad, with San Antonio aiming to take a step forward by betting on Dejounte Murray‘s return and improvements from young players like Derrick White and Lonnie Walker.
Still, while the Spurs looked great at times last season, it’s fair to question the upside of a roster led by DeRozan and Aldridge. They’ve each made multiple All-NBA teams and – even as they enter their age-30 and age-34 seasons, respectively – should continue to produce going forward. But their heavy reliance on mid-range shots is unusual by modern NBA standards, and creates an increased degree of difficulty in a league where the most efficient and successful clubs are leaning heavily on three-pointers, shots at the rim, and free throws.
DeRozan and Aldridge each have just one guaranteed year left on their contracts — DeRozan has a 2020/21 player option, while Aldridge has a partial guarantee for that season. In other words, there could be some uncertainty about their status beyond the ’19/20 campaign.
If the Spurs want to get out ahead of that uncertainty, they could consider the possibility of moving one of their stars. Popovich has never shown much interest in dealing with the Lakers, but I can’t help but think that they’d be a good trade partner for the Spurs if they miss out on other top targets. The Lakers made a run at Aldridge in 2015 and DeRozan is a Los Angeles native, while some of their young players could really blossom under Popovich.
Again, given what we know about the Spurs, the idea that they’d make a blockbuster deal for a second straight summer is unlikely, but it’s still a concept worth considering.
2. How long will Gregg Popovich continue coaching the Spurs?
A report in January indicated that Popovich was uncertain about his future, and there was speculation that 2018/19 could even be his last season coaching the Spurs. That no longer appears to be a possibility, though we still don’t know for sure how much longer Popovich will remain in his current position, which includes a certain level of personnel control over the roster.
In April, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Popovich and the Spurs would likely finalize a three-year contract this offseason. Such a deal would run through the 2021/22 season, well beyond the 2020 Olympics, which some observers believed would be the veteran coach’s last hurrah.
Even if the Spurs finalize a three-year contract, that doesn’t mean that Popovich, who will turn 71 in January, can’t change his mind and retire before it expires, but it suggests he’s not planning on going anywhere anytime soon.
If Popovich were entering his final year, it’s unlikely that the Spurs would have attempted to accelerate their contention timeline anyway. If Pop believes he has multiple seasons left in him, there should be no such considerations at all this offseason.
3. Will the Spurs sign Dejounte Murray to a rookie scale extension?
One reason Popovich may be motivated to stick around San Antonio a little longer is to continue overseeing the development of Murray. The 2016 first-rounder generated a ton of buzz leading up to the 2018/19 season and was a popular pick to be one of the NBA’s breakout players. Instead, he suffered a torn ACL during the preseason and was sidelined for the entire year.
Recovering from a torn ACL is no fun, but at age 22, Murray is in position to make a comeback and continue his ascension. If he’s back to 100% to start the 2019/20 season, the dynamic point guard should change the look of the Spurs’ backcourt, providing play-making on offense and versatility on defense.
As he makes his way back from his ACL injury, Murray will also become eligible for a rookie scale contract extension next month. The Spurs will have until the day before the season opener to decide whether to lock him up to a new deal (which would start in 2020/21) or to let him reach restricted free agency in 2020.
It won’t be an easy call. In theory, it looks like a prime opportunity to get Murray at a long-term discount, like the Warriors did with Stephen Curry coming off his rookie deal, when there were concerns about his ankle issues.
But if the youngster isn’t all the way back from the ACL tear, a significant long-term investment would be a risk. On the other hand, if he’s feeling good about his rehab efforts, he may prefer to roll the dice on increasing his value in ’19/20 rather than accepting a team-friendly offer now. We’ll see if Murray and the Spurs can find a middle ground.
For what it’s worth, young big man Jakob Poeltl is also eligible for a rookie scale extension.
4. What will the Spurs do with their two first-round picks?
Despite consistently drafting in the back half of the first round, the Spurs have done well over the years to identify prospects capable of turning into reliable rotation pieces. Murray, White, Kyle Anderson, and Cory Joseph are among the players the Spurs have selected with the 29th or 30th overall picks since 2011.
The Spurs will once again hold the No. 29 pick in 2019, by way of the Raptors (via the Kawhi trade). They’ll also have the No. 19 overall selection, giving them a pair of opportunities to strike gold.
While the 2019 draft class isn’t considered a strong one, that may not matter much to the Spurs, who will lock in on a small handful of players they like. But after adding a pair of rookies to their roster a year ago (White and Chimezie Metu), the Spurs may not be eager to do so again this time around.
If that’s the case, it will be interesting to see how exactly the Spurs make use of their two picks. Perhaps they use one to select a player and the second to stash an international player, or to trade in a package for a veteran who could contribute immediately. Trading both picks to move up for a player they like is a possibility. The team could also push the asset to a future year by trading one of its first-round picks for a future first-rounder.
5. Will the Spurs bring back Rudy Gay?
With over $99MM in salary commitments on their books for 2019/20 so far, the Spurs don’t project to have cap room, so the mid-level exception looks the most likely avenue for an upgrade. However, the club is also in a good position to bring back Gay — a competitive offer using his Early Bird rights likely wouldn’t take San Antonio’s team salary anywhere near tax territory.
Gay has a reputation as a volume scorer, but he was at his most efficient during the 2018/19 season, establishing new career highs in FG% (.504) and 3PT% (.402). If the Spurs let him go, it won’t create added cap room to replace him, which is an argument in favor of re-signing him.
Additionally, while the Spurs already have 11 players under contract for next season and figure to add at least one or two more on draft night, they don’t have a ton of guys like Gay, who can play both forward positions, create his own shot, and knock down jumpers from beyond the arc.
It certainly wouldn’t the most exciting move of the 2019 free agent period, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the Spurs end up re-signing Gay, who has carved out a nice little role in San Antonio after spending much of his career on losing teams.
Check out the San Antonio Spurs’ offseason salary cap outlook right here.
Salary information from Basketball Insiders was used in the creation of this post. Photos courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.