Five burning offseason questions for the Spurs
The 2016-17 season will always be the season of “What If?” for the Spurs.
Playing without Tim Duncan for the first time in two decades, they won 61 games, made the Western Conference finals and led the vaunted Golden State Warriors by as many as 25 points in Game 1 before Kawhi Leonard limped off with a season-ending ankle sprain.
From there, a promising Spurs campaign came to a swift end in the form of a four-game sweep against Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry.
For Spurs players, the pressure cooker of the playoffs has since given way to sand and umbrella drinks of vacation. For the Spurs’ front office, the work of retooling to challenge the Warriors next season goes on.
Here are five burning questions to track as the Spurs’ offseason reload ramps up:
1. Who will be the Spurs’ starting point guard at the start of training camp?
Since 2002, Gregg Popovich has been able to chisel Tony Parker’s name into his lineup at point guard year in and year out. A gruesome ruptured quadriceps tendon injury casts the six-time All-Star’s availability for the start of next season into serious doubt. Unless the Spurs make a move to address the position in free agency — more on that later — it might be time to turn the reins over to 21-year-old-to-be Dejounte Murray. The 29th pick in last season’s draft, Murray is raw, inexperienced and lack an outside jumper. He has the size, athleticism and — most importantly — a fearlessness that make him a tantalizing part of the Spurs’ plans going forward. The team’s decision-makers view Murray as the point guard of the future. With Parker’s injury, that future might have arrived earlier than expected.
2. Is Manu ready to play Mr. Mom?
For what feels like the umpteenth summer in a row, franchise icon Manu Ginobili is facing a return-or-retire decision. At times during the playoffs, the irrepressible Argentine still seemed to have something left in the tank. With Ginobili’s 40th birthday looming in July, however, the end is closer for him than ever. Judging from Ginobili’s comments after the Spurs’ Game 4 ouster against Golden State, family concerns will weigh heavily. He might be ready to stay home and play Mr. Mom to his three sons. Make no mistake: The Spurs will miss Ginobili’s leadership if he walks away. To lose Tim Duncan, Ginobili and possibly Parker in the span of two summers would be a lot for one franchise to absorb.
3. Will the Spurs swing for the free agency fences again?
In each of the past two summers, the Spurs took a run at the summer’s biggest free agent fish. They snagged LaMarcus Aldridge in 2015, and lost out on a Hail May bid for Kevin Durant last July before adding Pau Gasol. Though the NBA season is not technically over, the Spurs are already being linked to Chris Paul, whose era might have run its course with the Los Angeles Clippers. Still perhaps the NBA’s top all-around point guard at age 32, Paul would fill an obvious immediate need given Parker’s medical prognosis. There are numerous hurdles to be cleared before general manager R.C. Buford and the rest of the Spurs’ brass can mount a credible pursuit of Paul. The Clippers can give Paul a package totaling about $205 million — or $53 million less than outside bidders can offer. It remains to be seen if Paul is willing to leave that much on the table in what is likely to be his final contract as a maximum player. Even if Paul does entertain offers, the Spurs would have to sacrifice most of their roster outside of Kawhi Leonard and Aldridge to carve space for him. The Spurs might be better served to keep their powder dry for the summer of 2018, when the path to salary cap space will be less painful.
4. Does Pau Gasol like money?
The Spurs’ most notable addition last offseason, Gasol owns a player option worth about $16.2 million for 2017-18. What he decides could go a long way toward informing the answer to the question above. If Gasol were to opt out — an unlikely scenario to be sure — the Spurs have a chance to carve space to make a convincing run into free agency. With Gasol set to turn 37 in July, and unlikely to find a better deal on the open market, chances are good he opts in. In that case, the Spurs are left with two basic options. They can operate as an above-the-cap team, running back a roster that looks similar to last season’s 61-win club while filling in blanks using the mid-level exception and veteran minimum deals. Or they can look to trade Gasol in search of the cap space required for a more thorough overhaul.
5. What of the Spurs’ other free agents?
Again, this question is related to those above it. Patty Mills is set to become an unrestricted free agent. Jonathon Simmons’ free agency will be restricted, meaning the Spurs will have the right to match offers for him. Dewayne Dedmon and perhaps David Lee will probably opt out to pursue free agency as well. The Spurs’ ability to retain any or all of the above is largely related to what path they choose elsewhere in free agency. If the object is to chase a Chris Paul-type, they will have to let their internal free agents walk. If not, the Spurs will have a chance to bring back at least Mills and Simmons. An arcane salary rule limits the amount teams can offer Simmons to about $8.4 million next season. However, the contract can be structured with a sizeable jump in the third year. At that point, the Spurs would have to think long and hard about matching.