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The 2021 playoffs are well underway and for the first time in franchise history, the San Antonio Spurs have missed out on the postseason in back-to-back seasons. A season that started with promise stumbled to the finish line last week with a loss to Memphis in the West Play-In tournament. There could and probably should be big changes on the horizon for the organization. Let’s run through six key questions headed into the summer in this week’s KSAT.com Spurs newsletter.
1. Will Gregg Popovich return?
This is now an ongoing question at the end every season. Last year after the Orlando bubble, Popovich was pretty clear about his intentions to return. He was not so clear last week. When asked about the offseason, the Spurs head coach dismissed the question saying, “the season just ended, we got a lot of time for that.”
Popovich is 72 years old and just capped his 25th year as Spurs head coach. He said numerous times it was a joy to coach and develop this young group this season. But unless one of the young core players is going to reach an all-star level, or there is a major roster addition and DeMar DeRozan possibly re-signs, it’s hard to see San Antonio becoming a title contender in the near future.
Does that weigh into Pop’s decision? He’s only 26 wins away from becoming the NBA’s all-time winningest head coach in the regular season. I don’t believe that matters to him, but leaving the franchise in the best shape possible probably does. Hear more from Pop here.
2. DeRozan’s free agency
Let’s get it out there. DeRozan was not good against the Grizzlies and did nothing last Wednesday to remove his reputation as a player who comes up short in the biggest games. But seriously, where would this team have been without him this year? Remember, at one point this season, the Spurs were 22-16 and DeRozan was a borderline all-star. The season fell apart for San Antonio, but you can’t blame DeRozan for a COVID outbreak on the roster, Derrick White’s injury issues and an insane schedule in the second half of the season. DeRozan also missed time due to his father’s death. It was a lot.
And still, DeRozan averaged a team-high 21.6 points and 7 assists per game, a career best. He was the team’s primary playmaker and creator, and despite a bad play-in game, one of the most clutch players in the league this season. He’s also a respected veteran and mentor on-and-off the court.
All that being said, he may have played his final game with the Spurs. The Spurs are projected to have around $50 million in cap space this summer and DeRozan will be an unrestricted free agent starting on Aug. 1.
ESPN’s Bobby Marks reported the Spurs have an exclusive window to re-sign DeRozan before then. The deal will likely be in the range of around $120-130 million over four years, so about $30-33 million a year.
DeRozan is about to turn 32 and does not fit the Spurs youth timeline. But if San Antonio can sign an impact free agent and keep DeMar, maybe that puts them back in the conversation for a West playoffs spot.
The question is: does DeMar even want to re-sign in San Antonio? He had great things to say about the organization last Wednesday, but if he wants to compete for a title in the near future, he may sign elsewhere. The Knicks, Hornets, Heat and Mavericks reportedly have the cap space to add him. I would say all those teams are in better position right now to compete for a championship than San Antonio. While the Spurs have the inside track, it appears DeRozan will to go through the free agency process this summer. Hear more from DeMar here.
3. Future of Patty Mills and Rudy Gay
Both veterans are set to be unrestricted free agents. Obviously, Patty is a pillar of the Spurs culture and has corporate knowledge dating back to the Tim Duncan era. He started the season on fire, averaging over 14 points per game in the first 20 games but cooled off significantly. He can still contribute off the bench, but if San Antonio re-signs him, Marks notes the Spurs will likely use one of team’s exceptions, which would pay Mills about $5 million. This number feels about right when you factor what Mills has meant to the Spurs on-and-off the court. But do not be surprised if another team comes after the veteran guard.
Gay is a different story and may be the odd man out. He made $14 million a year over the past two seasons, but that’s likely too high for San Antonio assuming they re-sign DeRozan, Mills and add another key free agent. All that being said, Gay was solid for a Spurs team that struggled down the stretch. He averaged more than 11 points per game this season and is a reliable 3-point shooter. He will be a very good veteran addition for a team willing to pay him around $10 million a year.
4. The free agent landscape
Guess what? Kawhi Leonard can go into free agency this summer. I’m feeling some reunion vibes here! Completely joking. But with some cap space this summer, San Antonio should look to add an immediate impact player. Some names to watch are John Collins, Lauri Markkanen and Jarrett Allen. However, all three are restricted free agents meaning their current team can match an offer from another team.
Another interesting option is Sacramento big man Richaun Holmes, who averaged a career-high 14.3 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. The Spurs lacked big man depth down the stretch, but the goal should be to add more 3-point shooting. San Antonio was at the bottom of the league in that category and they could target a sharpshooter like Miami’s Duncan Robinson, but it would be in the range of $20 million a year. It’s a steep price, but you simply can’t win in today’s NBA without 3-point shooting.
5. Current state of the roster
The foundation for the Spurs is pretty solid. They have rebuilt through the draft and Dejounte Murray, Keldon Johnson and Jakob Poeltl took some really nice strides this season. Dejounte was solid all season and is now a bonafide triple-double threat every night. He still needs to improve his offensive game a bit and late-game decision making, but he’s close.
It was clear San Antonio missed White, who was just snakebitten this year. He might be their most indispensable player because of his overall game, but this is now two of three seasons he’s had some injury issues.
If San Antonio can not attract an impact free agent, they might think of trading one of their young wings, but I would hope they would only entertain an offer for an elite lottery pick or an established star. NBA stars become disgruntled all the time. It’s just a question of who’s next. I personally like everyone on the roster, but unless Keldon, Dejounte or maybe White reaches a borderline all-star level, San Antonio may have to move one of them. There’s also Lonnie Walker, who had a career season and showed flashes, but was inconsistent.
This upcoming offseason will also be important for Luka Samanic. It’s time to see what he has. He’s been buried on the bench so it makes sense to let Gay walk and give Luka some run. Devin Vassell had his ups and downs during his rookie campaign, but his ceiling is still high. Spurs fans were not happy about Vassell’s lack of playing time, but he finished with the most minutes for a Spurs rookie since the aforementioned Leonard.
6. The NBA draft
The Spurs will have the No. 12 pick in this year’s draft after they lost a tiebreaker with Charlotte. There will be some solid options there including Michigan’s Franz Wagner. The 6-9 forward is defensive specialist and 3-point shooter. Yes, it’s another wing player, but this is the NBA world we live in, OK!
The draft will be held on July 29 and free agency starts Aug. 2, so any Spurs movement in the draft could indicate what’s ahead. As of today, San Antonio still has a 1.7 percent chance to win the lottery. Cue my favorite meme.
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