Free agent targets who could be within the Spurs’ budget

The Spurs are short on roster spots and salary flexibility, but they still have options.

With many considering this year’s NBA free agency class to be one of the best ever, this summer promises to be filled with fireworks. Unless something unexpected happens, the San Antonio Spurs will not be partaking in these fireworks. The Spurs will be entering free agency on Sunday was little in the way of cap space or roster spots. From a roster perspective, the following players are under contract for the 2019-2020 NBA season:

Those players account for both two-way contracts and 11 out of the possible 15 main roster spots, not including the Spurs’ two first round picks Luka Samanic and Keldon Johnson. The Spurs have already reached an agreement with Petrol Olimpija to have Samanic released so that he can sign with the Spurs this summer. While there’s been no official word, I expect Johnson to be signed as well. With the expected signings of Samanic and Johnson, the Spurs will only have two roster vacancies.

Right now the Spurs are set at the guard positions. The Spurs could probably use more experienced bigs on the roster, but Aldridge, Poeltl, Bertans, Samanic, Metu, and Eubanks should be able to absorb the majority of those minutes this season. The Spurs’ depth chart at the small forward position is DeRozan, Belinelli, and Johnson, none of whom are traditionally small forwards and none whom can slide to the four position. The Spurs need to add a combo forward to their roster. With that in mind, let’s take a look at who the Spurs should be targeting once the free agency period begins.

Rudy Gay

ESPN’s Bobby Marks salary projection: $8-10 million per year

My salary projection: $12 million per year

Preferred contract structure: $13,000,000 in 2019-2020, $12,000,000 in 2020-2021, $11,000,000 in 2021-2022.

Right now Rudy Gay’s $13 million cap hold has the Spurs over the $109.14 million salary cap. If the Spurs were to renounce the rights to all their free agents including Gay, they could get their salary down to $104 million. That would still leave only $5 million to sign an outside free agent, not nearly enough to make losing Gay worth it. Due to the fact that Gay would be filling a major position of need for the Spurs, is coming off an excellent season with the Spurs, and can be signed by going over the salary cap, all signs point to Gay being re-signed by the Spurs shortly after free agency begins.

There’s already been some talk that Gay is expected to re-sign with the Spurs for more than $10 million per season. That makes sense considering Gay likely wants to play for a contender and most contenders only have the non-taxpayer mid-level exception (MLE) to offer, which maxes out at $9.2 million. By going over the $10 million threshold, the Spurs can guarantee they offer him more than those teams.

I have Gay signing for an average of $12 million a year, which in my opinion, would be a great deal for both Gay and the Spurs. This is especially true if he signs a contract with a decreasing salary, as that would give the Spurs more cap flexibility in future seasons when they would actually have cap space to work with. Right now the Spurs are already working from over the cap but are nowhere near the luxury tax. That means the amount Gay signs for this season won’t impact the Spurs’ ability to sign other free agents.

There are a few contending teams like the Los Angeles Lakers or Philadelphia 76ers who may end up striking out on the top-tier free agents and could look to fill out their roster with players like Gay. Those teams could, in theory, offer a competitive contract to that of the Spurs. Gay’s ominous quote that he “can be a big piece to any team” doesn’t make it sound like he’s guaranteed to be re-signing with the Spurs, but when all is said and done, it makes too much sense for it not to happen.

I’m certain the Spurs have contingency plans in the event Gay leaves the Spurs this offseason, but with little cap space to work with, it would take some trades and cap gymnastics to open up enough space to acquire a player of Gay’s stature. If the Spurs are hoping to contend this season (they are), re-signing Gay should be their top priority this offseason (I believe it is).

Assuming Gay re-signs with the Spurs, they would only have one roster spot available and the full non-taxpayer MLE of $9.2 million at their disposal. There should be plenty of options to fill the final vacancy if the Spurs choose to go into the season with a full roster.

Stanley Johnson

ESPN’s Bobby Marks salary projection: $4-6 million per year

My salary projection: $5 million per year

The New Orleans Pelicans recently declined Johnson’s qualifying offer, making him an unrestricted free agent. Johnson is a potential buy-low candidate, something the Spurs have been known to look for in prior seasons. The Spurs have been tied to Johnson in the past. Before last season’s trade deadline, the Spurs were rumored to be looking for wing depth with Johnson listed as one of their targets. Jabari Young also had the following to say about the Spurs and Johnson:

Spurs assistant GM Brian Wright was with the Pistons back in 2015 when the team drafted Johnson. Around the league, executives mentioned that Wright is still a big supporter of Johnson.

Johnson is an aggressive, excellent defender. Last season he had a Defensive Real Plus Minus of 1.72, which was ranked 9 out of the 93 players ESPN considered small forwards. There is also this video of him guarding Kawhi Leonard, which got quite a bit of national attention early last season:

Johnson is 6’ 7” with a 7’ 0” wingspan. He also weighs 245 pounds, which allows him to play both forward positions. That’s definitely something the Spurs are in the market for this offseason.

All of this sounds great, right? There’s gotta be a catch. Why else would the Detroit Pistons trade him to the Pelicans last season? And why would the Pelicans let him go into unrestricted free agency? The answer is simple. However good Johnson is on defense, he’s even worse on offense. I mean he’s bad. Like really, really bad.

For his career Johnson has averaged 7 points on 37/29/76 percent shooting. Last season his Offensive Real Plus Minus was -4.06, which was ranked 92 out of the 93 players ESPN considered small forward. Yikes.

The good news is if he were to play alongside players like Mills, Forbes, Belinelli, and Bertans, he wouldn’t be asked to do much on offense except keep the ball moving. He would be able to focus the majority of his attention on the defensive side of the court. He would also only cost a fraction of the MLE. The Spurs would not have an open roster spot, but if Metu doesn’t work out or Belinelli ends up getting traded to a team with cap space, the Spurs could theoretically use the rest of the MLE to sign another player.

If I were R.C. Buford I wouldn’t go this route, but I see the appeal. There’s no doubt that if the Spurs could someway, somehow turn Johnson into just a slightly below-average offensive player, they would have an absolute steal on their hands. I’m just not sure that even the great Chip Engelland has what it takes to fix whatever is ailing Johnson’s shot.

DeMarre Carroll

ESPN’s Bobby Marks salary projection: $6-8 million per year

My salary projection: $8 million per year

DeMarre Carroll fits the mold of a modern combo forward with floor stretching ability. Last season he came off the bench for the Brooklyn Nets for the first time in six seasons and he struggled somewhat with his efficiency. According to his DRPM numbers, he was also a negative on the defensive side of the court. That is more concerning than his offensive struggles considering he had been a plus defender in each season since DRPM became a statistic.

Carroll is now 32 years old and is coming off a fairly lucrative contract. At this stage of his career I expect him to look for a team that will allow for him to both get consistent minutes and compete for a championship. Even with Carroll’s recent decline in productivity, I would consider him an upgrade over Belinelli and certainly over Dante Cunningham and Quincy Pondexter. I could envision a scenario where he starts at the 4 position in small lineups when Coach Pop wants Gay to provide a scoring punch off the bench. Whether or not Carroll would consider the Spurs a team competing for a championship is another story.

Carroll is still a borderline starter for a playoff team, so I expect him to get offers nearing the full non-taxer MLE of $9.2 million. The good news is that even though there are several teams with a lot of money to spend this offseason, there are even more quality free agents. Some of these decent-to-good players like Carroll are bound to fall through the cracks and PATFO will be looking to strike at that moment. To be fair, that’s pretty much their only option given the Spurs’ financial situation.

JaMychal Green

ESPN’s Bobby Marks salary projection: $8-10 million per year

My salary projection: $8 million per year

JaMychal Green has an interesting history with the Spurs. He first played on the Spurs’ 2012 summer league team. Before the 2012-2013 season Green was signed by the Spurs but waived only four days later. He ended up playing for the Auston Toros (now Spurs) during the 2012-2013 season. Two years later Green followed a very similar path. He played for the Spurs’ summer league team, was signed by the Spurs, waived right before the regular season started and ultimately signed with the Austin Toros. Finally, in January of 2015 Green was signed to a 10-day contract with the Spurs but the Spurs did not re-sign Green to a second 10-day contract.

Oh, then there’s this gem:

So, um, maybe Green would prefer to play alongside Aldridge instead of against him.

Green is the perfect candidate for a contract starting at the non-taxpayer MLE of $9.2 million. He’s also the perfect candidate for falling through the cracks during a hectic free agency period.

Green has been a decent player the past three seasons but I’ve never been very impressed with his game anytime I’ve seen him play. He has the ability to stretch the floor but he doesn’t excel at any one thing. In fact, his RPM of -3.55 this season was ranked 90 out of the 94 players ESPN considered to be power forwards. He was equally bad on defense and offense so I’m not really sure where he would bring value to a deep Spurs roster.

If Green commands anywhere near the full non-taxpayer MLE I would not consider signing him. If he’s the best player available for that amount I would either look to improve the roster via trades or run it back with the same team from last year plus Murray and see what happens. Given his history with the Spurs, I’m not sure he would even consider coming back to San Antonio and that’s probably for the best.

Al-Farouq Aminu

ESPN’s Bobby Marks salary projection: $8-10 million per year

My salary projection: $9.2 million per year

The one thing Al-Farouq Aminu adds to a lineup is versatility. I’ve seen him find success guarding positions 1 through 5. I’ve watched a lot of Portland Trail Blazers games over the years and he does a bunch of little things on the court to have a positive impact on the game. He’s a slightly below-average three point shooter, and that’s considering opposing defenses sag off of him constantly and dare him to beat them on the perimeter. I’ve seem some really horrible shots come out of his hands.

Unlike JaMychal Green, I think there’s a strong possibility Aminu comes close to getting an average salary of $10 million in his next contract. He has been a great glue guy for the Blazers for a few seasons and is the exact type of player every team needs to contend for a championship in the modern NBA. I certainly think the Spurs could make worse use of their MLE than spending it on Aminu. I would start him over Poeltl and let Aldridge play the 5. Spacing could be an issue, but I’m not ready to panic on that front until I’ve seen how the other starters have progressed over the summer.

Players to target if their stock drops

There are a few players projected to make more than the MLE that the Spurs should keep a close eye on in the event one of them falls through the cracks.

Thaddeus Young

ESPN’s Bobby Marks salary projection: $10-12 million per year

My salary projection: $13 million per year

Young might be the most well-rounded stretch four available in free agency this summer. Bobby Marks expects him to sign for more than the MLE and I expect him to near the high-end of his projection. I would put him and Gay in a very similar contract range.

Julius Randle

ESPN’s Bobby Marks salary projection: $10-12 million per year

My salary projection: $16 million per year

Randle is still very young and is coming off a season where he averaged 21 points, 9 rebounds, and 3 assists. He also showed last season that he’s developing a reliable outside shot, making his offensive game even more dynamic. I only have him on this list because Bobby Marks has his salary projection in the $10-12 million range. I don’t buy that for one second. I think he ends up with $16 million per year at a minimum. He would be a fantastic signing for the Spurs but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

DeMarcus Cousins

ESPN’s Bobby Marks salary projection: $10-12 million per year

My salary projection: $14 million per year

This is another one I can’t see happening but it would at least be interesting if it did. Cousins is still a head case but there is mutual admiration between him and Coach Pop. I think there will be a market for Cousins, especially from teams like the Knicks who will almost certainly end up falling short on several of their plan A free agent targets. Overpaying Cousins just feels inevitable for them at this point.

Players the Spurs might target but probably shouldn’t

Trevor Ariza

ESPN’s Bobby Marks salary projection: $6-8 million per year

My salary projection: $5 million per year

I used to dream of Ariza playing for the Spurs, but now I’m not so sure. I love Ariza as a person, but at age 34 I’m just not sure how much he has left to give an NBA team with playoff aspirations. He averaged over 34 minutes a game last season, which feels about 8-10 minutes too high for a player with his mileage. I do think the Spurs could significantly reduce his minutes during the regular season to keep him fresh for the playoffs, and a fresh Ariza could bring value. I know the Spurs have been tied to Ariza in the past so it wouldn’t be too surprising if they made a push for him this summer. Maybe I’m using recency bias to undervalue Ariza. If he ends up signing with the Spurs I hope that’s the case.

Frank Kaminsky

ESPN’s Bobby Marks salary projection: $4-6 million per year

My salary projection: $6 million per year

Kaminsky’s projected salary is pretty good value for a stretch 4 who can drop double digit points in under 24 minutes a game. Still, I don’t see him bringing anything Bertans doesn’t already bring. Kaminsky is a true 7 footer but still has poor rebounding numbers and his overall defense is OK but not great. He’s a reliable outside shooter but Bertans is more reliable and is already familiar with the Spurs’ system. Given a similar salary, I’d take Bertans over Kaminsky any day of the week. I also don’t want another Pau Gasol situation where there is somebody not as good as Poeltl eating away at some of his minutes.

Ed Davis

ESPN’s Bobby Marks salary projection: $6-8 million per year

My salary projection: $6 million per year

This one is tough. Davis is almost non-existent on offense (he’s only attempted three 3-point shots in his career) but he is an excellent defender and rebounder. The Spurs could certainly use a player of his caliber off the bench if Pop decides to go with Poeltl and Aldridge in the starting lineup. Davis actually led all power forwards last season in DRPM, ahead of players like Draymond Green, the Greek Freak, and Anthony Davis.

Here’s the problem. Poeltl and Davis cannot share the court in today’s NBA, meaning Pop would almost certainly spend the majority of the season playing big. That’s not the direction I want the Spurs to go, so it’s nothing personal against Davis, but signing him would set things in motion for the Spurs to play a style of basketball I don’t want to see.

Final thoughts

I don’t think all three of Mills, Belinelli, and Bertans end up on the Spurs’ roster by the time the regular season begins. I don’t know if the Spurs will be looking to trade them to free up cap space or to acquire another player of similar salary. Either way, trades involving these players could impact which exceptions are available to the Spurs and what direction they go in using these exceptions.

I’m a fan of the Spurs but also of the NBA and all of its craziness. It’s going to be fascinating to see how the free agent dominos fall over the next few days, even if it leads to us having to watch teams we hate improve while the Spurs stand pat.

What are some of your hopes for this free agency period?

Free agent targets who could be within the Spurs’ budget
Source: Pounding The Rock

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