Some had high hopes for the San Antonio Spurs this offseason. They were early contenders to land Chris Paul, and are still a possible destination for Kyrie Irving. But, for now, the Spurs remained quiet, emphasizing continuity, with few noteworthy moves.
After all, they’ve been among the best teams in the Western Conference for decades. They made the Western Conference Finals last year. Gregg Popovich always makes the most of his roster, and San Antonio consistently overachieves during the regular season.
This offseason, the Spurs retained Patty Mills, Manu Ginobili and Pau Gasol, while adding Rudy Gay, Brandon Paul and Joffrey Lauvergne. The team let Dewayne Dedmon, Jonathon Simmons and, likely, David Lee walk. Although these were mostly minor moves, they do change the landscape of the Spurs’ future.
Re-signing Patty Mills on a four-year, $50 million contract isn’t bad value. Tony Parker, who’s being paid north of $15 million this year, is on the last year of his deal. He’s also a below-average starting point guard who is aging quickly and currently injured. This move signals that the Spurs are ready to make Mills their starting point guard of the future — at least for now.
But Mills is going to turn 29 before the season begins. He, too, is a below-average starting point guard and was practically invisible against the Warriors in all facets of the game. He’s neither a great defender nor shot creator. Do the Spurs really want to build a contender around him?
Meanwhile, re-signing Pau Gasol for three years, $48 million (with the last year partially guaranteed), was one of the worst moves of the summer league-wide. Pau Gasol opted out of his $16 million contract this season, hoping to return to the Spurs on a longer deal. But nobody expected his new longer contract to have the same per-year salary as his old one.
This move frankly makes little sense. Gasol may have had a storied career, but he’s 37, immobile defensively and a poor fit with LaMarcus Aldridge. He was in and out of the starting lineup last year. Paying him big money over three years significantly reduces their ability to bring in free agents in the future.
Add the losses of Jonathon Simmons and Dewayne Dedmon — younger players with athleticism and defensive potential — and the Spurs will likely be older and worse on the defensive end next season. Rudy Gay, their most significant signing, is already 30 and coming off an Achilles injury — one of the most debilitating injuries in basketball. Most known for his isolation scoring, he’s an odd fit for the Spurs’ methodical system.
Aldridge, who signed in San Antonio to be a focal point of the Spurs offense, has disappointed, disappearing in key games and rarely making an impact on defense. He’s 32 and likely won’t be improving. Danny Green, maybe the Spurs’ second-most important player, has been in an offensive slump for two years, and he is already 30.
After this offseason, the Spurs are only going to be older next season, and likely worse on defense. And even worse, they’ve compromised their cap flexibility in future seasons. They won’t be able to sign a lucrative free agent next summer unless they move major pieces, and don’t have a clear direction for their team’s future.
They may have had their sights on stars like Chris Paul in free agency, but struck out on all of them. It would be rash to condemn them to the bottom of the West with MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard in tow. But there are real questions about their competitive ceiling in the coming years.
How do they match up with the Warriors?
For the first half of Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference Finals, the Spurs dominated the Warriors. But once Leonard was injured, the Spurs collapsed. Nobody, other than maybe Jonathon Simmons, stepped up against the Warriors for the rest of the series.
Over a seven-game series, a front court of Gasol and Aldridge won’t be able to contend with the Warriors. They are simply too slow and porous on defense.
Popovich might find success playing Leonard at the four (a lineup construction he hasn’t embraced yet), but the Spurs might not have the versatility on the wings to keep up. Will Danny Green, Manu Ginobili, Rudy Gay and maybe Kyle Anderson be enough?
Because of Popovich’s system and Leonard’s dominance on both sides of the court, the Spurs will likely be one of the top four teams in the Western Conference this year. But come playoff time, it’s unlikely they give the Warriors much of a fight with this roster.
Of course, if the Spurs find a way to snag Kyrie Irving, or another star, they could be contenders again. But right now, it looks like it’s Kawhi Leonard versus everybody else.
And with sizable cap commitments to role players, the Spurs might have trouble improving their roster until 2019. In the arms race of the Western Conference, it’s clear that the Spurs took a small step back.