Unusual, Disappointing Offseason Won’t Slow San Antonio Spurs

For a team with as low-key a reputation as any in the league, the San Antonio Spurs have had a pair of eventful offseasons in 2018 and 2019.

2018 was dominated by the Kawhi Leonard trade request and eventual deal with the Toronto Raptors, while 2019 brought with it the Marcus Morris commitment and reversal, which left the Spurs high and dry.

San Antonio essentially traded Davis Bertans to Washington for no return to make room for Morris, but when Morris reneged on his agreement with the Spurs to join the New York Knicks (for less total guaranteed money), it was too late for them to reverse course on the Bertans trade. The Spurs scrambled to sign Trey Lyles with the money left from Morris’s exit, but the damage is done.

The ramifications of Morris’s decision on Morris himself, the Spurs and the league as a whole is a topic for another time, but suffice it to say that nobody in San Antonio is happy with the outcome.

Bertans is a major loss for their offensive firepower: San Antonio was 10 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor versus when he sat last year. He is by no means a stopper defensively, but he has enough size and length to compete on that end of the floor.

In his place will be DeMarre Carroll, who is a better defender but won’t add as much to the offensive attack. Officially, Carroll was brought in for Bertans in the three-team trade with the Brooklyn Nets and Washington Wizards, but the only reason that was necessary was to make room in their non-taxpayer mid-level exception for Morris.

Dec 26, 2017; San Antonio, TX, USA; Brooklyn Nets forward DeMarre Carroll (9) bring the ball up-court during the first half against the San Antonio Spurs at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Still, the Spurs are returning most of their playoff core from last season while adding Lyles and Carroll in free agency. They also get back Dejounte Murray, who missed all of 2018-19 with a knee injury suffered in preseason.

Murray and Carroll coming will bolster a San Antonio defense that was uncharacteristically poor in 2018-19. For the first time in more than half a decade, the Spurs did not rank as one of the five best defenses in the league, something that will surely eat away at head coach Gregg Popovich as he prepares for the upcoming season.

The introduction of Carroll and reintroduction of Murray will give the Spurs a very strong seven-deep rotation and will set them up well for regular-season success. Murray, Derrick White, DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge and Jakob Poeltl project as the team’s starting lineup for most games, with Carroll and the recently re-signed Rudy Gay as their primary bench players.

In true Popovich fashion, pretty much every Spur will see rotation minutes at some point throughout the season, however. Patty Mills is back for his umpteenth season in San Antonio and retains his sparkplug offensive ability off the bench. (He led the team in offensive plus-minus last season and graded out as a very strong positive in Jacob Goldstein’s O-PIPM metric.) Lyles fell out of favor in Denver during their playoff run but can help as an offensively-focused backup big man.

San Antonio also has a number of interesting young players, from second-year guard Lonnie Walker to Luka Samanic and Keldon Johnson—their two first-round picks in last month’s draft.

Walker played very sparingly in his rookie year but showed some flashes with the club’s G League affiliate in Austin and during Las Vegas Summer League during early July. He’ll have to compete for minutes off the bench with shooters Marco Belinelli and Bryn Forbes, but the Spurs have an active incentive to make sure he develops as they look toward the future.

Apr 3, 2019; Denver, CO, USA; San Antonio Spurs guard Lonnie Walker IV (1) controls the ball against Denver Nuggets guard Monte Morris (11) in the fourth quarter at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Samanic and Johnson were chosen in the latter half of the first round and must prove themselves in practice before Popovich will work them into his rotation, but both have intriguing skillsets. Samanic is a versatile playmaking big, though he may lack the athleticism to shine at the NBA level. Conversely, Johnson has the athleticism and physical profile of a modern NBA wing but may lack the basketball IQ Popovich loves in his players.

Still, both were chosen in the first round by the organization and, as with Walker, the Spurs will put time and resources into developing them.

It’s a testament to San Antonio’s long track record of grooming low-first and second-rounder talent into productive players that they have weathered the departure of Leonard and even a setback like losing Bertans and Morris for nothing. Forbes, Waker IV, White and Murray are just the latest, though Bertans himself was a similar project who bore fruit.

San Antonio’s projected closing lineup will likely be Murray, White, DeRozan, Gay and Aldridge, with Carroll subbing in for his 3-and-D skillset when needed. After a year in which they struggled defensively, particularly in the clutch, any five of their top six players should give them a lot more fortitude on that end without taking too much off the table offensively.

Jan 16, 2019; Dallas, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge (12) and guard DeMar DeRozan (10) reacts against the Dallas Mavericks during the second half at the American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

DeRozan and Aldridge are heroes of isolation late in games, which pushed the Spurs to the fifth-best offensive rating in the clutch last season and the fifth-best effective field goal percentage. Both guys are able to work without much spacing on the floor and can get to their spots against just about any defensive setup, which will allow the Spurs to roll out closing lineups with both Murray and White despite those players’ relative lack of offensive value.

White did show an ability to create for himself in the 2019 playoffs, but those moments were somewhat fleeting and against an undersized Nuggets defender in Jamal Murray.

The final major summer decisions regard extensions for Poeltl and Murray. San Antonio doesn’t project to have cap space to spend next summer if they’re going to hold onto Aldridge’s partially-guaranteed contract, so extensions for these guys wouldn’t hurt from that perspective. They also have plenty of room below the 2021 tax line for added salary, so any extension negotiations would be purely about the basketball value of these two.

Extending Poeltl at anything resembling starter money would be a grave mistake, but one you could absolutely see the Spurs making. They love big guys and have often overpaid for them, as they did with Pau Gasol a few years ago. Poeltl is nowhere near the top level of centers throughout the league, and if we’ve learned anything from the 2019 offseason, it’s that non-star centers are a dime a dozen and can be had for very cheap on the open market.

Murray is a more interesting extension candidate due to his injury history.

Feb 27, 2019; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich talks with guard Dejounte Murray (right) prior to a game against the Detroit Pistons at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not hard to imagine negotiations coming down to the last moments before the mid-October deadline, as he will need time to prove himself in training camp and preseason before the club will be willing to commit multiple years. The smart money would be on no extension being signed unless Murray is willing to take a massive discount to solidify his future earnings, but the Spurs can always bring him back in restricted free agency next summer if the two sides are unable to come to an agreement.

If the Spurs do go the cap space route without Aldridge in the mix, then Murray’s small cap hold would provide them with some extra financial flexibility to use that space and re-sign him later in the process.

There’s nothing sexy about the Spurs, but they’re going to be a very good regular season team once again and a difficult out in the playoffs, particularly if they can stay healthy and get their defense back to the top-5 level we’re all accustomed to.

Elevating their production on that end may be somewhat ambitious, but a top-10 defensive outfit combined with similar offensive output as 2018-19’s unit will have the Spurs firmly in the playoff picture, per usual.