There is an expiration date on every NBA success story. Title windows are not forever, even when they seem that way. Longevity sometimes implies invincibility, but eventually, annual dominance takes a toll, and self-preservation becomes more about the capacity to reinvent without needing to reboot.
The San Antonio Spurs know this better than any other team. This balancing act is their status quo. Each and every summer is a potential turning point—a crossroads offering to extend their peak or steer them into detour.
This summer will be no different. With so many players nearing or entering free agency, the urge to make wholesale changes will exist. But should the Spurs be traveling the great lengths it'll take for them to become the threat they were in 2015 when they lured LaMarcus Aldridge out of Portland?
Consider this the plight of the dominant. The Spurs have won no less than 61 percent of their games over the last 20 seasons, during which time they've tallied 183 more total victories than the next-closest team (Dallas Mavericks).
Adding talent is harder to some degree when you're winning. Since drafting Tim Duncan first overall in 1997, the Spurs have selected no earlier than No. 20, miles away from the most glitzy prospects. They're just so good at finding players everywhere it hasn't yet mattered.
Tony Parker at No. 28. Manu Ginobili at No. 57. Turning George Hill, a 26th overall pick, into Kawhi Leonard, a 15th overall selection. Other times, they're tapping into unplumbed or forgotten resources—Boris Diaw, Danny Green, Patty Mills, Jonathon Simmons.
At some point, though, the aging of success catches up with you. Duncan is already gone. The wait on his departure has been replaced by one for Ginobili. Parker's future is up in the air as he enters the final year of his contract recovering from a torn left quad.
Having a 25-year-old superstar, in Leonard, protects the Spurs from aging out completely. But bridges into the next era still need beams to prop them up, and San Antonio's supporting cast is forcing some tough decisions.
Mills' free agency is the most important of the bunch. Parker's status for next season is a mystery, and Dejounte Murray isn't taking the reins as a sophomore for a team hoping to compete. But an executive told Fox Sports Australia's Olgun Uluc that Mills could cost anywhere between $12 million and $18 million per year.
Simmons is an Early Bird restricted free agent. No team can offer him more than the non-taxpayer mid-level exception in his first year ($8.4 million), which the Spurs have the ability to match. But they have to decide if they'll go that high, or whether they're willing to match a deal that includes a salary spike in his third year, as the Miami Heat did last summer with Tyler Johnson's four-year, $50 million offer.
Dewayne Dedmon owns a player option he's bound to decline, and the Spurs won't be able to re-sign him without dipping into cap space they may not have. David Lee has a player option as well. Pau Gasol has made it clear he's exercising his own $16.2 million option for next season. Ginobili might retire.
All of this built-in uncertainty favors doubling down on free agency—as do the contents of this year's class.
Make a list of the top 10 free agents, and around half of them will play point guard, where the Spurs are, as of now, most vulnerable: Stephen Curry, George Hill, Jrue Holiday, Kyle Lowry and Chris Paul. Curry isn't going anywhere, but everyone else will at least be shopping around, and there's already a connection brewing between Paul and San Antonio.
"There's been a lot of rumblings about Chris Paul, and I think that's real," ESPN.com's Zach Lowe said on The Lowe Post podcast. "I think there's mutual interest there. I don't know how real it is given the [Los Angeles] Clippers can offer a gigantic amount of money and are also a really good team; and the Spurs, like I said, have no sort of cap flexibility to get there."
NBA insider Marc Stein added to this mounting pile of evidence:
Marc Stein @ESPNSteinLine
The Clippers, I'm told, take the threat of a Spurs free-agent pursuit of Chris Paul very seriously despite SA's current lack of cap space.2017-5-26 15:04:36
Signing with San Antonio seems like a no-brainer if a 32-year-old Paul is willing to pass on a five-year, $200 million-plus deal from the Clippers. But the Spurs have to be able to pay him, and that won't be easy.
Paul's max salary will give him 35 percent of next season's projected $101 million cap—around $35.4 million. San Antonio won't come close to sniffing that number. Assuming Dedmon and Lee opt out and every free agent except Simmons is renounced, including Ginobili, the books will look something like this:
|San Antonio's Tight Spot|
|Player||2017-18 Hold (before any contracts get signed)|
|Jonathon Simmons (Restricted)||$1,671,382|
|No. 29 Pick||$1,170,500|
|Empty Roster Charge||$815,615|
|Projected Salary Cap||$101,000,000|
|Source: Basketball Insiders/RealGM.|
Carving out $6.4 million in space isn't worth sacrificing the $8.4 million non-taxpayer's mid-level exception, which must also be ditched; otherwise it counts against the ledger. The Spurs need another $29 million in wiggle room before pitching Paul.
Even if he's willing to accept less, two core pieces have to go—specifically from the group of Aldridge, Gasol, Green and Parker.
Green is by far the easiest to move, but he's too valuable to what San Antonio does defensively and, per Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding, inside the locker room. Parker is natural collateral damage with another point guard coming on, but the Spurs are too loyal to end the relationship via the stretch provision or a salary dump.
That leaves Aldridge and Gasol. Deal both of their salaries, totaling $37.7 million, and the Spurs have room to take back money or carry Mills' cap hold. But then they'll be left with holes up front. They'll need to get bigs in return or find some on the cheap in free agency.
Trade just Gasol into a team's cap space, and the Spurs drum up a little more than $21 million in spending power—enough, perhaps, to reunite with Hill. Move only Aldridge, and they're looking at around $27 million—enough, maybe, to get in a room with Lowry or Paul and give a presentation on the benefits of signing for a discount.
Are all the cap-sheet casualties worth this? Better yet, are they even possible? What team is taking on Gasol's salary without a pick or prospect also attached? Aldridge received a lot of flak toward the end of the playoffs, but is he expendable enough for the Spurs to offload solely in exchange for flexibility? And does the best use of that resulting cap space include shelling out max or near-max money for a point guard closer to his twilight than the heart of his prime?
Shaking everything up this summer is even more of a questionable ploy when the Spurs can simply wait for next year, once Leonard is the only player under guaranteed contract. Aldridge and Green have player options they're going to decline, while Gasol and Parker will be washed from the books.
Float Green's cap hold, along with those for cheaper players, and the Spurs would be rolling in space:
|San Antonio's Cap Situation for 2018|
|Player||2018-19 Hold (before any contracts get signed)|
|Kyle Anderson (Restricted)||$6,455,112|
|No. 29 Pick from 2017 (Year 2)||$1,389,300|
|Five Empty Roster Charges||$4,078,075|
|Projected Salary Cap||$103,000,000|
|Source: Basketball Insiders/RealGM|
There is a lot San Antonio can do with this much money at its disposal. This projection is very fluid so far in advance and doesn't include a hold for next year's first-round pick, but the Spurs would have the maneuverability to generate max space with ease.
"That parallels 2015 when they signed Aldridge while retaining their core, and next offseason would provide the opportunity to build the next great Spurs team around Leonard," Danny Leroux wrote for SI.com. "If that thinking holds, San Antonio’s front office will be reluctant to make major waves this summer unless they can do so through value contracts or one-year deals."
Herein lies the problem with this approach. Next year's spending spree forces the Spurs to operate in flux now. They can't re-sign both Mills and Simmons if the plan is to squeeze a max contract onto their books. Using any part of the mid-level exception eats into their bottom line as well.
Make no mistake: The Spurs can get there if they wait. They just don't have an incentive to wait. They would be letting Aldridge and Gasol walk for nothing next summer anyway. Cutting bait with them one year early shouldn't be a deal-breaker.
At least this summer the Spurs can ferry small cap holds for Mills and Simmons, increasing the chances they keep one or both if Aldridge and Gasol are sent elsewhere. And it's not like they would be waiting for a better crop of free agents.
LeBron James isn't going anywhere. Paul George is in love with the Los Angeles Lakers. Russell Westbrook probably plans to die mid-triple-double, at the age of 150, as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder. DeAndre Jordan doesn't fit the Spurs' play style. DeMarcus Cousins does, but he also might drive Gregg Popovich into retirement. The list of available point guards thins out after Patrick Beverley and Isaiah Thomas.
Unless the Spurs hope to stock up on role-player wings—Trevor Ariza, Avery Bradley, Wilson Chandler—this summer offers more oomph for their dollar. They don't even need to poach Hill, Lowry or Paul. They can roll with Mills and groom Murray while selling Gordon Hayward on dual-point forward duty with Leonard.
Everything, again, hinges on moving Aldridge and Gasol. Trade them without taking back more than $6 or $7 million total, and the Spurs can throw Hayward a max deal while keeping holds for Mills and Simmons. Or they could part ways with Mills and return to the list of superstar point guards.
Or they can do absolutely nothing.
"For the first year without Timmy's leadership, and [with] a lot of new players, these guys got it together to win 61 games, and just got better and better as the playoffs proceeded," Popovich told reporters after San Antonio bowed out of the Western Conference Finals. "We were basically on a pretty good roll starting Game 1 at Golden State."
Indeed, the Spurs don't have anything to prove. The sweep they suffered at the hands of the Warriors is more unfortunate than meaningful. Their 25-point lead in Game 1 is more telltale than Leonard's absence being the genesis of their end.
They don't have to justify keeping most of this year's team intact. They overachieved, but there's more than enough evidence to support running it back. And yet, standing pat does nothing more than delay the inevitable pivot when looking at the construction of their roster, the second-oldest in the Association.
Great players and legendary coaching remain, but the Spurs' ability to change course without compromising the destination is growing into their most impressive trait.
They shouldn't stop that balancing act now.