The San Antonio Spurs spent nearly the entire 2017-18 campaign without Kawhi Leonard.
They'll soon decide whether to make a clean break from the former Finals MVP or interlock their future with his.
San Antonio doesn't have a formidable roster without him. Head coach Gregg Popovich did well to get this group into the postseason for the 21st consecutive year, but the Leonard-less Spurs were fighting impossible odds. They didn't play a single-possession game until they were faced with elimination after three losses by 49 combined points.
With or without Leonard, the Spurs enter this offseason in need of reinforcements. They can go different routes to get them, although the franchise's flexibility will depend on what a couple of guys decide to do with their player options.
This past season will be tossed away in the franchise's history books, forever marred by the injury rehab that wouldn't end. This summer will determine if the strange saga gets swept under the rug or becomes the genesis of an organizational overhaul.
Setting the Stage
You have to go back to before Tim Duncan's arrival to find the Alamo City's last season with a winning percentage this low (.573). This roster has holes well beyond Leonard's pterodactyl-like reach, with youth, athleticism and scoring occupying the top of the needs list.
The Spurs can attack those voids through free agency and the draft.
They have some wiggle room to add salary (only $78.4 million is guaranteed to be on the books), but their spending power could increase in a big way if Danny Green ($10 million player option) and/or Rudy Gay ($8.8 million) decline their 2018-19 options. They also must decide how to handle the free-agency ventures of Tony Parker, Kyle Anderson, Davis Bertans and Bryn Forbes.
San Antonio has its own selection in each round of the upcoming draft. The picks aren't particularly high (18th and 49th), but this franchise has a history of extracting value from all points on the draft board.
Of course, none of this addresses the elephant in the room—whether Leonard remains in the organization's long-term plans. Solving that puzzle will shape not only the Spurs' summer, but also identify the club's direction for the foreseeable future.
Priority No. 1: Resolving the Kawhi Crisis
While Leonard isn't technically on the trade block, the perceived disconnect between him and his employers makes one wonder if he'll get there soon. Teams are already lining up in case he does, or, as ESPN's Zach Lowe put it, "vultures are circling."
This situation is hard to grasp because it seems as non-Spursy as hero ball. But there's an awful lot of smoke for there not be some fire at its source.
Leonard has rehabbed away from the Lone Star State. Popovich is handling Leonard inquiries with instructions "to ask Kawhi and his group," per USA Today's Sam Amick, and perhaps not coincidentally praising LaMarcus Aldridge for "being there for his teammates night after night after night"—a spoken-word subtweet if such a thing exists.
Ben Golliver @BenGolliver
Spurs' Gregg Popovich lauds LaMarcus Aldridge: "He doesn't complain about a darn thing. ... He plays through everything. I can't imagine being more proud of a player as far as playing through adversity and being there for his teammates night after night after night." https://t.co/dU5QVlEnjc
Marc Stein of the New York Times reported "the Spurs continue to give off signals behind the scenes that they won't trade Leonard." But Ailene Voisin of the Sacramento Bee reported that "some of [Popovich's] closest confidants suspect that if the relationship remains strained and the lack of communication persists, he will pursue a blockbuster trade during the offseason."
Oh, here's the other thing—if Leonard stays, he's eligible for a Powerball-sized pay raise. The 26-year-old, who might be the Association's top two-way talent when healthy, could ink a "supermax" contract worth up to $219 million for five years. But rival executives say there's no certainty of the Spurs offering that or Leonard accepting, per Vincent Goodwill for Bleacher Report.
Leonard is a two-time Defensive Player of the Year who averaged 25.5 points with a .485/.380/.880 shooting slash in his last healthy season. His skill level is immense. His trade value should be, too.
So, it's on the Spurs to figure out if he's best utilized as a building block or a way to gather roster-rebuilding assets.
Priority No. 2: Smart Internal Spending
From franchise stalwarts to support pieces developed in-house, the Spurs have a handful of players headed to free agency. Most, if not all, are worth keeping.
But none is worth a bank-breaking deal.
The 35-year-old Parker is the most recognizable member of the crew, as he helped raise four different championship banners inside the AT&T Center. But he shifted to a reserve role for the first time in his career, and he plunged lower down the pecking order during the playoffs.
Never the sturdiest defender, he's now seeing slippage on the opposite end as well. He only once averaged fewer points per 36 minutes (14.2) and twice shot a worse percentage from the field (45.9).
His experience and veteran savvy could make him attractive to outside suitors, but he hopes to avoid an exit.
"I want to stay," Parker told Jabari Young of the San Antonio Express-News in February. "My priority is to stay here."
San Antonio elicited the strongest seasons to date out of Anderson and Bertans. But Anderson tops out as a supporting glue guy, while Bertans is a stretchy big but maybe nothing else. Those are helpful roles to fill but not critical enough to warrant substantial salary.
If Gay or Green opt out of their deals, the Spurs should shy away from increasing their pay. Gay is a useful scorer but struggles to impact the game in other ways. Green is a three-and-D specialist who hasn't been elite in the former for three seasons (35.7 three-point percentage since 2015-16).
Oh, and any sacrifice the Spurs can make to the hoops gods that coaxes one more season out of the 40-year-old Manu Ginobili would be appreciated by the basketball world at large.
While the 18th overall selection wouldn't cause hoopla among most fanbases, San Antonio should treat this as a rare opportunity. It's drafted 25th or later in each of the last seven years, so this is almost foreign territory for the franchise.
It might feel emboldened, then, to gamble on the type of upside typically unavailable when it's on the clock. Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman sees 18-year-old combo guard Anfernee Simons (IMG Academy) as an intriguing fit.
"An explosive athlete, the 6'3" combo has a knack for scoring by slashing and shooting," Wasserman wrote. "He'll need to spend next year in the G League improving his body and playmaking, but the Spurs should target Simons for his offensive potential three years down the road."
Perimeter scoring seems like a logical need to fill. The Spurs' highest-scoring guard this season was Patty Mills, whose 10-points-per-game average tied for 132nd among qualified players. In addition, San Antonio was only 28th in made triples with 8.5 per game.
Jeremy Woo of Sports Illustrated described Simons as being "full of untapped ability as a scorer." He's a project, but his ceiling features speed, explosiveness and three-point range.
If Simons is unavailable, Zhaire Smith (Texas Tech) and Troy Brown Jr. (Oregon) would inject needed athleticism and defensive versatility to the wings. Lonnie Walker IV (Miami) and Chandler Hutchison (Boise State) have deep enough offensive arsenals to warrant consideration.
The 49th pick is more of a dart throw, and it's obviously dependent on the direction of the first 48 choices. Tyus Battle (Syracuse) and Malik Newman (Kansas) both check the athleticism and scoring boxes, while Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (Kansas) has flame-throwing three-point potential and solid size for a wing (6'8", 205 lbs).
Free-Agency and Trade Targets
If the Spurs are willing to talk Leonard trades, they can—and should—ask for the moon in return.
That doesn't mean a current star is likely bound for San Antonio. Dealing Leonard might necessitate a rebuild, in which case potential and picks would look more appealing than current production.
Bleacher Report's Dan Favale offered six theoretical trade packages. They mostly fit the same mold—high-level prospect, additional mid-tier-or-better prospect and a first-round pick.
The headliners for the six swaps are Jayson Tatum, Brandon Ingram, Josh Jackson, Markelle Fultz, Cedi Osman and Khris Middleton. Other than Middleton (a 26-year-old who averaged a career-high 20.1 points per game this season), no one is older than 23. Remove Osman, and the oldest centerpiece is Jackson (21 as of February).
The supporting prospects are Terry Rozier, Kyle Kuzma, Dragan Bender, Dario Saric, Ante Zizic and Malcolm Brogdon. There might not be a potential standout in here—Kuzma might argue against that—but these all project somewhere between solid starters and reliable rotation players.
None of the players mentioned is in Leonard's class. But that's not how deals involving superstars work, let alone ones involving a star with question marks about his health and an uncertain future.
"I don't think that if you're trading Kawhi Leonard this summer given the circumstances you can get that true A-list level prospect," Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver opined. "You're probably settling and that's where it gets to be a dicey thing for the Spurs."
Pushing the boulder of a potential Leonard blockbuster aside, free agency could go a couple of different ways for the Spurs.
If Leonard stays, it wouldn't be that surprising for San Antonio to keep most of its incumbent free agents. The Spurs barely saw this group together, but did see a similar cast total 61 wins with Leonard just last season. And if you're willing to digest small-sample-size data, they had a plus-5.7 net rating with him this year, a mark that would have ranked fourth overall.
If the Spurs look for external help, their prospects will hinge on their available budget. Possible big-ticket targets include the biggest ticket of all—LeBron James—plus a 1B option in Paul George (a previous trade target, per Basketball Insiders' Steve Kyler) or restricted free agents like Aaron Gordon and Jabari Parker.
If funds are tighter, they'll have to lower their sights. While that could still entail adding help, it would be help in the mold of role-playing types. Think guys like (former Spur) Marco Belinelli, Wayne Ellington and Joe Harris for outside shooting. Or Will Barton, Luc Mbah a Moute, Tyreke Evans, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Austin Rivers (player option) for athleticism on the wings.
San Antonio could look dramatically different or roughly the same when it heads to training camp. All cards are on the table, which is a fascinating situation for what's long been held as the Association's model of stability.