- Photo by Josh Huskin
This is, after all, an organization averse to making waves off the basketball court. Think about how swiftly it put LaMarcus Aldridge trade rumors to bed earlier this season, or how Tim Duncan’s retirement came during the dog days of summer via a team press release last year.
And yet, there is another swell of change gathering around the franchise – arguably as much as last year, when Duncan, Boris Diaw and Matt Bonner all departed. As of now, there are currently only three Spurs from the 2014 championship team that are under contract for next season, and the dynamics of free agency, the NBA’s salary rules, and Father Time could make the 2017-18 squad near-unrecognizable to its fanbase. That’s a big deal for any team, but especially one that has seemed so impervious to change for the better part of two decades.
Part of this is simply business as usual. Key role players Patty Mills and Dewayne Dedmon will become unrestricted free agents at the end of the year, meaning any team can offer them a new contract. Mills has spent the last five-and-a-half years endearing himself to San Antonio through his fervent towel-waving, fiery energy and hot touch from three-point range. He’s an integral reason why the Spurs have consistently boasted one of the best benches in the league.
Dedmon is a relatively fresh face, but has gone from fringe-rotation player to starter in less than a year. His combination of size and springy athleticism is something the Spurs haven’t seen since, maybe, David Robinson and he possesses many of the qualities needed in a modern-day NBA center.
Mills and Dedmon have earned themselves bigger paychecks this season and should rightfully test the market. Unfortunately for the Spurs, their payroll will be close to the league’s salary cap, prohibiting them from re-signing both if they’re offered the type of money many people think they’ll warrant.
Austin Spurs alum Jonathon Simmons is in a similar situation, approaching free agency for the first time in his NBA career, and should rightfully listen to more lucrative offers after playing on minimum contracts the last two seasons. As a restricted free agent, the front office will be able to match any contract he signs – but how much are they willing to spend on a wing who will be 28 in September and doesn’t quite fit the playing style that Gregg Popovich prefers?
There are more questions moving up and down the bench. Pau Gasol and David Lee both have player options to stay with San Antonio next year. Gasol has already stated his intent to opt in for a second season as a Spur, but that was before being moved to his new role as a super sub. His ability to knock down threes at an elite rate may make him more attractive in a league that values spacing more than ever. Lee seems more likely to opt out and test the market, given that he’s outplayed his $2.3 million salary this season.
Then there’s Manu Ginobili, as much a San Antonio institution as the Alamo or Fiesta at this point. The 39-year-old has fielded dozens of questions about his retirement and said he’ll mull it over once the season comes to an end. He’s proven he can still be an effective role player in this league, averaging 7.5 points in just under 19 minutes per game. The Spurs would likely want him back at the right price, but Ginobili plays an unsustainably gritty style of basketball, and the wear continues to show, especially on his ability to finish around the basket. Still, speculation is all we have until the all-time great makes his decision.
Ginobili’s fellow Big Three member, Tony Parker, is also in his crepuscular years. With one year left on his contract, Parker is almost certainly not leaving San Antonio this summer, but this could be the last we’ll see of him as a starter. Turning 35 later this month, he’s not quite the playmaker he was even a few years ago, and his deficiencies on the defensive end will only grow with time. A role as a steady backup seems imminent.
The good news? The Spurs front office has prepared as well as possible for this moment. Young guys like Dejounte Murray and Davis Bertans have shown promise in their rookie seasons; other prospects continue to develop in relative anonymity overseas, and Kawhi Leonard remains as solid a foundation as any franchise could ask for. In the summer of 2018, things get even more interesting, with some additional financial flexibility allowing them to chase a big name or two in free agency.
In the meantime, San Antonio fans can appreciate the holdovers from one dynasty while the framework for the next is carefully, deftly put in place. Yes, the sun is setting on the Spurs as we know them, but the future, unquestionably, remains bright.