Here come the Spurs

First, it was: death, taxes and the Spurs winning 50 games.

Then we heard: death, taxes and the Spurs making the playoffs.

But in recent years, the Spurs have been busting through the salary cap dramatically, and last year, their playoff run died. 

If the roster remains unchanged throughout the 2020-21 season, which is often the case with the San Antonio Spurs, the outgoings will sit at $133 million, around $24 million more than the salary cap. But next season is a different story.

There are currently just five players under guaranteed contracts in 2021-22: Dejounte Murray, Jakob Poeltl, rookies Devin Vassell and Tre Jones, and the newly-inked Derrick White. 

Lonnie Walker IV, Luke Samanic and Keldon Johnson are all team options next summer, and Drew Eubanks is only partially guaranteed.

This means the Spurs will likely have an outgoing of approximately $60 million next year, which gives them something they haven’t had in several seasons: money.

With around $50 million left on the books, there is an opportunity to do something San Antonio has basically never done: pitch a big free agent. In fact, there would probably be enough room to sign a 10-year veteran for their asking price and they might still find some dollars down the back of the couch to fill out the roster.

You might ask: why the hell would a superstar veteran want to travel to a hick town in Texas instead of a major city?

And that’s a fair question.

When White signed an extension before the season started, stats nerds and know-it-alls praised the move, highlighting how he was one of the best under-the-radar guards in the league.

He didn’t take the leap last season that some thought he might after playing at the FIBA World Cup for Team USA under Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, but he became more efficient and attacked the rim more often. By the time the Orlando bubble came around, his production rocketed from 11 points, 3 rebounds and 3 assists throughout the whole season, to 18, 5 and 4 while shooting 39 percent from distance and carrying an increased workload.

Part of the reason for the leap was necessary: LaMarcus Aldridge didn’t join the team in the bubble due to getting ankle surgery, so someone needed to pick up the load. But White and Aldridge have tended not to play too well together anyway, as four of the best five line-ups for the Spurs last year featured White without Aldridge. 

Let’s not get it twisted, Aldridge was needed last year. There were times where relying on youngsters like White, Dejounte Murray, Bryn Forbes, Lonnie Walker and Jakob Poeltl didn’t produce enough. That’s fine. They weren’t ready. None of them had more than four years’ experience. The Spurs absolutely needed a big body to throw the ball to down low, who would pick up 18 points every night without fail. 

The other veteran was DeMar DeRozan, who finally started settling, especially in those eight games in Orlando. His first year was rocky. The lifetime Raptor was struggling in his first season outside Toronto, but he still produced. Then, during his second season in San Antonio, the crafty two-guard figured out his role and became more of a vocal leader on the court, bringing players together between possessions and helping younger teammates.

Both of these guys still have enough juice to contribute to at least half of the Spurs wins in 2020-21 as the younger generation continues to mature. But for the team to be successful enough to reach the playoffs, they need those youngsters to step up. 

White won’t be a superstar but he is the type of player you need on every championship team. Think about the Robert Horrys, Derek Fishers, Shane Battiers and you are in the right neighbourhood. 

Murray is the type of player who could become a top player on a good team. He’ll never be a Stephen Curry or a Dirk Nowitzki in terms of putting a team on his back, but he could be the supportive second fiddle of a Draymond Green or a Jason Kidd on a championship squad. 

When Walker was drafted, Spurs fans immediately saw a replacement for what Kawhi Leonard could have been for their franchise. Perhaps it’s still too early, but it’s more likely that he will never reach the level of the two-time Finals MVP. Still, he has shown the ability to take over games – shutting down James Harden last season while helping the Spurs overcome a 15-point deficit in the fourth quarter.

If he can do that in year two of being a professional, after just one year of college, against one of the best teams in the league, who’s to say he couldn’t do that in a handful of playoff games to help win a series in a few years’ time?

Jokeb Poeltl is legitimately a top five big man on defense. When he is on the court, opponents have a worse effective field goal percentage, a worse rebounding percentage, and San Antonio go from having a -4.5 offensive rating to a +5.1. He makes such a difference, and in the bubble without Aldridge, the team registered a pace that could have been the best in the league during the regular season.

The question mark is Devin Vassell. He is the first lottery pick the Spurs have had since some dude named Tim Duncan, so, y’know… no pressure.

He has shown great signs as an off-ball cutter, and has a quick burst with the ball in his hands. He seems to enjoy shooting, which is a good thing for this group, as so many of them are typically Spursey and want to make the right play. His debut showed a hesitancy that wasn’t there during the pre-season games but he made several good hustle plays and got his first bucket, a few rebounds and a steal in 20 minutes.

With a full roster available, it’s no wonder the youngsters weren’t let loose, but the balance of youngsters running and veteran touches worked well. The Spurs have historically been known for their defense, and while it wasn’t necessarily a showcase on that end of the floor in their opening game against the Memphis Grizzlies, putting up 131 points showed that the team has learned from the trigger-happy positives from the bubble.

Outlasting a good Eastern Conference team in the Toronto Raptors showed that the Spurs are not just capable of beating the lower tier of the Western Conference – though, how much difference between the two is yet to be determined. But perhaps these early wins just show that a Gregg Popovich team will always be prepared to start a season – when the rest of the league gets up to speed, it might be a different story.

There’s no championship in San Antonio’s sights this season, but there is an opportunity to show how exciting the team can be. They will also be able to project an exciting future to potential free agents, much in the same way the LA Clippers did before attracting Leonard and Paul George, or the way the Brooklyn Nets did before signing Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

They might not have the predictability of old, and it’s difficult to see how things will turn out in the next few seasons, but the Spurs will have bags of space to throw at some elite talents next summer and will be a fun team to watch in the meantime.