While the rest of the NBA geared up this summer to make a run at the Golden State Warriors, the San Antonio Spurs sat quietly.
The Spurs were linked to Chris Paul before the start of free agency, but Paul ended up with the Houston Rockets. In turn, the Spurs mostly stayed off the radar while several big-name players changed home bases.
Soon, the NBA world figured out what appeared to be the Spurs’ master plan.
After the salary cap exploded in 2016, it grew only marginally in 2017, with low growth projected for 2018, too. While other teams made big moves over the last two offseasons, the Spurs looked equipped with cap space in 2018 when few other teams would have room. Why not run back a 61-win team one more year, then make moves in 2018?
At least that seemed to be the plan. Then in late July the Spurs inked 37-year-old big man Pau Gasol to a three-year, $48 million deal, eating up some of the cap space they could have had in 2018.
On Monday, three months later, the Spurs came to an agreement on a contract extension with LaMarcus Aldridge worth three years, $72 million, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Now the Spurs’ path to cap space will be much trickier.
There are explanations to the deals. Gasol had turned down a $16 million player option at the start of free agency this July with the intention to re-sign with the Spurs. The decision may have been to help the Spurs create cap space to go after Paul. When the Spurs missed out on Paul, they may have felt compelled to reward Gasol for initially leaving money on the table.
Aldridge, meanwhile, could still turn down his $22 million player option next season to become a free agent. It would be risky, however, as at 33, Aldridge may not find a better deal in free agency, especially after struggling at times with the Spurs. ESPN’s Michael C. Wright suggested that the Spurs may have also worried about their chances at replacing Aldridge if he left in free agency. The extension gives both sides options.
The moves are still a little confusing, nonetheless. Gasol is an aging big man who is ill-suited to keep up with the likes of the Warriors or new-look Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder. He still has value, but finding playing time for a slow-footed big man who struggles defending may be tough in the elite Western Conference.
Rumors have been buzzing about a possible separation between the Spurs and Aldridge for some time. According to reports, the Spurs shopped Aldridge in the offseason, but didn’t find any deals. ESPN reported that Aldridge later had a conversation with Popovich about his unhappiness, which led to Popovich saying the team can find ways to better use Aldridge.
As Wright noted, the Spurs are a better team with Aldridge, particularly with Kawhi Leonard currently hung up with a quadriceps injury. Any trade including him would likely not return better or equal value to the Spurs.
The Spurs’ future only becomes murkier with these contracts. They could have max cap space if Aldridge, Danny Green ($10 million for 2018-19), and Rudy Gay ($8 million for ’18-19) all opt out of their deals. Aldridge and Gay may struggle to make more on an open market, while Green could likely field a bigger contract, depending on how his 2017-18 season plays out. If Aldridge and Gay do opt in, however, it will require some big moves for the Spurs to clear out max cap space in a summer when LeBron James, Paul George, and Paul can all become free agents.
The Spurs, as usual, have opted for continuity and cohesion. But with several teams appearing to close the gap or perhaps even surpass them in the Western Conference power rankings, the Spurs’ path to improving becomes tougher to figure out.