Three players that the San Antonio Spurs were wise to let walk in free agency
By Dylan Carter
There’ve been many great players to come and go in free agency, but the San Antonio Spurs have been particularly smart to let certain players go.
After grooming a player to be part of your system and helping develop them into the best version of themselves, it can be hard to watch them walk away. This is particularly evident for the San Antonio Spurs—an organization that is renowned for its player development department.
With incredible coaching units year-in and year-out, the Spurs always manage to help players unlock different versions of themselves while instilling fundamental basics and team-first mentalities to their games. These are traits that are ideal for any team, which is why free agency can be so daunting for the historic organization.
Restricted free agency gives the team a chance to match any contract offer that a player chooses to accept, which often leaves San Antonio in a pickle. While restricted free agency and bird rights allow teams to go over their designated cap space to bring back players who were already on the team. However, San Antonio’s cap situation usually makes it so that it cannot designate significant cap space to role players, forcing them to forego their rights to retain the player.
Most of the time, this works out in favor of the Spurs. With a strong brain trust leading the way over the last two decades, head coach Gregg Popovich has told may of the player that he raised into NBA-level efficiency to walk away to pursue more money and greater opportunities elsewhere.
Today, we’re going to look at three players who the Spurs were smart to let walk recently.
Next: A Mountain of a Man
Center Boban Marjanovic
Even though he only spent one year in San Antonio, 7-foot-4 center Boban Marjanovic left his mark as a fan favorite in the Alamo City during that one year stint. He made his NBA debut with the Spurs after going undrafted in 2010 and staying overseas to work on his craft and conditioning.
It was an instant connection between the Spurs fans and Boban, whose warm heart and friendly demeanor was offset by a punishing playstyle in which he dunks over opponents while barely leaving the ground. He’s a skilled rebounder for a player with his lack of mobility and his one season in the Alamo City brought high-praise from both the fans and the coaching staff alike.
Nevertheless, Boban isn’t the type of player who can play consistently high minutes in the NBA due to his lack of conditioning and inability to keep up with NBA pace at times. He became a highly-touted free agent after his first year and San Antonio wasn’t able to pay him his market value. This was one of many cases in which Popovich told a player to seek greater pay and minutes elsewhere despite his connection with the organization.
Since leaving, Boban has bounced around with four different teams and has never been more than the third or fourth man off the bench except for some spot starts. He’s a wonderful human being whose comedic personality intoxicated the fans of every team he plays for, but from a basketball perspective, it didn’t make sense to keep him around.
This is a player who I wouldn’t be surprised to see back with the team on another low-risk contract again in the future, but letting him go in the summer of 2016 was for the better.
Next: Slo-Mo finds his money elsewhere
Small Forward Kyle Anderson
Drafted with the last pick of the first-round in 2016, former Spurs forward Kyle Anderson played an important role off the bench for the team in his second and third seasons. He went on to start 67 games in the 2017-18 season with Kawhi Leonard injured for all but nine games, averaging 7.9 points, 5.4 boards, 2.9 assists and a career-high 1.6 steals per contest.
Anderson was a true-blue Spurs player whose entire basketball persona was built on unselfishness. He filled the gap left by forward/center Boris Diaw as a playmaker outside of the natural position of point guard or shooting guard. His jump shot wasn’t very strong from deep, but he played with a lot of heart and hustled on defense.
This just so happened to be his best overall season, as Anderson signed a four-year, $37 million contract with the Memphis Grizzlies that San Antonio opted not to match. Since then. Anderson has struggled with various injuries and stopped progressing the way he once did in the Alamo City. Per 100 possessions, his best offensive and defensive seasons were both with the Spurs even though he had a greater role in Memphis.
Though he’s a fine player who the Spurs would’ve probably brought back had he signed for less, Anderson was not worth the contract that he got in Memphis. This is a tactic that many inner-division teams use to put their rivals in tough positions. Signing players to fill their cap and snag them from teams that they play often not only improves their team but weakens another that they face four times per season.
Even though he was a fun player to watch with a sky-high basketball IQ, Anderson didn’t make sense as a longterm option for San Antonio at the time.
Next: Working his way up the ladder for a payday
Shooting Guard Jonathon Simmons
One of the feel-good stories of the NBA back in the day, former Spurs wing Jonathon Simmons paid the Austin Spurs, then the Toros, $150 for a workout back in 2013. He went undrafted out of Houston in 2012 and played in other leagues before making his way to San Antonio, where he eventually landed a roster spot and played two exciting seasons with the team.
Simmons was an integral part of some Austin teams that competed at the highest level and became a full-time member of the team during the 2015-16 season. He played 113 games in a Spurs uniform, averaging 6.1 points, 1.9 rebounds and 1.4 assists off the bench including some dynamic plays in big moments like the 2016-17 season opener against the Golden State Warriors.
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Buried away on the Spurs bench, Simmons landed a three-year, $20 million contract with the Orlando Magic and Popovich encouraged him to walk. Simmons then played 125 games across three seasons with the Magic and the Philadelphia 76ers before falling back out of the league. Most recently, he signed with the Santa Cruz Warriors to try and make another NBA comeback.
Considering the guy is 30 years old and is out of the league again, it’s safe to say letting J-Simms walk was a wise decision by the Spurs’ front office. He’ll always be remembered as a grinder and an incredible success story, but there wasn’t money or playing time that could match what Orlando offered him and the Spurs adjusted just fine without him.
Simmons, like Marjanovic, is a player that I could see filling a roster spot again down the road. He has the respect and admiration of the fan base and organization alike, but he needs to prove himself once more before making his return to the hardwood.
San Antonio has made some true mistakes in the last few years, but this wasn’t one of them.