If the Utah Jazz make All-Star Rudy Gobert available in trade talks, the San Antonio Spurs would be a logical landing place for the defensive phenom.
When the COVID-19 outbreak began, few anticipated it to impact our everyday lives the way that it has. For many people, the wake-up call came once the NBA suspended it’s season after All-Star center Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus just minutes before his Utah Jazz were slated to play the Oklahoma City Thunder. Though the San Antonio Spurs weren’t going to play that night, their whole season got turned upside-down as Commissioner Adam Silver called for an indefinite hiatus.
As the story has developed and we’ve learned more about the precautions that the league had set in place, it became obvious that Gobert did not take the event as seriously as he should have. This would also be the case for most people, but Gobert took it to the next level by being outwardly kitschy about the situation and trying to make jokes out of it.
This resulted in a huge break in his relationship with teammate Donovan Mitchell, who also became a first-time All-Star for Utah this season. Reports by Shams Charania, Sam Amick and Tony Jones of The Athletic broke on Friday morning, saying that the relationship between Gobert and Mitchell “doesn’t appear salvageable” and that Mitchell is “reluctant” to work on that.
The verbiage of the report is important because it suggests that the bond between the team’s two best players is beyond restoration. Utah hasn’t been able to make much out of their team as currently constructed for the last few seasons, so it wouldn’t be totally surprising to see one of the two teammates on the trading block this offseason.
While Gobert is the best rim protector in the NBA today and one of the most influential defensive players in the sport, but the obvious choice is to stick with Mitchell. The 23-year-old entered the league as a surefire 20 point per game scorer with solid defensive skills, playmaking instincts and undeniable range. He’s a wildly talented athlete who continues drawing comparisons to Dwyane Wade for his shiftiness with the ball and explosiveness as an undersized two-guard.
Gobert has one year left on his current contract after this one and is going to be in line for a solid payday in 2021. Utah could let this play out and see how things go for another two seasons, but they risk damaging their relationship with a far more important player to their organization in Mitchell. With this being the case, they’ll be looking for someone to take Gobert and the Spurs are in a position to build another playoff team with Gobert.
Next: Who is Gobert as a player?
Assessing the behemoth of a rim protector
Since becoming a consistent role player, few players have protected the basket the way that Gobert has. As a matter of fact, he’s one of the most influential shot blockers in NBA history, given his current pace and output in a time when shot-blocking is harder than ever.
Even with that being the case, this season has shown a slight decline from the 7-foot-1, 245 lb center. He’s averaging his fewest blocks per game since his rookie year with two per game.
In all of NBA history, there have been seven seasons during which a player added at least four defensive win shares with a rebound percentage of 21 percent or better while shooting at least 66 percent from the field. Four of them belong to DeAndre Jordan, and the other three belong to Gobert including this season. Furthermore, Gobert added more total win shares than Jordan did in any of his four seasons on the list and will likely continue that streak by the end of the season.
Teams want their centers to do all sorts of things nowadays, but the most impactful centers this season in terms of win shares are the ones who play in the paint on both sides of the floor. Oh yeah, and Gobert leads all centers in Win Shares this season, so it’s not like this supposed “fall from grace” has put him in a lower-tier because he’s still impacting his team’s success more than any other player at his position.
Having an elite defender who can shoot just-under 70 percent from the floor and double-double with roughly 15 and 14 per game simply makes your team better. If the Spurs were to nab him in the offseason as a result of the mess Utah needs to clean up, they’ll surely return to the playoffs next season.
Next: Prospective deals between the Jazz and Spurs
Crafting realistic trade options for both parties
Because this is a non-basketball related issue for Utah, they’ll have to accept that it’s not likely to get his full trade value in return. It’s now public knowledge that there’s been a falling out between Rudy and Donovan, let alone the whole Jazz team after this incident.
With that in mind, Utah’s front office is going to do everything in their power to get a complete haul in return for the two-time All-NBA center. With a muddied public persona and the grime of the coronavirus scandal lingering over his name, San Antonio should be able to make a deal happen without giving up any of their marquee players.
This would require some creativity from the Spurs’ front office, but an ideal player to send back to Utah in a deal for Gobert is center Jakob Pöltl. Being a restricted free agent this offseason, this would be an excellent time to orchestrate a sign-and-trade with the Austrian big man, sending him back to Salt Lake City. The former Pac-12 Player of the Year spent two seasons in Utah during college and fits the profile of a Gobert-like player to fill the gap at center.
Poeltl’s extension would be somewhere between $7-10 million per year, taking up a decent chunk of the money San Antonio needs to make up in returning Gobert’s $25 million contract. The remaining chunk would give the Jazz a reliable bench forward/wing in Rudy Gay, who makes at least $14 million next season in an expiring deal with an added $2 million in incentives.
Lastly, the Spurs need to include some draft incentives to sweeten the deal. The first offer should include two future second-round picks. If they don’t budge on that, a lottery-protected pick from next season should do the trick. For San Antonio, this proves that they’re going all-in on next year with two star players, maybe even three on expiring contracts.
If they’d prefer a player to a pick, big man Chimezie Metu should do the trick. It’s not ideal to let go of a budding, young player but if that’s what it takes then so be it.
Next: Short-term implications of the deal
How is San Antonio’s short-term outlook changed?
Right now, the Spurs look like they’re a team banking on the future. They’ve got 10 players 25 younger on the roster including seven players below 24 and their leading scorer, DeMar DeRozan, is mulling his future with the team. Making this trade shows DeRozan that San Antonio is committed to giving it everything they’ve got in the 2020-21 season, incentivizing him to sign a short-term extension or simply pick up his one-year option.
This means that in the 2020-21 season, the Spurs roll out a starting five of Dejounte Murray, Derrick White/Lonnie Walker, DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge and Rudy Gobert. Compared to the 2019-20 lineup that replaced one of White or Walker with Bryn Forbes and Gobert with forward Trey Lyles, San Antonio becomes vastly improved as a win-now candidate.
A combination of Murray and Gobert defensively puts players on the perimeter and in the paint in a pickle, which will help San Antonio’s strategy of forcing teams into mid-range jumpers. They’d have their Mid-Level Exception (MLE) to try and flesh out the roster while boasting a young and athletic bench steadied by a champion in Aussie point guard Patty Mills.
Instead of watching the Spurs trend toward a rebuild, they’d enter the 2020-21 season with legitimate championship aspiration
s led by who I consider to be the greatest coach of all-time in Gregg Popovich. This would force the Spurs into the luxury tax, so they might need to shed some salary by finding a new home for Mills or simply accept that this is the cost of putting a winning product on the floor in the modern NBA.
To be frank, there aren’t many plausible routes where the Spurs become true-blue playoff contenders again next season. Trading for Gobert is the one that makes the most sense, but it also gives the team an out when it comes to their next steps.
Next: What does this mean for the future?
San Antonio could pull this off while minimizing long-term commitments
For as wonderful as this Spurs team becomes on paper, there’s also the possibility that injuries or chemistry issues derail their championship/playoff hopes. This isn’t a likely outcome considering the depth they’d boast at every position, but it has to be taken into account.
The other negative outcome is that it’d cost the team a lot of money, but that’s not necessarily the case. Gobert’s contract expires after next season, which means both he and DeRozan would enter free agency if the latter were to pick up his one-year player option. This would give the Spurs five expiring contracts including those of Mills, DeRozan, Gobert, Aldridge and Lyles.
They combine for a whopping $96.3 million in the 2020-21 season, which the team could use to throw offers at marquee free agents like Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James or Paul George. It’s going to be a crowded market with eight All-Stars slated to enter the market and several former All-Stars joining the crowd as well.
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San Antonio would need to pay some of its younger players like White in that span, but they otherwise have free rein to construct the following season’s roster however they’d like. Whether that means bringing all five players back, picking and choosing who to let go or letting them all walk, the Spurs’ front office would have every option available to them
Having such roster flexibility is nerve-wracking, but also grants the team’s front office the ability to build something from the ground up, complementing its young players and crafting a brand new contender with its rising core in command of the next steps.
Or, they could use this as an opportunity to draw one of those previously-mentioned marquee free agents. San Antonio isn’t traditionally a high-end free-agent destination, but it’ll have more money and pedigree to offer than just about any other organization.
So as much as Spurs fans have grown fond of Poeltl as a young, up-and-coming center, he and the last season of Rudy Gay might be all it takes to transform the organization’s trajectory.