The five greatest free agent signings in San Antonio Spurs history
By Dylan Carter
While the San Antonio Spurs aren’t historically known for going out and signing big names in free agency, they’ve struck gold with a few all-time Spurs.
Anytime you bring up free agency as a means of helping the San Antonio Spurs put together their next title-contending team, fans point to the fact that San Antonio doesn’t draw big-name free agents. But who said that it has to be a big name to bring prosperity to the River City, anyway?
Time and time again, the Spurs bring along players who were underrated by their previous teams and help them tap into levels of their game that they’d never imagined. Whether it be transforming a former All-Star into a solid veteran contributor, helping a no-name find his identity, or something in the middle, the Spurs always put their players in position to fulfill their potential.
Because of their historic track record of building talent from within, they don’t get the recognition they deserve for going into the free-agent market and seeking out players who compliment the rest of their team well. Take this past offseason when against the odds, the Spurs went out and nabbed free agent Trey Lyles.
No, Lyles isn’t a world breaker that’s going to drop 20 and 10 every night while leading the team to victory. However, he’s one of the best rebounders on the team with a knack for catching and shooting outside jumpers without sacrificing his interior scoring ability. He was a full-time starter for the team this season, giving Spurs fans a reason to be proud of the front office despite a whirlwind of circumstances stemming from the Marcus Morris fiasco.
Maybe this list isn’t going to have the all-world ramifications that a Kevin Durant to Golden State or LeBron James to Miami signing might, but they certainly have done their part in urging the Spurs along during this path of success.
Next: Honorable Mention
Best San Antonio Spurs signings – Honorable Mention: Danny Green
It was announced on November 17, 2010 that the Spurs would sign free agent shooting guard Danny Green coming off his rookie year with the Cleveland Cavaliers. As you might imagine based on the fact that he was a free agent after one season, Danny wasn’t anything to write home about early on in his career. In that preliminary season with the Cavs, he shot 38.5 percent from the field and 27.3 percent from deep.
Even so, the Spurs saw something in him and decided to give him a shot despite the odds being stacked against him. Head coach Gregg Popovich was hard on Danny but only because he saw something in him, which eventually prevailed as he became the starting two-guard during the 2012-13 season after starting in only 38 games the year prior.
Green went on to play eight seasons in the Alamo City before being traded to the Toronto Raptors and is remembered fondly for his three-point marksmanship and exceptional defensive instinct. He made 953 triples in a Spurs uniform, which is the third-most of any player in franchise history and wowed fans with his unusual instinct to block shots from the two-guard spot.
Danny was never a go-to scorer or someone that you wanted to be taking the last shot in a heated moment, but he played his role well and was a great spokesman for the team’s culture in his time with the Spurs. Signing him for chump change many years back paid off when he started for a championship team in 2014.
Next: G'Day Mate
No. 5 Best San Antonio Spurs signing: Patty Mills
Point guard Patty Mills doesn’t have a ton of accolades to back up his place on this list, but what he’s meant to Spurs culture extends far beyond his list of achievements. Another underrated, young player to sign with San Antonio after being outed by his first team, Mills spent two seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers before inking his first deal with the Spurs in 2012.
Just before signing a deal with San Antonio to make his NBA return, Mills had been averaging 26.5 points, 3.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists for the Xinjian Flying Tigers in China. The Spurs’ front office took notice of his scoring barrage and brought him home to the River City, where he’s been playing for the last nine seasons.
From the moment he joined the team, Patty embraced what it means to be a Spur and has since become one of the guiding forces for the team’s young core in navigating team culture.
The 2019-20 season has been one of his best in the NBA as the Aussie bucket-getter is up to a career-high 11.7 points per game on an effective field goal percentage of 55.7 percent. He moved up to second in all-time triples made in Spurs history this year and ranks fourth in franchise free throw percentage at 86 percent in his career.
Mills is on his way to having his jersey retired and a large reason for that has been his impact off the court. Don’t be surprised if No. 8 hangs in the rafters when it’s all said and done.
Next: Big Shot
No. 4 Best San Antonio Spurs signing: Robert Horry
The debate about whether or not forward Robert Horry belongs in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame has been one that basketball fans can never seem to agree on. A member of seven championship runs in his 16-year career is unprecedented for a player in his era. He left a lasting impact on the San Antonio Spurs despite his many gutwrenching moments playing against them in the years before he arrived.
San Antonio signed him on a two-year deal worth $9.5 million in July of 2003 with a team option for the following year. Naturally, they picked that up because Big Shot Bob immediately asserted himself as a member of the silver and black. They signed him just after their second championship run to try and go back-to-back, which didn’t quite pan out.
However, Horry went on to win two championships with the team in 2005 and 2006, hitting clutch shots every step along the way. For Coach Popovich, having Horry provided a reliable auxiliary option to his go-to in the Big Three. Teams were often forced to keep their attention on that triad of players, leaving Horry to match up against the weaker link and drain shots in their airspace.
His greatest moment in silver and black was during the 2005 NBA Finals when he spotted up for a clutch game-winning triple against the Detroit Pistons in Game Five. The Pistons double teamed Ginobili in the corner, leaving Big Shot wide open for a three-pointer to give San Antonio a win in overtime that pushed them one step closer to their third title.
Few players boast the clutch gene as Horry did during his storied NBA career.
Next: The floor general
No. 3 Best San Antonio Spurs signing: Avery Johnson
Maybe he wasn’t the fastest, tallest, or strongest point guard around, but like Mills, floor general Avery Johnson was influential to the Spurs for his off-court contributions to the team. Johnson was signed during the Summer of ’94 after two brief stints with the team prior. He was an on-court coach who went on to lead the Brooklyn Nets and more recently, Alabama basketball.
Johnson understood what his team needed of him from very early into his last run with the team that spanned until 2001. He logged a grand total of 20,009 minutes with the franchise, placing him seventh in both games and minutes played for the team. He remains the runner-up in both total assists and assist percentage while ranking No. 9 in total win shares.
His most recognized moment in a Spurs uniform was his corner jumper with 47 seconds left in the 1999 NBA Finals to give San Antonio it’s eventual game-winning lead. He was fearless in that he wasn’t afraid to match up against anyone on either side of the floor and was rewarded with his No. 6 hanging in the AT&T Center rafters to this day.
Even though he wasn’t the most influential player on the court during the vast majority of his time in the silver and black, he linked the Robinson era with the Duncan era and provided outstanding mentorship for his successor, Tony Parker.
For that, he was one of the most influential free agency acquisitions that the Spurs ever made.
Next: All aboard the LMA train
No. 2 Best San Antonio Spurs signing: LaMarcus Aldridge
Strictly from a talent perspective, seven-time All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge is the best player the Spurs ever signed in free agency. All of the big-name players who came to San Antonio boasting Hall of Fame Resumes were well past their primes except for Aldridge, who came to the Alamo City and became the best version of himself.
In his five seasons in the River City, Aldridge has asserted himself as a potential Hall of Famer and contributed boatloads of impact on both sides of the floor. He wasn’t known for his defensive prowess back with the Blazers, but Aldridge’s block average has consistently risen with one short plateau in his five seasons with the Spurs (1.1, 1.2, 1.2, 1.3, 1.6 blocks per game).
If the Spurs were able to pull off a championship run with Aldridge on the team, he’d skyrocket up to No. 1, but that doesn’t seem feasible at this point. He requested a trade a few years ago, to which he and Coach Popovich worked out their differences and reconciled before his best season with the silver and black. Aldridge has stood tall in the face of adversity as Kawhi Leonard walked away from the Spurs and has been the foundational piece keeping the playoff streak alive for the last few seasons.
Because of his circumstances, Aldridge isn’t going to be viewed in the same regard as the champions on this list. However, that shouldn’t take away from how great of a player he’s been since joining this team and how much he’s devoted himself to the Spurs’ culture since he and Popovich had that heart to heart.
Regardless of what comes next, Aldridge proves that the Spurs are capable of pulling off an exceptional free agent signing.
Next: An all-time hustler
The greatest San Antonio Spurs signing: Bruce Bowen
San Antonio couldn’t offer him a whole lot as a free agent coming from the Miami Heat, but swingman Bruce Bowen saw the potential for playing in the Alamo City and bought into team culture immediately. For multiple championship runs, Bowen provided the muscle and toughness that the Spurs needed to go up against the gritty top-tier talent of the mid-2000s.
Of every great defensive player that the Spurs were home to in their storied franchise history, Bowen managed to climb into fifth in all-time defensive win shares just behind the Big Three and David Robinson. He was one of the first 3-and-D wings that teams shape and model their players after in the modern game because of his tenacity on both sides of the floor.
More from Air Alamo
- The Ringer podcast goes crazy over Spurs’ Keldon Johnson
- San Antonio Spurs: Preparing for another DeMar DeRozan All-Star snub
- Rockets suffer another devasting injury before facing San Antonio Spurs
- San Antonio Spurs: 4 Players who led thrilling comeback over Wolves
- San Antonio Spurs: Devin Vassell’s drastic drop in minutes is inexcusable
Bowen was as versatile as they come, slotting in at positions 2-through-4 as needed to be the best version of himself for a team that truly loved and embraced him. Though he was unorthodox in the way he approached the game, Bowen’s heart shined through under the guidance of Coach Popovich and the Spurs’ coaching staff for eight seasons leading into his retirement.
His No. 12 was retired years back, but he gifted it to Aldridge when he found out the big man was signing with the Spurs in 2015. That’s just one small testament to the love and selflessness that Bowen provided the franchise with throughout his playing career. He was controversial in nature and in antics at times, but Spurs fans continue to root for him every step of the way.
Recently, Bowen was crowned the Greatest Spurs Role Player of All-Time by a series of votes conducted by us on the Air Alamo Twitter account. He beat Mills by a decent margin and was crowned after weeks of voting. If that doesn’t tell you how much admiration the fans have for Bowen then I don’t know what will.
No, Bowen isn’t as good of a player as Aldridge is, but his legacy easily eclipses his competition.