Closing One Window, Cracking Open Another
Last week we ran a series of features exploring three options for the Spurs: Make no move; make a minor roster move; and make a major roster move. There was supposed to be one more- a post arguing that we should make moves focused on future seasons- that for various reasons was never published. After last night’s game, I felt it was appropriate to finally address the idea.
From where I stand, the situation is clear. It may be hard to stomach, but that does not affect its veracity.
The Spurs are not going to win a title as currently constituted. To some this may seem obvious, to others overly pessimistic. Either way it is clear to me that not a single member of the Spurs is playing at the level necessary to win a title. It takes not one or two, but several very talented players executing at a high level to hoist banners, and there is nothing that currently suggests that critical mass of execution is achievable.
There is not a trade that the Spurs can make that lifts them into contention this season. The problems this team is facing are very deeply entrenched and one, even two significant roster shakeups would not have the dramatic impact necessary to thrust the team back into the league’s top tier. Even if we somehow made a move that undeniably improved the level of talent on our roster, I agree with Gregg Popovich: “Weâ€™ve never had a group like this that didnâ€™t gel, as far as being consistent night after night. I think if we change this person for that person, weâ€™d still have the same problem.”
That being said, the Spurs may still be able to win a title during the Tim Duncan era, and can certainly win one in the next five years. But in order for that to happen, they must start making moves that are focused on the future. And not the near future. Their intention needs to be to contend two or three years down the line, not this season or even next.
In other words, I think it is time to start rebuilding.
There are three players that I am unwilling to trade: Tim Duncan, George Hill, and DeJuan Blair. In my opinion everyone else, to differing degrees, is on the table.
Tim Duncan is not on the table because he is the entire franchise and the greatest power forward of all time.
George Hill and DeJuan Blair are not on the table because they are young, cheap, and the only players on the roster that I can confidently say are going to play better next season than this season. A key element of rebuilding is adding young talent, not shipping it off.
Beyond that, anyone is up for discussion. Tony Parker. Manu Ginobili. Definitely Richard Jefferson.
Given the scale of what I am proposing, the trade possibilities are practically endless. So here are some rough guidelines I’d be interested in seeing the front office follow.
I think the goal should be acquiring young, developing players. Players who it is safe to assume have their best seasons still ahead of them. Certainly not anyone who will be thirty or over in two years. If we have to get a slightly older player in order to get a young prospect (For instance, Richard Jefferson for Corey Maggette and Anthony Randolph) that is acceptable, but the focus needs to be on young talent.
We need to commit ourselves to this strategy; any concerns that our team might get worse in the short term need to be thrown out the window. Getting worse now is not the goal- as I’ll explain in a moment I don’t think we should tank purposefully -but if it is a byproduct of a long term move, so be it.
This may sound strange, but the season has gone too well so far to tank. Fifty games into the season the Spurs are eight games over .500. I don’t think there are enough wounds the team could self-inflict that would move us far enough down the ladder to get a meaningful draft pick. If we miss the playoffs and get a lottery pick in the mid-first round, great. If we have a tidy little first round exit at the hands of the Lakers or Mavericks, well, that’s fine too. A brief trip to the postseason this year won’t dramatically affect our ability to rebuild.
We need to reconsider our approach to the draft. We need to stop trading away our draft picks, or at the very least not trade them away lightly. We need to stop drafting and stashing; we need to continue to make picks in the mold of George Hill and DeJuan Blair, picks whose value is clear within the first season or two.
And lastly, we need to be honest about the trade value of the various players on the team.
Richard Jefferson’s trade value is very low, but if it is possible to move him, the Spurs should pull the trigger. As we all know, it may not be possible to move him, at least not without getting bloodied in the process. And we shouldn’t be so anxious to move him that we load ourselves down with an undesirable, long term contract. Jefferson’s contract expires after next season. Worst case scenario: We just let it expire.
I know a few of you will be waiting out back for me with pitchforks when you read this, but here it goes: We need to trade Manu Ginobili. He has not played well enough this year to merit a new contract, and given his trajectory over the last three seasons, there is no reason to believe he will be able to play with any consistency over the coming years. Manu Ginobili has a $10.7 million expiring contract. We need to use that aggressively.
Along with Ginobili, we need to be willing to ship out Roger Mason Jr., Matt Bonner, Michael Finley, Keith Bogans, Theo Ratliff, and Ian Mahinmi in whatever combination brings back the most young talent. If we can attach a few of those to Richard Jefferson in order to make him palatable to other teams, so be it.
As the youngest member of the big three, Tony Parker is the most likely to be a force in the coming seasons, but that does not mean his name should be off the table entirely. Parker is arguably the oldest 27-year-old in the league, having played professional basketball in France before arriving in the NBA and having made several deep playoff runs during his career. If a team is willing to move a young all-star caliber player (Chris Paul, Devin Harris, Danny Granger), I am willing to discuss the idea of using Tony Parker as the centerpiece of such a trade.
For the time being Antonio McDyess is unlikely to be moved, as he has both underachieved this season and his contract does not effectively expire until the end of next season (his contract extends through 2011-12, but the third year is not guaranteed).
Does this mean Tim Duncan will retire with only four rings? I think no matter what we do, that is likely. But for those who say we owe it to Duncan to try to win another title, I think this gives the Spurs the best chance of doing so. Duncan is still an all-star caliber player, one of the best big men in the league. But he used to move mountains; now he is just very good at basketball. I think he can still be the centerpiece of a championship caliber team, but once upon a time he was Atlas- he could carry the world on his shoulders. Those days are no more. If we want to win another title, we will need to surround Duncan with more talent than ever before. The Spurs as currently constructed are not going to get it done.
There is no dignity in dying a slow painful death as a member of the pack. If we aren’t getting better, we are getting worse. It’s time to make some radical changes. The window has closed on this incarnation of the Spurs, but Tim Duncan and the rest of the franchise are in a position to rebound from this disappointing season.