The Spurs, Moneyball and Danny Green
Where the book Moneyball was criticized was for the fact that the Oakland Athletics never won a World Series. This, however, was where people missed the point. It wasn’t that they didn’t win a championship, it was that they had a chance at all. The A’s were simply trying to compete with the top teams, while having one of the lowest payroll’s in Major League Baseball.
The NBA has some safeguards against this with the soft salary cap. The Spurs don’t have the same budget constraints that the A’s did and do. As a small market team, though, the Spurs do have some salary concerns. They can’t just blow money as they see fit like the Lakers, Knicks or Mavericks have done in the past.
With the rise of Danny Green as a rotation player for the Spurs, they continue to play their version of the NBA’s Moneyball. Middle class NBA players, those rotation players who aren’t stars and aren’t end of the bench guys either, are by and large overpaid. This was one of the major themes of the lockout. The NBA is composed mainly of middle class players, and these players were the ones driving negotiations. In terms of production and revenue generation, NBA teams don’t get a good return on their investment with these types of players. Yet they are important in building competitive teams. Spending too much on these players either drives up a team’s payroll and/or prevents the team from putting that money to good use elsewhere.
These days, playing with Tim Duncan isn’t the draw it used to be for San Antonio. The Spurs used to be able to pull some of the best free agent veterans into the program because of Duncan’s presence. Some even took less money to do it. With those days gone, the Spurs have had to find a more fiscally responsible way of filling out their rotation.
With Gary Neal last season and apparently Danny Green this one, the Spurs have figured out their own Moneyball way of competing. Instead of signing too many over paid middle class guys, they’ve focused resources on signing relatively unknown players who come cheap, and then developed them into middle class players.
This gives them flexibility in two ways. The first is that, well, these guys come cheaper. According to Sham Sports, the Spurs are paying Gary Neal a salary of less than $800,000 this season and Neal is the team’s starting shooting guard right now with Manu Ginobili injured. This year’s breakout young player, Danny Green, is making little more than that, at less than $850,000. Green was one of Danny Ferry’s suggestions from Ferry’s time in Cleveland, but the fact remains: Green has gone from D-Leaguer to NBA sixth man in about one calendar year.
The second way this gives the Spurs flexibility is that even if it doesn’t work out, those contracts do not become ones of the albatross variety like we all expected Richard Jefferson’s to be this summer. The Spurs could even waive or buyout one of those players and not take much of a financial hit, relatively speaking.
There are those out there who knock the Spurs for not developing players capable of replacing Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Instead the Spurs constantly develop, shuffle and replace the players around them. That’s because Parker, Ginobili and Duncan are, or were at a time, elite players. You don’t simply develop elite players. You find players with the capability of being elite and help them along that path. But it’s not as simple as finding a pretty good player and turning him into one worthy of carrying a franchise. The Spurs have worked with what they’ve had, and what they’ve done is one of the more creative ways of crafting a rotation than we’ve seen over the last several years.