Spurs stay Spursy, once again remain calm in offseason
LAS VEGAS — For the first time since the 2003 Jason Kidd chase, San Antonio had a chance to make a big splash in free agency. The only thing is, the Spurs aren’t the “cannonball into the pool” type that disturbs the 29 other
teams people in the direct impact radius of the crashing waves. They’re the quiet kid hanging out underwater with his goggles on. Beneath the surface, away from the chaos, things are more quiet and clear. And despite the annual clamoring from outside the organization to bring in new blood and fresh faces, they once again essentially stood pat.
But the flexibility was there. After the draft and away from the cameras and microphones, Spurs General Manager R.C. Buford acknowledged as much. Outside of any pursuit of Dwight Howard — who Buford mentioned was basically unattainable — he said the front office believed it had the opportunity to make a run at any available free agent. A couple of weeks later, the only differences in San Antonio are the impending departure of DeJuan Blair and the additions of Marco Belinelli and Jeff Pendergraph.
According to some league sources, it sounds like the Spurs are willing to bring Gary Neal back into the fold unless, for some reason, he receives some outlandish offer to play elsewhere. But they have his Bird Rights and are far enough under the luxury tax threshold — around $8 million — that they could easily afford a reasonable salary. At least four teams are said to be interested in his services.
We outlined the ways the Spurs could create cap space: Pipe-dream, low-ball re-signings of key free agents here and an amnesty there, and voilà, you’ve got $15 million to spend on anyone not named Dwight Howard. Sure, you’ve lost three key players and you’re risking the roster continuity and culture so heavily valued in San Antonio, but hey, Josh Smith is available!
The allure of the ultra-talented but generally moody Smith wafted through San Antonio. And it was a fun idea, if you’re in to big men who take terrible jump shots and make inexplicably bad decisions. Still, the belief that the atmosphere surrounding this organization promotes a healthy habitat from which even an established player can learn is a real thing. There’s certainly no promise Popovich’s guidance and Duncan’s presence could cure the mercurial, but you have to believe they’d have a chance.
Besides, teaming an athletic, defensive-minded forward with the current Spurs’ frontcourt was tangibly tasty, but the baggage that came along with any potential acquisition of the mercurial big man seemed far too costly and risky a proposition, both financially and in terms of roster manipulation. And that’s before you even get to the “Is he a Spurs-type player?” question with which we’re all familiar. In this case, one most likely would answer with an emphatic “No!”
But Smith was quick to move on, agreeing to join the previously lowly Pistons in an estimated 4-year, $55.5 million deal. And considering San Antonio likely would have had to part ways with Tiago Splitter, risk losing Manu Ginobili with an insulting contract offer and maybe even amnesty Matt Bonner, the risks outweighed the potential reward for a team that was one rebound or one free throw away from becoming NBA champions once again.
Then came the Andrei Kirilenko intrigue.
After a one-year stint in Minnesota with the Timberwolves, AK-47 was free to sign with anyone he pleased. And much like Smith, Kirilenko’s positional skill set was one that’s been much sought-after in San Antonio for years. His length, defensive acumen and overall basketball intellect would have theoretically been a great fit in a Spurs’ system lacking in rangy pick-and-roll defenders. And where Smith has been unpredictable for the majority of his career, Kirilenko is as stable on the court as he is off of it. Still, the man with the dragon tattoo apparently came with a price tag a bit too high for San Antonio’s liking.
stolen signed by his longtime comrade Mikhail Prokhorov for a measly $3.1 million to play basketball for the Brooklyn Nets — who apparently have little concern (or perhaps extreme appreciation) for the value of the American dollar at this point— in 2013-14. It is unclear whether or not an extra supply of rubles have been deposited in an offshore account in Kirilenko’s name yet. (I kid, I kid.)
The Russian Swiss Army Knife was said to have been keen to the idea of becoming a Spur, too. During the NBA’s moratorium, there had been discussions between the two sides, but a couple of 4th of July holiday signings committed the Spurs to life over the salary cap and full use of the Mid-Level exception. There was mutual interest between the two sides, a source said, and then the Spurs ran out of money by paying players not named Kirilenko.
Now, there could have been a reason for this course of action. There were murmurs around the Internet of an $8 million price tag on the forward’s services. Whether or not that was a static number among all inquiring teams (Brooklyn aside) is unclear, but if that was the desired range it’s understandable if the Spurs decided to pass. Unless San Antonio managed to finagle a Manu pay cut of more than 50 percent and a less-than-market-value Splitter signing, clearing that kind of cap room would’ve certainly been a challenge. And for a 32-year-old forward past his prime, potentially sacrificing multiple assets to acquire Kirilenko may not have been worth the effort.
So the Spurs did Spursy things. They blew off the risk factor and instead elected to maintain a proven product. Culture and continuity are hugely important in a small market like San Antonio, and in weighing the risks of free agency against the steadiness of a personnel grouping you know will give you a great chance to win, the known entity offers a much more comfortable outlook than does the unknown.
High-risk maneuvers are exponentially more tricky in this city than they are in the league’s major hubs. There’s no such thing as a guarantee, and any trimming of the fat could do damage to the supporting cast surrounding Ginobili and Tim Duncan in their final years in the silver and black. A swing and miss right now could be disastrous, and the alternative is too safe to pass on.
Still, we should all be used to this by now, as it’s not a part of the Spurs’ business practice to throw away a good thing. The exceptions allowed under the league’s current collective bargaining agreement guidelines are very valuable if used correctly, and the San Antonio front office has mastered the art of cap management and basketball financial planning. By re-signing Ginobili and Splitter to the contracts offered, the Spurs put themselves at almost the exact salary cap number, and in doing so gave themselves the ability to utilize the full MLE while maintaing as much space as possible beneath the luxury tax threshold to re-sign Gary Neal using his Bird Rights if they so choose.
With one open roster spot remaining, only time will tell how San Antonio decides to fill the void. It shouldn’t be a surprise if the Spurs do indeed decide to bring Neal back, and even slotting second-round rookie Deshaun Thomas in there could be a possibility. After all, that could be an appropriate course of action. Three years ago, a little-known gunner showed up in Vegas after playing overseas for years and lit up the summer league. Neal’s shooting performance in July of 2010 earned him a roster spot
So despite not making any of the big moves many Spurs fans hoped for, San Antonio still improved with the subtle additions it has made. Belinelli serves as another ball handler and shooter this team needed, and Pendergraph provides a big-man replacement for the departing DeJuan Blair. And though we have yet to see the former Trail Blazer and Pacer play in the silver and black, his size, athleticism and shooting skill potentially forecast an improvement over the oft-criticized Blair, whose size and lack of shooting touch limited his production and relegated him to an end-of-bench role.
San Antonio was 5.2 seconds away from bringing home the Larry O’Brien Trophy, and despite Duncan approaching 38 and Manu sneaking up on 36, the expected improvement of the team’s younger players has the Spurs confident in its complementary parts. They believe that by removing the excess parts and including more good fits to the system, some of the deficiencies can be dealt with. They weren’t that far off in the first place.
A smaller layer of fat means a less impactful cannonball splash, but it’s still necessary to the Spurs’ survival. Because two years from now when the contracts of Duncan and Ginobili expire, San Antonio will have its fill of big changes.