The Spurs outlive yet another Big Three
Returning the entirety of its 2012 Western Conference Finals roster, the San Antonio Spurs enter the 2012-13 season with a sense of stability the rest of the NBA can only dream about.
But then, few can boast their best player is as lousy at the whole free agency thing as he has been dominant on the court.
“I’m an awful negotiator,” Tim Duncan admitted to reporters on the first day of training camp after declaring himself a Spur for life. “My agent was mad at me the whole time.”
Much to the delight of Rob Pelinka, agent to former Oklahoma City Thunder shooting guard James Harden–and every Western Conference fan outside of Oklahoma–Harden has proven much more adept at optimizing contract opportunities than Duncan was.
With contract negotiations breaking down over a max contract extension the small market Thunder could ill-afford, general manager Sam Presti sent Harden to the Houston Rockets for a comparable but less versatile scorer, an intriguing prospect, and cap space and flexibility to adjust its roster in the future.
In doing so, Presti moved the now popular Oklahoma City Thunder model a little further away from its San Antonio Spurs origins.
After all, even against the cap in his last contract season, the Spurs never had to trade their own Manu Ginobili. Now in probably Ginobili’s last contract season, the Spurs likely never will.
“I’m fine with what I’ve earned in my career, that’s not a point of emphasis this year,” Ginobili said. “If I’m going to play next year, it’s highly likely it’s going to be here.”
Ginobili’s earnings have never been a point of emphasis with the future Hall of Fame shooting guard, even as what he has earned in his career looks increasingly below market value given the benefit of hindsight.
With fewer credentials and less health credibility than Ginobili, New Orleans Hornets shooting guard Eric Gordon was offered a max deal to leave franchise cornerstone Anthony Davis for the Phoenix Suns. The Hornets quickly matched.
And the lure of a max contract was too much to keep Harden with two of the brightest young superstars entering their primes for at least the next half decade.
So how have the Spurs managed to avoid all this while boasting three star players in the salary cap era?
Luck and timing play a large role. While the Thunder acquired each of their stars in consecutive years, early in the draft, the Spurs trio’s arrival was staggered. Different peak years in their careers also meant different peak years in earnings. Draft position helps too, with Ginobili and Parker starting negotiations from a much smaller base than each of the Thunder’s three top-five picks.
The Spurs were fortunate with the makeup of their stars as well. Some, for example, speculated Tony Parker was bound for Hollywood or New York given his offseason lifestyle. But contract negotiations were relatively quick, painless, and below what he may have fetched elsewhere.
Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford have played a large part as well, with lessons Presti still has yet to learn.
From draft rights to European prospects to the benefits of restricted free agency, the Spurs have used every bit of leverage at their disposal. While there have been mistakes along the way, the Spurs have largely kept their books clean from the sort of Kendrick Perkins-type deals that would make a small market team come to a difficult decision–notably landing Tiago Splitter for Johan Petro money.
While the dismantling of one-third of the Thunder’s young core serves as a reminder that basketball is a business, the Spurs remain unique in that basketball remains in front of the business.
Again, Duncan makes the task a bit easier. Forced to choose between the better talent (Harden) and the rarer skill set (Ibaka), the Thunder chose the player that can erase some of its superstars’ defensive shortcomings. With Duncan anchoring both ends of the court, the Spurs could opt to choose the best talent while not having to overpay for rare skill sets.
Basketball is a business, but the Spurs are a program. Amongst their stars is a dedication to put that program first. At the center of it all is Duncan, a lousy negotiator who sets a sterling example.