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.

  • Tyler

    I’d disagree with one point – that Presti went away from the “Spurs model” with this move. I think he did the opposite – this is a move RC would have made as well.

    When you look at the moves the Spurs have made, the one common denominator is flexibility. The Spurs always have options; they never put all their eggs in one basket. Given the fact Harden wasn’t going to give OKC a hometown discount (something TD, TP, and Manu have all done), I don’t think Presti really had a choice. To sign Harden to a max deal (or even the deal Harden reportedly turned down) would have put the Thunder into the tax and made it very difficult to improve the team in the future under the new CBA. (Not only that, Harden’s signing would have virtually guaranteed the amnesty of Perkins and forced Maynor to walk).

    IMO, that’s definitely not something RC (and Presti apparently) would have done. They would have opted toward flexibility.

  • Kory

    I actually think the comparison between the Spurs and Thunder is way overblown. The Spurs had one year where they had a premium draft pick. The rest of the time, they were picking in the 20’s. The Thunder’s big three were the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th picks in their respective drafts (I think that’s right). Not only that, but they have Collison who was the 12th pick, and Ibaka who was the 24th pick. Now to be fair, those were all great picks. They absolutely got them right, which many teams can’t seem to do. But the Spurs were built with one high draft pick and a bunch of savvy late picks, wise (for the most part) free agency and a model locker room. Props to Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker for their unselfishness. I’m not sure when we’ll see this kind of thing happen again in pro sports.


    exhibit A: Spurs trading Hill and ending up with Leonard. Versatile G/F who will be on rookie contract the next 4 years at a lower cost yet with a higher performance ceiling.

  • lvmainman

    But, the Thunder have never won a championship. Not signing a James Harden, who was getting better, hurts the Thunder chances. I’ve seen stats that say Harden was the best scorer out of the pick and roll in the NBA. Stats also point out that the Thunder scored at a higher clip with Harden, but without Durant and Westbrook, than any combo that didn’t include all 3!!!

    I seriously doubt the Thunder offered Harden anything above the $52 million initially reported. So, they were looking for a $8 million discount.
    The Thunder have damaged their championship hopes for the next 4 years. They’ll be competitively good, but not championship good.

  • assistman

    The best move would have been to extend Harden and make this trade after another season or two, giving last year’s group a chance to repeat. After all, Harden is still on bargain salary for the coming year, (If nothing else, making the same trade next summer would give Houston a higher pick of their own next summer to pair with Harden so it would arguably be better for both teams, so Houston would play along if Presti told them to retain those assets till next summer in a gentleman’s agreement.) Personally though, I’m not sold that OKC has taken a decisive step backward since Maynor will step up nicely, and Martin has reliably hurt us in the past.

  • Randy Manuel

    yeah u r right.
    GO SPURS GO!!!

  • Tyler

    Even the RJ deal – people forget we only gave up Kurt Thomas, Bowen and Oberto. Even though it didn’t work out, it was a risk worth taking. And when it didn’t pan out, we flipped RJ for Jax, another good deal from a risk/reward perspective. In my mind, it’s about always giving yourself an out and never painting yourself in a corner.

  • Tyler

    While the circumstances might be different, I think the methodology is the same.

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  • Ryan McShane

    When does Manu (and SJax and DB) get a chance to re-sign with the Spurs? Can he extend his current deal, or will he be a free agent or a restricted free agent? I can’t imagine the Spurs will pay him $14 million again, but I could see someone else doing it for a season or two. What do you think his next contract will be worth (also, SJax and DB, should they be re-signed)?

  • Andrew A. McNeill

    I believe the Spurs only have the option to decrease Manu’s salary by something like 5% or 7.5% per season if they extend him before he becomes a free agent. Most likely, if Manu decides not to retire, he would become an unrestricted free agent on July 1 and take a larger pay cut. I don’t think Manu would jump ship to another team this late in his career simply for a raise.

  • ssen

    “After all, even against the cap in his last contract season, the Spurs never had to trade their own Manu Ginobili.”
    Because manu took significantly less from you (42/5 or something like that) then he was offered from other teams (62-65/6 from den).
    That’s the difference, but it’s not difference between spurs and thunder (model).
    It’s difference between manu and harden.
    Duncan gave you no discounts when he was in his prime – until 2007 iirc, he was max/franchise player pretty much like durant is in okc.

  • Graham

    I think that’s the point they were trying to make, that Manu was someone who was happy with his niche and wasn’t as ambitious and determined to prove himself to the world like Harden is.

  • assistman

    In Harden’s case, as in most cases, the ambition and determination is to… Get… Them… DOLLARS. Ginobili is simply a loyal cat, and is dedicated to a legacy of winning. He understands more than most do, that it is a team game.

  • Ryan McShane

    So, Manu will do what Duncan did, basically. What SJax does is anybody’s guess.(?) And DB shouldn’t affect the cap regardless of how his situation is handled…

  • DorieStreet

    I think Presti was avoiding a “will he, won’t he” season-long saga that occurred with Melo and Denver, Howard with Orlando, etc. Even during last season as the Thunder made their way to the NBA finals, the Harden situation was brought up. (I know every OKC game I watched from opening night tipoff to the playoffs – it was mentioned.)
    Plus, along with the money, Harden probably soured on coming off the bench and being No. 3 of the Thunder’s ‘big three’.

  • Adam Rendon

    Top ten questions for the Spurs season.

    10. Will Parker trust his jump shot when the time comes?

    9. Tiago Splitter, can he assert himself more in the pick and roll offense?

    8. Will Boris Diaw hold the Spurs back by not taking he open shot when he should?

    7. Can Danny Green do well after a new contract or will this guy turn in another Jaren Jackson?

    6. Will Spurs move Blair before trade deadline for a banger in the block to shore up the Defense?

    5. Will Duncan focus more energy on defense for the good of the team?

    4. Will Manu be healthy when the playoffs roll in?

    3. Will Kawhi Leonard accept being the go to man in crunch time?

    2. The Spurs are loaded with guards, will they package a deal for a reliable post-defender?

    And the number one question…

    1. Will coach Pop not panic as he did in the Thunder series and stick
    with the youth when the veterans run out of legs, as they did last
    conference finals?

  • Len

    You 3 are all correct. And these comments exemplify when I am such a Manu fan boy.

  • Len

    You 3 are all correct. And these comments exemplify when I am such a Manu fan boy.