The Spurs/Toros Conundrum

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When the Spurs signed Keith Bogans, my mind immediately turned to a recent Spurs.com video.  In that video George Hill, DeJuan Blair, Malik Hairston, Marcus Williams, Jack McClinton and James Gist visit a San Antonio-area food bank. As our readers know, Hill, Blair, Hairston and Williams are under contract with the Spurs. It’s presumed that Jack McClinton and James Gist will attend Spurs training camp, and, along with Curtis Jerrells, they could be afforded an opportunity to play for the Austin Toros this season.

The signing of Keith Bogans, while a neat, tight fit in some ways, would seem to push either Malik Hairston or Marcus Williams off the team. The current depth chart, including training camp invitations, looks like this:

PG: Parker/Hill/Williams/Jerrells

SG: Mason Jr./Ginobili/Finley/McClinton

SF: Jefferson/Bogans/Hairston

PF: Duncan/Blair/Bonner/Haislip/Gist

C:  McDyess/Ratliff/Mahinmi

Technically, the Spurs could add one more player for camp, but the aforementioned roster is a competitive mix.

The problem, if that’s the right word, is that the Spurs own a D-League team for the express purpose of developing players.  36 hours ago, Malik Hairston and Marcus Williams were coming into the season as the first fruits of the Toros project.  Their probable inclusion on the roster was a surefire sign to fans that what happens in Austin matters, and that supporting the development of Toros players was an increasingly important aspect of following the Spurs.

I should be careful. The signing of Keith Bogans does not do great violence to the Toros’ place in the Spurs’ program. Far from it. The Spurs are still likely to begin the regular season with two former Toros projects on roster. And, honestly, two is a significant number. But the Hairston-Williams-Mahinmi hat-trick would have amounted to a heard-above-the-crowd statement from the Spurs to fans and future players alike. It was a statement that said, “The Toros are not a tease. They’re an indispensable part of what we do.”

My mind goes back to that food bank video: James Gist and Jack McClinton participated alongside four would-be Spurs, everyone in Spurs gear with a team of videographers and PR people in tow. The Spurs are including all six players in their community outreach; Gist and McClinton, despite their long odds of making the roster, are treated as part of the family. How do you think they view the current contracts of Hairston and Williams, two players who are not far removed from the situations of Gist and McClinton? I suspect they see Hairston and Williams as figures of hope.  The sort of hope that’s important to attracting talented players to a still developing farm team. The sort of talent that helps at the gate.

My point is this: the Spurs’ use of the Toros is not a stunt. Relative to the D-League, it’s a premier program that helps fringe NBA players–think Pops Mensah-Bonsu and DeMarcus Nelson–secure contracts with NBA teams. The Spurs’ commitment to Hairston and Williams vis-a-vis Austin provides incentive for future Spurs second round draft picks to stick it out within San Antonio’s program. It provides incentive for players like James Gist and Jack McClinton to stay in Texas once their inevitable training camp release arrives. And while accepting a tour of duty for the Toros is not a solemn pledge to a player like  James Gist that he’ll eventually become a Spur, the cases of Williams and Hairston certainly suggest that it helps one’s chances. Combine this with a competitive team, excellent coaching and player development, and the Toros are an attractive destination for NBA hopefuls.

But now, with Keith Bogans in the fold, Malik Hairston and Marcus Williams must wonder what lies ahead. James Gist and Jack McClinton might get the impression that former Toros are merely pawns in the Spurs’ game. Gist and McClinton might look a little more closely at opportunities in Europe. The Spurs’ ambitions with the Toros and their commitment to winning creates a strange political brew. It’s part of the process of mapping out a successful model for D-League success, but it’s not always kind.

Am I saying the Spurs made a mistake by signing Bogans? No. Not at all. The team’s commitment to winning NBA  championship far exceeds their commitment to building a D-League juggernaut. If Bogans is more of a help towards that end than, say, Malik Hairston, then the Spurs are right to sign him. Still, I wish there were some third way. And maybe there is.

This year’s training camp cuts will prove difficult for Gregg Popovich. I’m curious to see which direction the ax falls. I have no reason to doubt the veracity of the initial Bogans report, but part of me wonders if his contract is actually guaranteed. Reports of contracts specifics, at least in San Antonio, almost always originate from agents. The Spurs keep quiet.

As someone who chronicles the team, and taking into account the near-camp timing of this signing, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Bogans was in fact playing his way onto to the team with a make-good. This is nothing more than the conjecture of a pundit, but bringing in a veteran free agent is, in part, an excellent way to measure the games of Hairston and Williams.  It’s a no nonsense way of saying, “Look we like you, but you’ve gotta bring your best if you’re gonna stick with the team.” Last season the Spurs signed Salim Stoudamire at this time, and his deal was not guaranteed.

Of course, there is another aspect of this to consider. And again, it suggests to me that Bogans makes more sense on a make-good contract. Even without Hairston or Williams, the Spurs still have too much going on in their backcourt rotation. There are too many players and not enough minutes. Is Bogans being brought into camp to put pressure on Michael Finley? If Bogans outperforms Finley, would the Spurs be willing to move him? As hard as this is to imagine–Michael Finley exudes the sort of professionalism the Spurs treasure–it’s possible that the Spurs are open-minded to parting ways with someone other than a former Toro.  Given the current age and trajectory of the team, moving forward without the rotation of yesteryear makes sense.

At any rate, this is shaping up as the most intriguing training camp of the Tim Duncan era.

Update: So much for conjecture. Jeff McDonald spoke with Bogans’ agent and is reporting that his contract is fully guaranteed. Although Joel, a 48MoH reader, left a worthwhile reminder in the comments beneath this post: “It sounds like Bogans signed for the veteran minimum, which means the Spurs only have to pick up…$825k even if the whole year is guaranteed, the rest is paid by the league…If somebody else outplays him at training camp it’s not a big deal to cut him.”

  • Bob

    Hopefully SA will get rid of Finley and someone else in a 2-for-1 trade. Unfortunately Pop seems to be too much in love with the old man to even consider it.

  • Joel

    It sounds like Bogans signed for the veteran minimum, which means the spurs only have to pick up the 2nd year minimum amount of $825k even if the whole year is guaranteed, the rest is paid by the league. They obviously signed him because they thought he could make the team, but his spot on the roster is far from assured. If somebody else outplays him at training camp it’s not a big deal to cut him.

  • kornbread

    Could the timing of this signing also have something to do Jefferson’s injury? Maybe they expect him to be out longer?

  • http://www.48minutesofhell.com Timothy Varner

    Possibly.

  • Chris K.

    Although there is something to be said for a 2-for-1 trade (with Finley and Bonner my preferred “2″) I don’t think it is going to happen before mid-season, if at all.

    With so many new faces, there needs to be some player continuity to ensure a smooth transition. Finley and Bonner can teach all the new guys how to be Spurs role players, how to fit in with the Big 3, how to act on and off the court, all the little things. Tim, Tony, Manu and the coaching staff can’t do all of that stuff.

    Keeping Finley and Bonner strengthens the cohesiveness of the team as a whole and of the bench as a unit. I would rather have a more cohesive and disciplined bench than a marginally more talented, less disciplined, less team-oriented one.

    Though that may be a false dichotomy, it’s still something to think about. Perhaps others disagree?

    I think we have enough talent as it is to win it all, Pop just has to work all this talent into a real TEAM. Then we can worry about momentum, match-ups, and health in May and June (with health being most important).

  • NL

    Reading that SlamOnline piece on Manu gets me so fired up for this season. I know every team goes through injuries and we were a long way (in Spurs world) from a championship last year, with everyone healthy, I think we could have had a legitimate shot.

    This year is going to be exciting. I can’t even make predictions about playing time because there are so many variables coming into play. Great post, Go Spurs.

  • Rye

    I immediately thought of the same thing when news of Bogans signing with the Spurs broke yesterday, Tim.

    It may not be difficult to cut Bogans, because of the limited financial obligation, but I can’t see it happening. He’s a more proven version of Hairston, and according to Jeff McDonald the Spurs have been pursuing him throughout the summer to fill the Udoka role (I won’t say Bowen, as Bogans’ game/body more resemble Udoka, and besides, no one can really replace Bowen defensively). Presumably, Bogans took his time to see if he could get a salary above the minimum, found out in the end he couldn’t, and in the end the Spurs got their man.

    It’s surprising this close to camp, but really it shouldn’t be. Buford said after dealing Bowen that they wouldn’t be negligent in looking for a wing defender. Since Hairston was already in the fold, that was a clear sign that it wouldn’t be him fulfilling that role.

    Hopefully, Hairston, Gist, and McClinton, are all signed by the Toros this season. Next season, they figure to have a better chance to make the roster. Finley and Raliff will probably retire, and Bogans may or may not be brought back.

    Too bad the NBA wasn’t like the MLB or the NHL in this regard, where you could retain players rights by sending them to the minors. As it is, the Spurs will have to hope another team doesn’t sign Hairston.

  • Hirschof

    “He’s a more proven version of Hairston…”

    What has he proven?

    I’m not exactly impressed with the career stats of players/journeymen like Bogans. I’ve seen more of Hairston in the D-league and summer league to convince me he is a better choice for the Spurs.

    Plus, Hairston’s familiarity with the team’s game plan/tempo/style/etc. is much more comforting.

    I doubt we’ll see Bogans on the roster come late October.

  • Cory Clay

    IMO good signing on the Spurs part, very low risk, and a player I can def see carving out a few minutes a night. I’m sorry but Championship teams don’t just give contributing roles to players like Hairston or Williams, if they are lucky this year could end up being a year long apprenticeship somewhat like the role Stephen Jackson played in the 2002 season.

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  • Dave J

    Bonner & Haislip seemed to be carbon copy bigs that shoot the three/spread the defense with limited “D” and rebounding. I can’t see both making the final roster. Maybe one gets traded. And Williams seems a good bet to make the team with his ability to play/back-up three positions.

  • Bentley

    I definitely like the signing of Keith Bogans. I don’t believe he’s going to be our new defensive stopper, but I think he was definitely worth the risk, since his contract isn’t that much. I’m not downplaying Malik Hairston at all, and I think he has great upside, but Bogans is proven in the fact that he’s been on NBA teams and filled whatever role they asked of him, plus he’s capable of spreading the floor and knocking down some shots. Hairston will get his chance, if not now, then certainly later. But we’re in it to win it right now, so why not take a shot with Bogans first.

    As far as Finley’s role goes now, I’m not sure. I was sure that he would be able to come off the bench and knock down some shots and provide veteran leadership, so I’m not sure if he will get traded or maybe the Spurs FO has some kind of backup plan regarding his situation. I would be sad to see him go though.

    Haislip looks to me like a more mobile, athletic version of Bonner. But we’ll see if that translates in training camp

  • Tp_09

    trade bonner and finley for so many such great players like raja bell shane battier and try them on some futuristic trades like for oj kevin rudy gay beasley….but its way to futuristic but raja and shane is quite possible try using the espn trade machine…but hey when we deal with reality a gasol type of trade would be great and the spurs as one of the elites its not impossible to do…

  • Hirschof

    @ Tp_09

    Time to back off the wine, Tony.

  • Jones

    Some random thoughts:

    A lot of discussion regarding the success of the Toros system has occurred on this board. I’ve been occasionally critical of it and while I think the Toros are doing a great job of developing talent, it’s unclear if Pop can be convinced to ever give real youth a real shot. One could say Bogans is a clear upgrade over Hairston or Williams but that probably remains to be seen. It’s hard to say if Bogan is another “under the radar” signing or if instead he’s just a player that didn’t get signed by anyone else because he’s not very good and wasn’t on anyone’s radar.

    Finley has never been able to play well off the bench for the Spurs. He’s a volume player. He needs minutes and shots, which is unfortunate, because he’s become very inefficient over the last few years. I agree that he could be useful for a last play as an option and other specific moments, but I can’t see him adjusting to the dynamics of the team now that they have Jefferson, who should be playing big minutes. Finley is fine in small moments but to twist everything around so that he still starts because that’s the only way he’ll be effective is “high risk/low rewards” to me. Is this what Pop will do? I can’t imagine it but is approach to Finley has never made sense.

    Put another way: I don’t see a Finley trade in the works at all.

  • Adamczyk

    @ Tp_08

    Time to back off the wine, Tomy.;

  • Drom John

    The Spurs should never consider the purpose of the Toros if they can pick up a better option from some place else. Toros development can reduce the risk of the quality of the 15th man, but that means should never be confused with the ends of having the best 15 men.

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