Tim Duncan’s next contract
I gathered a few friends together to talk about Tim Duncan’s next contract. Welcome Aaron McGuire, whom you know, Ian Levy of Hickory-High.com, and Alex Dewey of Gothic Ginobili.
48MoH is running another piece today reflecting on Tim Duncan at 36. Let’s start there. What is your assessment of Tim Duncan at 36?
McGuire: He’s still a great player, even as people continue to write him off. Duncan has adapted his game beautifully to fit his declining ability to bang in the post, and with it he’s led a several season-long reconstruction of the Spurs offense that has revitalized the franchise from a late aughts lull into the current state of a contender. Flawed, perhaps, but a dangerous one all the same. While one would be hard pressed to say he’s the isolating post-up demon he used to be, Duncan excels as a setup man in Pop’s offense and has never shied away from anything Pop has asked of him on the court. I don’t know if he’s still one of the greatest players in the league. He’s certainly not top 10. He was 19th overall in last year’s #NBARank, and I think that range is still about right, when he’s on the court. I have trouble thinking of more than 20 players I’d say are playing outright better basketball than Tim has been this season. Although he plays less than he ever has, he’s roughly as effective as he used to be. That’s exemplary, unexpected, and absolutely wonderful to watch.
Dewey: Tim Duncan is still one of the most efficient and intelligent players to have ever played the game on both ends, and he’s still 6’10’’ and long. We sometimes talk about per-minute efficiency in basketball, but if you watch even most efficient players (MVP candidates, Kevin Garnett and Steve Nash excepted), their contributions to the game are scattered into discrete categories, often with minutes in between. What’s astonishing to me is that Tim’s impact – despite his age and the surplus of great big men that are there to stop him – is truly per-minute, per-second, even continuous. Offense is rebounding is defense is rebounding is offense. Tim makes the game as simple as it can be and then unceasingly plods away in every situation, finding the right spacing, the right screens, the right time to hard show on a pick and roll given his and his opponents’ relative quickness. He knows exactly where to be, how his current position gives him space to operate, and how to navigate that space. His per-minute numbers are still very good because time is still moving at the same speed.
Levy: I’m simply amazed. There is nothing surprising about the way his physical faculties and endurance have faded, but the way he has been able to provide top-tier production when he’s on the floor is incredible. He still makes a huge impact at the defensive end, individually and as the glue that holds the other four players together. At the other end of the floor he’s a consistent mid-range shooter (44.8% from beyond 10ft.), a threat to score in the post or on the pick-and-roll (0.81 ppp and 1.08 ppp respectively) and a willing passer (2.9 assists per 36 minutes).
What are your observations of Tim Duncan’s evolution as a player? How does the present Tim Duncan compare to his bygone incarnations?
Dewey: His days of dominating the post and lighting the Mavs up for 40 are done, if only because he’s not as laterally quick and isolation offense seems to use more energy than just about anything else in basketball (though he can still carve up weaker defensive players like some such turkey). Defensively, he can’t maneuver fast enough to make teams completely abandon the pick and roll anymore (as we saw against the Suns in 2010). He’s lost a step, plain and simple. That said, his rejuvenation this season – replete with slam dunks, vintage midrange, and dominant quarters – was completely unexpected, and he might have more left in the tank that I’m giving him credit for. His midrange wasn’t falling at the beginning fo the season, and it’s not clear what half of the season is the aberration at this stage. Tim’s gifted floor vision and passing – both on par with a guard’s, even if he doesn’t have the handle to match – has been crucial to the Spurs’ new offensive approach of the last couple seasons. He can pass out of the pick and roll (giving the Spurs one more path to the corner), out of a rebound on both ends (his superb outlet passing helps the Spurs push the pace), out of a broken play, and so on. Tim can’t do what he could, but his gifts are serving him well in taking his game to a completely different setting.
Levy: While some of the specifics of his game has changed, his consistent production has been unbelievable. Last season looked like the beginning of a statistical decline, but this season his per 36 minute numbers are right back where they’ve been for the past decade. Although his techniques rely more on subtlety and guile than they once did, he’s been the same old Duncan for 28 minutes a night.
McGuire: I mostly echo what Ian and Alex are saying, but I call foul on one aspect. His game hasn’t simply changed in subtlety — it’s changed in a very big way that doesn’t get nearly enough press. Duncan has almost totally revamped the way he gets his shots. Examine the following chart, to see how.
I tried to get a bunch of data on here, so let’s unpack it.
The lines represent the percentage of Duncan’s shots that came from each of those four areas, which are mutually exclusive — that is, <9 foot shots exclude at rim shots, <15 foot shots exclude the 3-9 foot shots, et cetera. The yellow bars in the background, however, don’t correspond to percentage of shots taken — those values correspond to the right hand y-axis, and it represents the field goal percentage Duncan shot on shots outside 15 feet in a given year. The main takeaway? Duncan has been raising the number of shots he takes from long range in virtually every year since the 2007 title, with one short blip at 2010. In that time, he’s steadily become less and less reliant on his back to the basket at-rim game, and he’s transitioned to more of a Kevin Garnett type outside shooter — this season, we’re seeing the absolute culmination of that, as he takes more long shots than he takes any other type, even theoretically easy rim shots. This in turn helps open up the Spurs offense, especially when Duncan’s ability to make the shots is not in any way compromised by the additional shots he’s taking from that range. Tim’s ability to shoot a higher percentage as he shoots more long range shots is absolutely incredible, and it’s an aspect of his aging game that may not have been properly called out up to now.
Assuming Tim Duncan signs a new contract this offseason, how do see his numbers projecting over the coming seasons?
Dewey: Barring massive injury, his statistical production all depends on his midrange. If his midrange gets worse and never comes back, and his tired legs can no longer sustain solid shooting? No, he wouldn’t be a ghostly scrub, he’d still play the pick and roll, but he’s not significantly above-average at that point, because he can’t space the floor for his teammates and he will require more (and more inefficient) iso possessions to score. If the midrange is there, though? I don’t see much of a reason for a decline except in terms of minutes and a slight inevitable increase in those 15 minute, 6-4 games where he looks like he can’t get off the ground two inches to hit a layup. Otherwise per-minute should be fine.
Levy: Usually big men like Duncan see a steep age-related drop-off in production (check out Karl Malone’s age curve). But Duncan is so self-aware and the Spurs coaching staff has no misconceptions about who he is at this point and what he can accomplish each trip down the floor. That age-decline is going to be more shallow because Gregg Popovich, and Duncan himself, will make sure he’s not being asked to do things he can no longer do. His cumulative production will decline as his body continues to limit the number of minutes he can play. His per minute production will gracefully level off at place not too much lower than where it rests right now.
McGuire: One thing Duncan has going for him is that, contrary to popular belief, I’ve found that on average (although as Ian excellently pointed out, fringe cases like Karl Malone break the rules), it generally takes a far longer time for an NBA big to decline than it does a wing or a guard — my thesis research found that while point guards and wings peak around the 60% and 50% complete marks of their careers, big men tend to peak at 40% of their career minutes played. This has two charitable interpretations. One is that, on a rough estimate, his peak occurred in 2003 (when he had just swept through one of the most dominating playoff performances any one player has ever produced) — Duncan had played 17,726 minutes up to that point, and that would tend to indicate that his full career will end up at roughly 44,000 minutes of productive basketball. He currently has 39397 minutes of regular season minutes — at the rate Pop is currently using him, that would give Duncan three more seasons of productive basketball — obviously of slowly petering usefulness, but productive all the same. I think Alex and Ian are right on the money in the number of years and the general quality of his production.
I’d like to ask the same question in four different ways. On this first pass, I’m looking for a straight-up objective valuation. On a per season basis, how much do you think Tim Duncan’s next contract should be worth?
Levy: The financial side of basketball is not my forte, but six or seven million a year seems like a perfectly reasonable price tag for Duncan. This strikes me as a price that would be affordable for the Spurs, and roughly what Duncan would also find on the open market. Length of the contract and the ability for a team to get out of it will be the make-or-break contract elements.
McGuire: Completely objectively? He’s an aging starting-quality big man with two or three solid years left. Given that NBA general managers treat starting bigs as though they’re peppermint schnapps and caramel corn, this probably means he’s due an offer of about $60 million over five years (heavily backloaded). In a world where GMs were absurdly rational, though, I’d assess Tim for a frontloaded and incentive-filled $20 million dollar contract over three years, with amenable buyout conditions for both sides after the 2nd and 3rd years. This may not be exactly what he’s worth — I agree with Ian that $6 or $7 million is probably more fitting if you account for his decline having a potential to go truly sour. But you pay a premium for a good big man in the NBA regardless of age, and Duncan would be worth $20 million or more on the open market. If he was ever to get there, that is.
Dewey: I don’t know a lot about these things, but I do buy to some extent what economists say about even max players being wildly underpaid in the NBA (an argument given credibility by Dwight Howard’s arena/leverage and the Spurs and Lakers franchises). So Tim’s objective value to the Spurs and to the league may actually be something massive like $25 million per year for 2 years. Still, according to the NBA’s market, he’s an above-average to great player, a flexible big man you can build a frontcourt around, and an aging player with limited minutes that may decline very quickly. His skillset and the fact that he’s also big means he’s probably worth about $15 million per year, but his age brings that down to $12 million per for the next 2 years.
Okay. On this second pass through, I’d like to ask how much you think the Spurs will offer Tim Duncan? This is the version that includes the he-is-Tim-Duncan considerations.
Dewey: I’d suppose the first offer would be something like $21 million for 3 years, with an tapering off in the final year for a planned retirement, like 8-8-5. That way Tim gets close to his market value for the 2 years he’d be expected to play, the Spurs don’t have an albatross on their books for the third, and no one feels like anything could’ve gone much better. After the most cursory explorations, Duncan would find the Spurs amenable to going up to $27 million and 12-10-5, but they’d make it clear that this would impact their flexibility for signing and trading quite a bit.
Levy: Perhaps I’m putting too much faith in both Duncan and the Spurs to be rational and civil, but I would guess the Spurs would offer a deal similar to what I described above, in the two-to-three year range.
McGuire: I’d say Dewey’s estimation is just about right. $21 million over 3 years is my odds on favorite for Duncan’s contract, but I honestly wouldn’t be surprised with a luxury tax-hitting $20 to $25 million contract that lasts just the next two seasons. It may be that Duncan would rather have a two year contract that pays the same amount knowing that it’ll free up cap room and that if he’s still playing at a decent level in 2014 he’ll be able to cash in on one year deals until he’s finally sick to death of the game. Still. A three year deal loaded with performance incentives and tricky buyout provisions that allow both Duncan and the Spurs opportunities to end their relationship in the event of an early retirement seems the most likely path forward, to me.
Let’s look at this from Duncan’s perspective. What kind of deal would you be looking for?
Dewey: A bit more money than the Spurs would offer, but far more important than a few million to him is probably the option for one more year (nothing more than 4 years; probably we’re talking 3 instead of 2). Duncan probably has an end date for retiring in mind, but if he’s still producing when that end date comes, I’m guess he’d still want to have another year of productivity, even if it’s that year where he finally becomes more helpful off the floor.
Levy: This is complete projection on my part, but it seems like Duncan’s focus in any remaining NBA seasons would be winning a championship. By that I simply mean that I doubt his ego will have a seat at the negotiating table. I would imagine he’ll look for financial stability, AND a deal that will offer San Antonio the flexibility to stay competitive and pursue top-tier success. His goals and the team’s goals are almost completely synonymous. Maybe I’m giving his character too much credit, but I imagine any deal that seems reasonable to the Spurs will also seem reasonable to Duncan.
McGuire: Have to agree with the consensus here. I think Duncan’s aim in this contract is to ride out the string and give himself a shot at a few more rings with Pop, Manu, and Tony. I don’t think he’s going to put much consideration at playing elsewhere, and I think he’ll make that relatively clear to the organization. Unless the Spurs come to the table with an insulting offer (a la Rockets to Hakeem), Duncan isn’t going to be looking to maximize his profits. He’ll be looking to win, and put away one last big paycheck as the cherry atop his NBA fortune. A level of comfort would be nice, and making sure the contract is flexible to his situation is going to be extremely important. I think.
Fourth and final perspective on this theme. If you were the Spurs, how would you structure Tim Duncan’s next contract? Do you see a phantom season tacked onto the end of the Duncan’s contract to spread the cost across more seasons than he is likely to play?
McGuire: I disagree with the notion that adding years to the contract really increases the Spurs’ flexibility, at least under the new cap. I wrote a relatively in-depth series on the rejected CBA proposal as compared to the old CBA, and when the new one came out, I did quite a lot of reading on it — the Spurs are simply way too thick with salary next year to sign any free agents of note, and given that, it’s probably in their best interest to front load Duncan’s contract. I’d say the only absurdly creative contract that makes sense would be a very large first year and a string of much smaller years after, such as 15-5-5-2. The Spurs will have a lot of cap room in the summer of 2013. This offseason, though, they’re really not going to have any flexibility to make roster moves of particular import outside of trades. Duncan’s salary isn’t going to really affect the bottom line this year, and as thus, I’d expect to see a higher-than-expected number for the first year and much smaller totals in all years thereafter. In terms of overall structure, there’s got to be some sort of buyout clause after every year — Duncan needs to have the flexibility to leave when he wants to, and in general, the more choice the contract gives Duncan about his immediate future the better.
Dewey: If I were the Spurs, presumably I could organize frank meetings with Tim to find out exactly where Duncan’s priorities lie and his career after basketball. Then I would tell him that I didn’t expect him to be productive in three years, certainly, but that he has played at a top 5 level for centers and he offers a lot to the team in terms of culture, morale, skills, and intelligence. Then (this would be my end goal) I’d make the fateful 3-year offer around 9-9-6, and add in a player-option for the last year and a trade-veto clause for good measure.
Levy: I would make the contract as flexible as possible. If they want to offer Duncan a three-year contract, I would look for either player or team options at the end of each season, the label on those options seems irrelevant to me. Again, perhaps I’m being naive, but after what I’ve seen the past 14 years, I would trust Duncan not to hang around and cash paychecks if he wasn’t able to make positive contributions. An opportunity for both the team and Duncan to re-evaluate the relationship at the end of each season might not work with any other player in the league, but their history and the way they’ve treated each other for a decade and a half seems like the lubricant to allow that type of deal to work.
Something of a dumb question, but I’m a completist. Do you see any scenario by which the Spurs don’t re-sign Tim Duncan?
Levy: Other than retirement, I can’t envision any set of circumstances that puts Duncan somewhere other than San Antonio.
McGuire: I can, Ian. If the Spurs were to change their name to the Chaps, then the Spurs would not resign Tim Duncan. The San Antonio Chaps would be the clubhouse leader for his services, though.
Dewey: If he doesn’t retire, then only a complete collapse in the franchise or a breakdown with management or the young players (yeah, right) could send him packing. I just don’t see it, like, barring natural disasters or whatever.
Assume you’re the Spurs and you’ve just re-signed Tim Duncan. Now what do you do? Given the roster, and given his new contract, how do you get the most out of the final years of his career while still making the moves necessary to remain in championship contention?
Dewey: I think the Spurs know how to answer that better than I do. That said, unless Duncan signs an RJ-esque albatross, more of the team’s success depends on Manu staying healthy and Tony continuing at an All-Star. Oh, and Kawhi. I’d say a lot depends on finding players like Patty Mills that will maximize what we can get from the Big Three and Kawhi without hurting the Spurs’ flexibility too much.
Levy: Continuing with Duncan doesn’t allow for huge changes to the plan they’ve followed the past few years. If I was the Spurs I would continue to look for inexpensive role-players who excel with a specific skill. The rest of the gaps you fill in with young talent and work on developing them. Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter taking a leap would go along way towards extending the Spurs window.
McGuire: Really, this team wasn’t built to be a 2013 contender — the fact that it is marks a testament to the incredible job Pop, Manu, Tony, and Tim have done in reshaping the franchise’s talent and roster to reflect the realities of age. Going forward, if you’re the Spurs front office, the way you make the most of Duncan’s waning years is to do exactly what you’ve been doing. You continue to build around the Tim/Tony/Manu core, with an emphasis on young talent that Pop has experience developing. Green, Leonard, Splitter, Lorbeck, Dawson — all of these guys are relative nobodies whose development will determine whether or not the Spurs can contend into 2013. Free agent acquisitions are important, but given the Spurs’ lack of a marquee star, they can’t be counted on. Scouting and development is the path for the Spurs going forward, just as it was when they built their last dynasty.
This will seem like a strange question. As a kind of experiment in market value comparisons, how much do you see Kevin Garnett and Steve Nash resigning for this offseason?
Dewey: While they’d still be worth $10 million a year easily, if they wanted to sign on contenders (like Nash on the Heat), they might have to accept a mid-level exception. Both of them are great competitors and especially savvy businessmen who have flexibility, so it is going to depend on their priorities how much they get.
Levy: I think it depends on how many years they hold out for. A contract for a year or two might get them as high as seven or eight million. If they push for a longer, three or four year deal, then five million seems like a more reasonable cap. I obviously believe that the new CBA will in no way deter teams from handing out large, ambitious and risky contracts.
McGuire: They’re going to command less than Duncan, for the simple reason that both are older and both have more mileage on their bodies than Duncan has. Still, I see Garnett finagaling a $15 to $20 million dollar contract if the Celtics make a strong run in the playoffs. If they don’t, I see him plateauing around the $14 million over 3 years mark. Nash is an interesting case — I feel as though Phoenix will offer him $20+ million to keep him. He may still leave regardless, as he crosses his fingers and prays he doesn’t get injured as soon as he leaves the Phoenix training staff. Which, again — that’s a serious clubhouse advantage for the Suns. They’ve extended his productive years way beyond what anybody could’ve ever expected, and Nash is a very smart person. He realizes their importance, I’m sure, and I’m still not convinced he’ll bolt Phoenix without a strong offer. My guess? The Jazz or the Pacers make a strong play for him, but in the end, he stays in Phoenix and prays that Marcin Gortat is what he’s always dreamed of.
Finally, Tim Duncan has given indication that he has no intention of retiring after this season. Any chance that he is simply playing us with a little sleight of hand? That is, he doesn’t seem like the type who would want or enjoy a ceremonial final season farewell tour. Do you think Tim Duncan will surprise us and retire at the end of the season?
McGuire: I’ll make this one short. No.
Dewey: Duncan knows all the tells, and the only way to get some sense of his true motivations is to look at his incentives: Does he have an incentive to retire that he hasn’t had the last few years? Sure…he’s less productive, but considerably above-average, and he’s older, but if this is what he can do in a lockout season he probably wants to see (at the very least) what he can do in a normal season. Then again, no one really knows. I agree it’s plausible, but it would be more plausible if he were having a bad season.
Levy: I find this issue the hardest to speculate on. An extended season-long goodbye from the league’s fans seems like the last thing Duncan would want. Just as out of character would be a season’s worth of outright lies about a decision that’s already been made. I’ll take him at his word that he’s planning on at least another season or two.
Varner: Thanks, gents.