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What's Preventing San Antonio Spurs from Making a Blockbuster Trade?

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What's Preventing San Antonio Spurs from Making a Blockbuster Trade?
Stephan Savoia/Associated Press
Will the Spurs be active at the trade deadline?

Trade deadline season is generally an exciting time of year, regardless of whether or not anything actually happens. But where rumors are often enough to satiate a fan base looking for news in the doldrums of winter, the tight-lipped Spurs rarely even throw out a bone to the most rabid of onlookers. 

And it's been that way for a while. Gregg Popovich has been the head coach in San Antonio since the second half of the 1996-97 season, and those who have been waiting for the Spurs to pull off a blockbuster deal at the NBA's trade deadline are approaching 17 years of holding their collective breath.

It helps to have been able to draft Tim Duncan, of course. Since the "Big Fundamental" was drafted No. 1 overall and teamed with Pop, San Antonio has been able to focus on roster fit and culture; it's been able to convince both experienced players to join at discounted rates and scrap-heap casualties to jump on board for a chance to resurrect their careers.

Just take a look: The Spurs have made only five trade deadline deals during the Popovich-Duncan era, and they've all been centered around a previously known entity or a low-key acquisition to help supplement their core pieces.

March 15, 2012: Traded T.J. Ford (who had already announced his retirement but whose salary still counted against the cap), Richard Jefferson and a 2012 first-round draft pick (Festus Ezeli was selected later) to the Golden State Warriors for Stephen Jackson.

February 18, 2010: Theo Ratliff to Charlotte for a 2016 second-rounder.

February 20, 2008: Traded guard Brent Barry, center Francisco Elson and a 2009 first-round draft pick (Rodrique Beaubois was selected later) to the Seattle SuperSonics for forward Kurt Thomas.

February 13, 2007: Traded Eric Williams, cash and a 2009 second-round draft pick (Robert Vaden was selected later) to the Charlotte Bobcats for Melvin Ely.

February 24, 2005: Traded Malik Rose, a 2005 first-round draft pick (David Lee was selected later) and a 2006 first-round draft pick (Mardy Collins was selected later) to the New York Knicks for Jamison Brewer and Nazr Mohammed.

The idea of a "blockbuster" trade involves the aspect of preeminent current players or future prospects being dealt, which is the stuff of dreams for most casual fans. But for a team so entrenched in its successful ways and so dedicated to the idea of continuity, the price to pay for what might be perceived as the "next step up'" is hardly worth it in the grand scheme of things. Don't expect it to be much different this season.

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

 

Spurs 2013-14 trade deadline situation

Reports from various outlets, including Ken Berger of CBSSports.com,  claim San Antonio perhaps is more involved in this year's Feb. 20 trade deadline than they typically are, whether you believe it or not. Reports in early February by Sam Amick of USA Today even have linked the Spurs to Philadelphia 76ers small forward Evan Turner, but it's uncertain whom the Spurs might be offering in return for any potential trade prospect. 

But therein lies the issue when dealing with San Antonio: Finding the right pieces to receive in return can be a struggle, whether it's based on price or performance value.

CBS's Berger describes San Antonio as "unusually aggressive" in the trade market, possibly due to considering the end of an era might be near. But this must be taken with a grain of salt; any trade deadline activity from the Spurs could be considered unusually aggressive, relatively speaking, as the Spurs don't normally deal around this time of the season.

There's a reason for that, too. Ever since Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have built their legacies in San Antonio (and taken less money than they would've received elsewhere to do so), they've been virtually untradable because of the value this team places on "corporate knowledge." It's a Popovich thing. The technicalities and depth of his system require an in-depth knowledge base that he deems necessary for success. Unless any team is willing to unload one of the league's best players for absolute positive value, the Spurs likely aren't interested in progressing any further in talks.

Now, as the Spurs' Big Three era winds down, the team's even less likely to attempt to deal one of them. Obviously, while they're concerned about their future, they're interested even more in finding a way to win another ring. At this point, the Spurs don't believe that process involves trading one of their cornerstones.

So the biggest issue surrounding this team's trade-market chances is not just the talent in exchange, but the cost of business. San Antonio has done extremely well in acquiring and re-signing players who hold more value in the Spurs' system than they might elsewhere. As a result, the team has managed to sign them to contracts that, in a vacuum, are likely more inexpensive than their stats normally would yield. 

Taking a look at anyone besides Duncan, Parker and Ginobili, whose eight-figure contracts aren't going anywhere, the Spurs make life difficult in any negotiation situation. Some of the team's most valuable young players just aren't making enough money to provide an easy exchange of goods. 

Remember, according to the NBA's collective bargaining agreement (CBA) policy, in trade scenarios, teams that are over the league's salary cap only can bring back salaries within 150 percent of any outgoing contract. Considering the majority of the team's young players are making less than $4 million a year, this is an issue, given the rest of the league's premier players make far more than that.

For the Spurs to make a deal, the result must amount to one thing: A chance at another ring. This team has no interest in sacrificing its immediate title chances for a better shot at the future, which all but eliminates the chance it trades third-year swingman Kawhi Leonard. 

D. Clarke Evans/Getty Images

 

The San Antonio Spurs' assets

We've already talked about how the Big Three aren't going anywhere, but Leonard offers an interesting predicament. While his literal value and future potential make for an incredibly intriguing prospect in a trade scenario, he's almost immovable. First and foremost, he's hugely valuable to what the Spurs want to do on both sides of the ball—especially defensively—and secondly, he doesn't make enough money to bring back the kind of extra talent it would take to boost San Antonio up a notch or two in the NBA power rankings.

Leonard will make less than $1.9 million this season, but he plays at a level worth much more money than that. So even if you decided to throw him out as bait on the trade market, you'd have to dangle one, two or three more players just to make the numbers match in a talent-for-talent trade. Depleting depth like that isn't something the Spurs are interested in, considering it would jeopardize their future.

It would be a shock if the Spurs traded Leonard out of town, especially given Popovich's support of his young player.

One of the bigger trade chips the Spurs could offer is the newly re-signed Tiago Splitter, whose contract was inked this summer. At least one team, the Portland Trail Blazers, expressed interest in the Spurs' center this summer, but they never officially signed him to an offer sheet.

Splitter's value at a league-wide level is a bit of an uncertainty. His blemishes were displayed on national television during the 2013 NBA Finals against the Miami Heat, but his strengths weren't paid much attention to in the rounds leading up to that championship series. The Spurs are paying him $10 million this season and for good reason.

Jason DeCrow/Associated Press

But whether or not that type of money could be flipped into someone as valuable to the Spurs' system as Splitter is unlikely. He's excellent in the pick-and-roll, his defensive abilities allow Duncan to save himself from the beatings the NBA provides in the paint on a consistent basis, and he knows the system all too well at this point. By giving up a player like that, especially considering the rest of the league probably doesn't place as much value on Splitter as San Antonio does, the Spurs potentially would risk putting themselves in a world of hurt.

When it comes to San Antonio, the most realistic trade pieces lay in the cellar of the depth chart, except for possibly Boris Diaw. Diaw, Matt Bonner, Danny Green and a slew of point guards represent the handful with which the Spurs might be more willing to part—though Diaw has played beyond even his $4.7 million contract this season; well beyond it.

I (and this is strictly opinion) have a difficult time believing the Spurs would part with Diaw, just like I have a difficult time believing there's a team outside of San Antonio that insists he's a perfect fit for what it wants to do. Plus, do the Spurs really believe there's a better, attainable option out there?

It's going to be interesting to watch, because one thing San Antonio has going for it is its plethora of overseas prospects. If the Spurs are truly interested in sweetening the pot and creating a more appealing deal to increase their odds at winning a fifth title, they might consider trading the rights to players such as French forward Livio Jean-Charles, Latvian sharpshooter Davis Bertans and Hungarian guard Adam Hanga in a package with any number of their young, affordable players.

While San Antonio wants to do everything within its power to provide Duncan and Ginobili the opportunity to win another title, the franchise knows it must prepare for the future at the same time. But it's built up a stockpile overseas, and if ever there's a time to let go of some of those assets, it might be now.

Still, it's all about the money. Some of those athletes may provide some appeal, but there's nothing to it if the money doesn't match. Because these players aren't under contract in the NBA, they don't have a salary figure that counts against the Spurs' cap, which means they'd be strictly icing on the cake in any conceivable deal. It'd be like trading apples for apples salary-wise and throwing a bunch of oranges on top.

Will the Spurs make a trade?

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The be-all and end-all

The Spurs are nearly impossible to deal with. They've got expensive players who are going nowhere before they retire, and they've got inexpensive young assets who are probably worth more than their contracts and are almost impossible to trade for appropriate value. But this is a team that made it to the NBA Finals last season and improved itself with the additions of Marco Belinelli and Jeff Ayres. You'd expect the Spurs to be there near the end, once again.

But there is a void behind Leonard at the small forward position—as we've clearly seen in his absence due to his hand injury—and the Spurs' general lack of frontcourt athleticism can hurt against the younger, bigger lineups in the Western Conference. If they are able to make a deal to address these issues, they'll likely have to do so by piecing together middling and expiring contracts along with maybe a prospect and a future draft pick.

Remember, once Duncan and Ginobili retire, this team is expected to experience a drop-off, as you'd think would happen with the departure of a couple of Hall-of-Famers. Future draft picks may prove more valuable than those San Antonio has possessed during the Duncan era. So that could be another avenue for the Spurs to explore. Then again, they might want to keep them for themselves.

Maybe the Spurs can just live with what they've got. After all, they've done it before.

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