Could San Antonio Spurs Become a Top NBA Free-Agent Destination?

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Could San Antonio Spurs Become a Top NBA Free-Agent Destination?
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Star free agents rarely seek out the San Antonio Spurs, who are seldom looking for quick and flashy fixes.

Another NBA championship later, this could change.

Success appeals to superstars, and the Spurs are certainly successful. They win regular-season games in their sleep and collect postseason appearances like Pokémon cards. 

Not playing in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Boston or Miami can hurt them, but only when you're prepared to ignore how dynastic they are, a baffling display of nescience that, five championships in, should no longer be possible. 

And perhaps it's not.

Maybe the Spurs have become a top free-agent destination. Maybe they already are.

It could happen...if they want it to.

 

The Obvious

Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

All the Spurs do is win.

Like, actually win.

Free agents and free-agents-to-be usually gush about winning. Championships matter most. It's not the market. Or the contract. It's the winning, or the Spurs way.

They've won five championships since 1999 and and are riding a streak of 17 consecutive playoff berths. They have a system in place that caters to everyone who's willing to accept it. 

It doesn't matter if you're a star like Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, promising prospect like Kawhi Leonard and Patty Mills, or reclamation project like Boris Diaw and Danny Green. There is a place for you, on a team that routinely appears in both the top 10 of offensive and defensive efficiency—they've ranked in the top 10 of both in four of the last six years—and plays a selfless brand of basketball that cannot be duplicated anywhere else.

The on-court culture San Antonio has built is infallible, and as Bleacher Report's Jim Cavan splendidly showed, it's time-honored and battle-tested:

As a concept, "hitting the open man" is as old as nylon shoelaces. San Antonio simply takes it more to heart than everyone else. It's not what they do; it's who they are.

Can that kind of perspective be replicated? Certainly. But if other teams believe taking San Antonio’s template means making off with a bagful of basketball buzzwords, there’s bound to be one and only one result: a tale told by idiots, full of extra passes and turnovers, signifying nothing.

Fans and pundits watched the 2014 NBA Finals. They saw the Spurs rip the superstar-crammed Miami Heat to shreds, crippling them on both sides of the floor, using ball movement, collective awareness and communication to dethrone kings.

Even during their seven-year championship layover—as if that's something to be embarrassed about (it's not)—the Spurs were right there. The last three years were especially amazing and Spurs-y to the millionth power.

Three Western Conference Finals appearances. Two Western Conference titles.

One championship. 

These Spurs are a dynasty in the most unique way possible. Their sustained regular-season excellence is relevant unlike any other team in recent memory. And, more pointedly, it's bigger than any one player. 

That the Big Three—Big Four if you feel like counting coach Gregg Popovich—are nearing the end of their time in San Antonio is of minimal concern, or as little concern as possible in this situation.

There are other players in place. From Leonard and Green, to Tiago Splitter and Mills, there is future groundwork laid—hope that there won't be a bridge between the Big Four era and the next dynasty so much as there will be a brief, well-lit path. 

Whenever the Duncan era draws to a close—sources told ESPN.com's Marc Stein the core will return through at least 2014-15—the Spurs will be fine, which is why Amin Elhassan of ESPN.com (subscription required) can make a case for LeBron James to sign in San Antonio without sounding like he's forcing the issue:

We had some fun in San Antonio on TrueHoop TV suggesting this, but the truth is that no other franchise can offer James what he truly seeks on a basketball level. The model franchise in terms of ownership commitment (without being meddlesome), shrewd management and elite coaching, the Spurs play a brand of equal-opportunity basketball that de-emphasizes the importance of any one cog in the system, the opposite of what James has experienced earlier in Cleveland and lately in Miami. With Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili eventually moving on, James could step in as the link to another decade of San Antonio dominance.

Plug another name there. Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Pau Gasol—whoever you want. It holds true. 

San Antonio can promise winning to anyone and everyone willing to win. 

 

Can They Even Be a Free-Agency Player?

Eric Gay/Associated Press

Perspective is nothing without dollars and cents.

Players won't sign for free. Not even in San Antonio. It takes cap space, which the Spurs have moving forward.

Their immediate outlook is slightly misleading. They have just under $43.5 million in guaranteed contracts on the books, but that stands to skyrocket.

If Duncan and Ginobili return and the Spurs bring back Austin Daye (non-guaranteed deal) and Aron Baynes (qualifying offer), they'll have roughly $53.5 million in financial obligations. Toss in the salary for their No. 30 pick in this year's draft (about $1 million), and they're at $54.5 million, approximately $7.8 million below the projected $62.3 million cap. 

Here's the thing: Mills and Diaw are set to hit free agency. 

Both are players you suspect the Spurs will keep. Though Diaw played well during the Finals—oh, the playmaking—he's due for a pay cut from the $4.7 million he earned in 2013-14 now that he's on the wrong side of 32. 

Mills is more complicated. He's going on 26, and as he showed in San Antonio's Game 5 victory over Miami, he's teeming with upside. 

Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images
Diaw and Mills are up for new deals this summer.

Other teams are going to be interested. According to Marc Berman of the New York Post, the New York Knicks already have Mills on their radar. 

Phil Jackson's Knicks aren't much of a threat due to their lack of cap space, but there will be more suitors, which forces the Spurs to answer a question: How much are they willing to pay their backup point guard? 

Parker isn't going anywhere anytime soon. Unless the Spurs start running more dual-point guard lineups, Mills will still be a reserve. 

Regardless of whether he leaves or stays, the Spurs aren't going to have much to spend in free agency. Not this year.

Next year, though: Boom.

As of now, the Spurs have just one guaranteed contract on the books for 2014-15 worth $8.5 million in Splitter. That's it. Cory Joseph and Leonard are due qualifying offers.

Ah, yes, Leonard. The 2014 Finals MVP. The future of the Spurs. He is going to get a new contract. A big one that, as Pounding The Rock's J. Gomez discussed in September, could be an issue:

But Paul George's extension sets a precedent that will likely help shape the market value for players like Leonard who have the unique combination of potential and production without offering the certainties of a true franchise player. For a a front office that is, at times, as risk-averse as they come, figuring out how to deal with the situation could prove challenging.

Bet on the Spurs making it all work, probably signing Leonard for a modest amount that falls below market value. That's what they've been able to do time and again, and it's part of the culture they've created.

Contracts for Diaw and Mills also have to be factored in. Parker will be up for a new deal next summer, as will Green. Those are players the Spurs will pay to keep around. 

But if Duncan and Ginobili retire, that's $17 million off their ledger. After handsomely paying Leonard, Parker and Green, presumably Mills and Diaw this summer and their first-rounder, they're still in good shape. They could land a star if they don't compromise the state of their books now. And there will be stars available.

Depending on what James and Carmelo Anthony do this year, they could be there. Chris Bosh too. Marc Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Love, Omer Asik and Carlos Boozer Thaddeus Young, among others, are slated to explore free agency as well. 

Available stars accompanied by significant cap space equates to offseason opportunity in San Antonio.

 

Will They Be a Hot Destination?

Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

So the Spurs should be a premier landing spot in free agency. And over the next year they'll have the means to welcome and exploit such distinction. 

Will they become one?

No. Mostly because they won't want to; partly because their way of life won't allow it.

Look, if you're a free agent at any point in the next two years and beyond, and you're also interested in winning, the Spurs should be at the top of your list. They are and will remain a world-class franchise.

Losing Duncan and Ginobili shouldn't be a detractor. The Spurs have a proven system in place—one that won't vanish or die when Coach Pop and Timmy D retire to Africa to hunt Cape buffalo and give surly, expressionless motivational speeches. Again, their way of life is bigger than any one person.

Which is part of the problem.

Stars want to have their egos stroked. They want to be paid. The Spurs aren't going to post billboards and fund rallies for any one talent. They won't fork over max contracts to players with gaudy stat lines and immaculate reputations. That's not their style.

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images
Could a guy like LeBron, bred outside San Antonio, ever play for the Spurs?

Prospective free agents, stars or not, are all expected to buy into the system, from pay cuts to work ethic to shifts in priorities—like ignoring individual stats, a concession Popovich touched upon in March while speaking with Spurs Nation's Jeff McDonald:

I always think about our guys sometimes, and their stats. They really get screwed sometimes, playing for me. If you win 62 games, and some of them are by a decent margin, I bet our guys play fewer fourth quarter minutes than most good players on any team. I’d be willing to bet that. It hurts their stats, without a doubt, but luckily I’ve got players who don’t think about that.

Different players, other stars, will care, hence the Spurs' preference to develop talent from within and instill their operating procedures and team-wide principles from the beginning.

Will the Spurs become a top free-agent draw?

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Few players would have signed the discounted contract Duncan is still on. Kobe Bryant sure didn't. Even fewer would agree to playing and shooting less. 

Somehow, the Spurs house players who don't care, who continue to buy in. Their methods for finding, grooming and handling those players aren't going to change, and that will act as a red flag for some.

Others actually won't care. Not about the market size or the financial and tactical sacrifices. Those are the smart free agents. They will look at these Spurs, what they've accomplished, all they stand to do and see the opportunity to win.

What remains to be seen is whether the Spurs will feel the need to look back. 

 

*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference unless otherwise noted. Salary information via ShamSports.


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