When Will the San Antonio Spurs Become a True Free-Agent Destination?

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When Will the San Antonio Spurs Become a True Free-Agent Destination?
Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

With the recent hiring of longtime WNBA legend Becky Hammon, the San Antonio Spurs proved once again theirs is a franchise determined to remain ahead of the curve.

Winning five championships over the last 16 years doesn’t hurt, either.

So why, even when the evidence proves beyond a shadow of a doubt the Spurs are the best-run organization in the NBA, do they remain a free-agent backwater?

Go ahead—try to find one All-Star-caliber free agent in the last 20 years who decided to take his talents to the River Walk.

You’d have an easier time naming a good Matchbox Twenty album.

This wouldn’t have been much of a surprise a few decades ago, back when the Spurs were toggling between mediocrity and straight-up futility.

Dick Raphael/Getty Images

Sure, the team had made legends of George Gervin, Artis Gilmore and—before he found Finals redemption—David Robinson. Parlaying their star power into more talent and consistent content proved the much tougher knot to slip.

For all we know, San Antonio might’ve wallowed in the NBA mire for eternity had it not been for one of the greatest strokes of lottery luck in league history. His name, of course, is Tim Duncan, one of the greatest—if not the unqualified best—power forward of all time.

Throw in a couple hyper-savvy draft-day steals in Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, top it all off with the peerless front-office duo of head coach Gregg Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford, and the Spurs were suddenly off and running.

Eric Gay/Associated Press

What’s more, with the front-office personnel they have in place, it might be years before they ever look back.

But for as much as they’ve resisted the media’s attempts to prematurely eulogize them, Duncan, Parker and Ginobili will, one day, walk away. It’s what happens next that stands to be the biggest bellwether for whether or not the Spurs can maintain their place as the NBA’s modern gold standard.

That, almost inevitably, will mean redoubled efforts in reeling in top-tier free agents—a strategy that, either overtly or as a matter of circumstance, hasn’t exactly been part of San Antonio’s plan.

Not that the city is alone as being seen, however unfairly, as something of a basketball backwater. The Indiana Pacers, Minnesota Timberwolves and Milwaukee Bucks can all certainly sympathize.

Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

Which invites the question: How, in an age of private jets and global media, does the size of a city’s market have any real bearing on a player’s professional decision?

We deign to tell ourselves winning remains our heroes’ foremost motivation. If that were the case, the Spurs, Indiana Pacers and Utah Jazz—three teams with impressive traditions of competitive consistency—would be at the top of many a free-agent wish list.

Recently, Bleacher Report’s Dan Favale took a crack at pinpointing what he believes to be the unfortunate factor in San Antonio’s plight:

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.

Prospective free agents, stars or not, are all expected to buy into the system, from pay cuts to work ethic to shifts in priorities…

In particular, Favale points to Popovich’s unrivaled minutes management as one of the reasons why certain free agents—eager as they are to bolster their on-court bona fides—might see in San Antonio more a burden than a boon.

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

Indeed, Popovich essentially admitted as much in an interview with the San Antonio Express-News' Jeff McDonald (h/t to Dan Favale):

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.

This poses an interesting paradox: The Spurs have become so good at achieving a kind of physical-statistical harmony that would-be targets see going to San Antonio as hurting their productive value—even though the stats they might be using (points, rebounds and assists per game, for example) have grown increasingly archaic.

So until more front offices begin using relevant analytics to evaluate and compensate talent (player efficiency, true-shooting percentage, production per 36 minutes, what have you), going to the Spurs will continue being seen as committing a kind of statistical self-sacrifice. And not in a good way.

Short of that, San Antonio’s best appeal remains what’s hanging in the rafters. There, the seeds of the Spurs’ system—team basketball at its absolute finest and most fun—reveal their true fruits.

Of the team’s Big Three, only Parker seems certain to remain in silver and black, having recently signed a fresh, three-year extension. And while Duncan and Ginobili could, depending on how the upcoming season unfolds, re-up for new short-term tenders, it seems likely San Antonio will be compelled to try its hand at attracting replacement-level talent—beyond matching whatever offer Kawhi Leonard receives in restricted free agency next summer (assuming it doesn't outright extend him).

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Luckily, 2015 boasts no shortage of uniquely Spurs-ian players, with Marc Gasol, Kenneth Faried, Paul Millsap, Goran Dragic and LaMarcus Aldridge being just some of the names slated to make up the feeding frenzy’s flashpoint.

Unless, that is, Buford, Popovich and owner Peter Holt would just as soon roll the dice on an all-out rebuild, in hopes that the lottery’s Lady Luck comes knocking once more on their door.

Which, given the team’s unprecedentedly steady success, seems wholly unlikely.

Sooner or later, San Antonio will have to do what for so long must’ve seemed beneath it: make itself a viable free-agent destination.

Just how long will that take? After so much sustained success, one has to wonder whether the Spurs—so far ahead of the on-court curve they should be kicked out of class—even have it within them to stop being too smart for their own good.

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