While over the next several days, approximately 34,958,094,385 articles will be written on where the Clippers must go now that Elton Brand and Corey Maggette have decided to leave. But for at least one legitimate title contender, Maggette's decision also has a dramatic impact on their offseason.
The San Antonio Spurs, widely considered the favorites to land Maggette's services before the Warriors stepped in and outbid them, are now back at square one in determining how to assemble next year's team.
Last season, it was more apparent than ever that the rest of the Western Conference—in particular the Lakers, Hornets, and Jazz—is catching up and have possibly even overtaken the Spurs.
The Spurs, plagued by a lack of a definitive fourth scorer after the big three of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker, would have had the perfect solution to their problems had they been able to land Maggette.
Maggette possesses a perfect combination of perimeter shooting and slashing with the ability to create his own shot that would have made the Spurs extremely dangerous offensively. Bruce Bowen, Tim Duncan and company would have been able to make up for his defensive deficiencies.
With Maggette out of the picture, the answer to the question of "what's next" will decide if the aging Spurs can keep pace with the rising, younger Lakers, Hornets, and Jazz in the West next year.
Indeed, while the Clippers have a big decision to make over the next few weeks, the Spurs' approach to this offseason may determine the next NBA champion, and the entire league should keep an eye on it.
The obvious need for the Spurs this offseason is to get a younger, more athletic wing player, and they could use a backup big man as well. From here, it appears there are three plausible courses for the Spurs to set this offseason:
Go after the Next Biggest Fish
While the some of the next biggest fish—Josh Smith, Josh Childress, Andre Iguodala, Monta Ellis, Andris Biedrins, Emeka Okafor, and Luol Deng—all figure to be offered more money by their current teams than the Spurs could offer, there are a few free agents left that the Spurs might be interested in that would likely command the majority of their mid-level exception.
The first player who will be linked to the Spurs is Nuggets guard J.R. Smith. Spurs fans have heard of J.R. Smith for a very long time now, ever since he was nearly traded to the Spurs at the deadline two years ago. Though the Spurs' interest in him is old news, he still must be the first player mentioned when it comes to candidates for the mid-level exception.
As a restricted free agent, the Nuggets would have the option to match any offer the Spurs make to Smith. However, while they won't let him walk away over pennies, Smith has repeatedly fallen out of favor with coach George Karl.
Considering how strapped the Nuggets are financially, they would have to think twice before matching an offer of anything over $4 million a year.
Smith possesses a number of skills that the Spurs could find useful. He averaged a solid 12.3 PPG off the bench while shooting a career-high 40.3 percent from three-point range last season.
At only 22, he would provide the Spurs with youth and athleticism that the Spurs desperately lacked last season with Brent Barry, Michael Finley, Bruce Bowen and Ime Udoka taking turns as the second wingman next to Ginobili.
The question is whether the Spurs want to bank on a player with as many character problems and off-court issues as Smith, who has been suspended on multiple occasions due to his behavior on and off the court as well as facing legal issues.
For the Spurs, who pride themselves on personal character, such behavior must give them pause.
The next option has been somewhat less explored, but makes some sense. The Spurs could make a move on Chicago Bulls restricted free agent Ben Gordon. At 25 and a scoring machine at 18.6 PPG off the bench, Gordon would certainly give the Spurs their much-needed fourth scorer.
A player such as Gordon would certainly command the Spurs' full mid-level exception. On talent alone, the Bulls would be certain to match.
However, given his streaky play last season in which several of his stats dipped from 2006-2007, and the crowded backcourt in Chicago (after drafting Derrick Rose and with Kirk Hinrich, Larry Hughes, Thabo Sefolosha, Andres Nocioni, and Luol Deng), the Bulls might elect not to match a full mid-level offer.
Ultimately, Gordon is a long-shot, and I suspect the Bulls would match the Spurs offer.
There are two more players left who have skills that might interest the Spurs at this price range, Blazers forward James Jones and Celtics swingman James Posey.
Jones seems to be seeking a deal starting at about $5 million per year, while Posey appears to be holding out for the full mid-level exception.
Each player can shoot from long range, and Posey plays gritty defense, and they would both be attractive to the Spurs. However, spending so much money on what will likely wind up being an eighth man is what gets teams locked in salary-cap hell. I don't think signing either would be a good move for the Spurs.
Look for a Hidden Bass
OK, so making a subtle allusion to Mavericks forward Brandon Bass, the prototypical hidden impact player signed for the cheap, may not have been the most clever maneuver in the world. Sue me.
Unfortunately, there's a reason why these kinds of players are hidden: nobody knows who they're going to be. So here's a list of players who would be my best bets to be a surprise contributor for a near minimum-salary deal next year. The Spurs could split their mid-level exception amongst two or three of these guys and hope they pan out.
Eddie House gave the Celtics much a much-needed scoring punch in the Finals last year. Unfortunately, the streaky nature of his scoring and his suspect defense led to him being mostly benched for the first three rounds of the playoffs. If the Spurs could get some consistency out of House, they could get a steal at about $2 million per season over two years.
Shaun Livingston is a point guard who showed a lot of promise with the Clippers before having both of his arms cut off by a chainsaw. Fortunately they were able to reattach them and it appears that his rehab is going fairly well, but the Clippers were so wary of his health after four years of inconsistency that they didn't tender him an offer sheet to make him a restricted free agent.
Again, something in the area of $2 million-$3 million per season would probably be enough to get him, but he could be a steal or a total waste of money.
Wizards point guard Roger Mason had a career year last season while filling in for Gilbert Arenas and Antonio Daniels. Whether it was a lucky year or a sign of a developing player is anyone's guess.
Nuggets guard Yakhouba Diawara's name has supposedly been linked to the Spurs. I have no idea why, as his numbers were utterly unremarkable last year and he was another one of those players whose team didn't bother tendering an offer sheet.
Timberwolves guard Kirk Snyder was a solid stop-gap starter who was able to score here and there and shot over 50 percent last year. Unfortunately, his three-point shooting has been plummeting ever since he came into the league, which is usually a requirement to play wing for the Spurs.
Bonzi Wells has never been the same player since leaving the Kings two years ago. But the Spurs still remember what a strong, physical presence he was in their series against the Kings that year, and if the Spurs can rekindle some of that player, the Spurs would have a steal at $2 million. Of course, that's what the Rockets and Hornets have been thinking.
Alonzo Mourning apparently wants to play one more year, and when he's been healthy he's shown he can still be a strong defensive presence. The rebuilding Heat may not want him back, but it's unclear if he would consider playing for anyone else. Also unfortunately, this move would make the Spurs older, not younger.
Heat restricted free agent forward Dorrell Wright has been hyped ever since coming into the league, but he's always been battling injuries that have kept him from achieving his potential. Unquestionably athletic, could the Spurs pry this young guy away from the Heat for $2 million-$3 million a year?
Stay the Course
Likely the least satisfying but perhaps the most probable outcome could be the Spurs simply re-signing Brent Barry, Kurt Thomas, Michael Finley, and Robert Horry and returning the same team from last year.
Though many Spurs fans would immediately wonder why a team that seems to simply be a year older could improve on their conference finals exit, there would be a few reasons why this might make some sense.
First of all, it can easily be argued that the Spurs were one healthy Manu Ginobili ankle or foul call on Brent Barry's three-pointer from making it back to the Finals.
Barry had one of his strongest seasons as a Spur when he was healthy this year, Finley still played well in stretches, and Horry might be able to still contribute if he can stay healthy for the whole season. The Western Conference Finals look a lot closer than the 4-1 final result when seen through those rose-colored glasses.
Secondly, after Maggette, there are just no slam-dunk options available at the Spurs' price range this offseason. The Spurs could find an impact player such as J.R. Smith or James Posey for the mid-level exception, or they might sink all of their financial flexibility for the next 3-5 years over an ineffective player.
They could get a steal by getting Ben Gordon, or they could tie up their money for seven days and watch all of the other available free agents dry up only to have the Bulls match anyways. Re-signing their own veterans allows the Spurs to preserve their money for the future when they might be able to lure a true impact free agent.
Thirdly, the Spurs may be able to get younger through their draft picks. The Spurs are inordinately excited about first-round pick George Hill as a backup to Tony Parker, and they seem to think that Ian Mahinmi and Malik Hairston may be able to contribute this year as well.
Finally, the Spurs still have the ability to improve through trades. Unfortunately, this is likely fools' hope, as the Spurs lack many tradeble assets outside of a few moderately-sized expiring deals between now and 2010 unless one of their rookies develops quickly. Without an expiring deal like Kwame Brown last year, there will be no one like Pau Gasol riding to the Spurs' rescue.
Ultimately, I think the Spurs will most likely wind up simply bringing back the team from last year and let this team have one more run at a title. I think the Spurs find restricted free agency too risky, which might scare them away from Smith and Gordon, while none of those $1 million-$2 million players are so good that they are worth bringing in over someone like Finley who already knows the system.
It may be a far less sexy option than bringing in Maggette that Spurs fans were hoping for, and it probably isn't enough to keep pace with the competition in the West, but it may be the best they can do with the cards they're dealt.
However, if the Spurs could somehow swing bringing in a talent like Gordon or felt confident that they could get a steady head on J.R. Smith's shoulders, they should jump at the chance, in which case the Spurs would instantly move up to being co-favorites with the Lakers in the West next year.
The next few weeks will determine which direction the Spurs go this year, whether they keep their championship window open a crack for a couple more seasons or if it slams shut on their face.
The rest of the league would do well to watch what happens, because with a few good moves, the Spurs just might swing in and keep their bi-annual engagement with the championship trophy next June.
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