The Spurs defied the norm, bucked the trend and did the unthinkable for more than a decade. What the front office and ownership accomplished in that span, some said, was impossible.
R.C. Buford, the general manager, and Gregg Popovich, the head coach and president of basketball operations, built championship rosters while ducking the NBA’s luxury tax threshold. The two men built a pair of title rosters with a payroll amongst the league’s ten least expensive. The other two titles did not cost much more.
Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak and his acquisition of Pau Gasol in February 2008 changed the game, and that forced the Spurs to make necessary adjustments. Gasol's arrival in Hollywood promised to vault owner Jerry Buss's roster into the $90 million range.
Kupchak would have to re-sign Lamar Odom and Trevor Ariza in a few years. Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum were due handsome contract extensions. Coach Phil Jackson, alone, made more than $10 million.
The fact that Kupchak let Ariza walk and instead inked Ron Artest to a multi -year deal, whilst pursuing lucrative extensions for Gasol and Bryant, meant Buss would have to fork up even more.
When all three Lakers point guards become free agents this summer, Kupchak will want to retain one of them and then find a suitable replacement for the other two.
Buss will need to keep his wallet open for that, too.
With the Lakers in full New York Yankees-spending spree mode, the Orlando Magic, Cleveland Cavaliers, Dallas Mavericks, and Boston Celtics followed suit. How could Spurs Owner Peter Holt justify avoiding the money madness?
The San Antonio way doesn’t win anymore. Not when the Magic’s reserve center costs more than three key veterans of the Spurs’ 2003 title team did combined.
Winning a championship cures a lot of ills, and the proud Spurs failed to do that, bowing to the Phoenix Suns in a shocking sweep.
Holt will wonder in the coming months why he strayed from a plan that worked so well for so long. He will ask the question, “Was it worth it?” He may tell himself, at times, that it wasn’t.
Small market franchises cannot spend this way, can they?
Buford kick-started a busy 2009 off season by trading for Richard Jefferson and the $29 million remaining on his two-year deal—a hefty price for a high-flying athlete who had never distinguished himself as a superstar. He used the 37th pick to select 6’7” center Dejuan Blair. Buford then used the team’s full mid-level exception to snag veteran forward Antonio McDyess .
When the rare spending spree was done, Holt’s payroll had reached Laker territory.
Hoops scribes and analysts will debate for months whether the Spurs did the right thing. Most will say “no.” I bet my B/R colleague Andrew Ungvari will reside amongst the naysayers. An $80 million roster should advance past the second round, right?
Any time Holt wonders, though, he should head to the AT&T Center and find a good seat from which to stare at those four championship banners. None of those would have been possible without Tim Duncan.
His franchise star’s sincere wish to win another ring moved him to do what he never had. If Duncan isn’t worth this, who is?
Jefferson did not fit as seamlessly in the Spurs system as Buford and Popovich thought he might. He still made them better. Only three teams won more games by double digits this season than the Spurs.
McDyess did not pan out as expected until the playoffs. His physical defense on Dirk Nowitzki, plus a few clutch jumpers, made him worth the price.
Is overpaying for Jefferson—a decidedly useful player who did deliver some impressive performances as a Spur—worse than Magic GM Otis Smith and ownership handing Brandon Bass $4 million this year to ride the pine?
Is it worse than Mark Cuban paying Michael Finley to win a 2007 title with the inter-state rival Spurs?
Buss pays hundreds of thousands of dollars every time Bynum commits a silly foul or looks disinterested on defense. How about Sasha Vujacic ? Kupchak tried desperately to move him at the trade deadline but could not find anyone willing to take on $5 million of dead weight.
All five teams still in the title hunt will make luxury tax payments when the season ends. Only one of them can win it all. Given that, won’t four other owners spend the summer as distraught and fidgety as Holt?
Shaquille O’Neal’s one-year, $20 million deal won’t look like a bargain if the Celtics oust the Cavs within the week. LeBron James, you know, can become a free agent and leave Cleveland, if he wants. Then, Dan Gilbert might call Holt for grief counseling.
Noone can look at the Spurs roster from a year ago and say that the healthy return of all those players guaranteed 50 wins or a playoff trip. Bruce Bowen, Fabricio Oberto and Kurt Thomas needed a polite heave-ho.
The team needed to get younger and more athletic. With Hill’s improvement, a dunking Jefferson, and Blair’s hustle on the glass leading the way, it did.
Popovich, Buford and Holt will each shoulder a portion of the blame for the second-round flame-out . It was difficult to watch Theo Ratliff give Larry Brown’s Bobcats productive minutes and not wonder how he might have helped during the stretch run. Why did they donate such cheap labor?
Marcus Haislip was not going to get significant burn, so Popovich released him. Ian Mahinmi could not stay out of foul trouble, so he did not play.
Maybe Popovich should have ditched his nice-guy demeanor and demanded that Michael Finley stay. The Spurs could have used a few more timely three-pointers versus the Suns.
None of those criticisms change the impetuosity that caused last summer’s extravagant makeover. Landing a marquee star in 2010 was a fool’s paradise, one not worth a Secaucus trip or another wasted season of Duncan’s career.
Let New York Knicks GM Donnie Walsh sit on a beach with an umbrella in his drink. A franchise with a string of 10-straight losing campaigns lives perpetually in fantasia.
The Spurs could not afford to wait for Chris Bosh, nor could they afford to pay him—even with a pile of expiring contracts—the max deal he will pursue.
Holt, a luxury tax virgin, won’t soon own the resources to shuck his money the way Cuban does.
The Mavs’ gregarious boss has doled out luxury tax payments for three consecutive years. His caution-to-the-wind spending yielded one playoff series triumph in that span. One. That victory came at the expense of Holt’s Ginobili -less Spurs.
Denver Nuggets' owner Stan Kroenke also paid a hefty price for a string of knuckle-headed units that failed to win more than two games in late April. The Spurs were responsible for two of those unceremonious exits.
Few have finished the job as often or as cheaply as Holt. He chaperoned a frugal operation for years, saving up for a two or three-year span in which he would need to shell out cash like a rapper in a music video.
His moment of truth arrived in April 2009, when it became clear the league’s oldest team needed a boost a veteran’s minimum player could not provide.
The Jefferson acquisition wasn’t a slam-dunk from the get-go. McDyess appeared too old and creaky to chase around potential playoff foes. Blair fell so far in the draft because other executives had no idea what to do with an ACL -less, undersized center.
The new additions helped the Spurs secure one of the grittiest, hardest-fought postseason triumphs—a six-game battle with Cuban’s Mavericks—of the Popovich-Duncan era. What followed ranks as one of the worst.
If Holt watches the Western Conference Finals next week, he might wonder how Steve Nash turned the tables so effortlessly.
He should, however, harbor no regrets.
Holt spent because there was no other way, the Gasol coup forcing a mad dash for the Larry O’ Brien trophy never before seen in the association.
Tsk -tsk ? How about, “thank you?”
Yes, thanks Peter.
Or, as they say in Denver and Dallas, better luck next year.