San Antonio Spurs: 10 Moves to Make Before NBA Season Begins
The NBA’s labor parties threatened to murder the final season on Tim Duncan’s contract and the second-to-last one on Manu Ginobili’s deal.
Spurs fans everywhere shuddered at the prospect of opening a 2012 training camp without those two future Hall of Famers. The owners and players instead reached a tentative settlement Nov. 26 and preserved an abridged slate with 66 games.
It was fair to wonder in April if Duncan, Ginobili and Parker had taken a final bow as teammates. The pending lockout resolution keeps San Antonio’s star trio together at least one more year and eases the angst and desperation that accompanied a first-round loss to the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies.
They can write their own ending.
The Spurs head to training camp this Friday with a middle-of-the-pack average age. The squad boasts some of the league’s oldest All-Stars and youngest role players. That unenviable, abrasive mix of mileage and inexperience puts the squad in a difficult position.
Depending on the five-man lineup, the team’s look will shift from vernal to elderly.
With a payroll north of $73 million and few trade chips, the Spurs' best roster improvement bet is trimming enough fat to slide below the luxury tax threshold. That maneuver would permit GM R.C. Buford to use the full mid-level exception, about $5 million, to lure a role-fitting free agent or two.
The front office can still exceed the cap to sign rookies or veterans with minimum salaries. Those limitations portend solid and significant—but not spectacular—changes.
If the owners and players ratify the proposed CBA, the previous rules will exist for two more years, as the league phases in the more punitive luxury tax and almost $300 million annually in salary rollbacks.
Capologist Larry Coon’s comparison of the new document and the old one is required reading for any fervent fan worth his or her authentic jersey and League Pass subscription.
The work stoppage did not yield imminent upheaval or instant benefits for the Spurs. Instead, they’ll plot and tweak the cast the way they would have with no interruptions to stall business.
The title may suggest to some that the slideshow includes radical transaction ideas and a path to an expensive free-agent acquisition. Prepare for a letdown.
Buford cannot afford Nene, Tyson Chandler, Marc Gasol, DeAndre Jordan or David West. Forget those names, Spurs fans.
This list also does not feature any trade ideas because the team will not soon hijack SportsCenter with a wild exchange or even a roll call shake-up. The dreamers should head elsewhere. The realists will have seen many of these bullet points coming.
Here are 10 things the Spurs must do before the season opens Dec. 26 at the AT&T Center against the Memphis Grizzlies.
1. Sign Leonard and Joseph
Harry How/Getty Images
This suggested offseason checklist begins with an obvious mandate. GM R.C. Buford traded George Hill and spent a first-round pick to acquire rookies Kawhi Leonard and Cory Joseph.
The first step for the Spurs: sign the pair of 20-year-old draftees and afford them as much of an abbreviated training camp as possible. Buford and Coach Gregg Popovich have coveted youthful defensive tenacity in retooling the roster. Leonard and Joseph possess it in spades, but the lockout shortened their study time.
With no Las Vegas Summer League or a full preseason slate, they need every second possible to soak up the complex schemes on both ends and the system terminology.
Though the incumbent roster played Grade-A defense in spurts, the frequent lapses proved too costly to overcome. Improving the coverage ranks as the team’s chief priority.
The 6’6” Leonard figures to garner immediate minutes, no matter his potential shortcomings. Buford jettisoned Hill, Popovich’s professed “favorite player,” to secure his draft rights.
It made little sense to dump a proven playoff performer if the catch was a several-year project. Leonard can defend multiple positions and boasts the mental and physical toughness Popovich demands.
Joseph, on the flip side, might need a year to marinate before he nets consistent NBA-level minutes. A few trips to Austin would not surprise me.
Can anyone spare a pen?
2. Convince McDyess to Return
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Popovich told the San Antonio Express-News in late April he expected Antonio McDyess to retire after 15 seasons. The 37-year-old forward-center has some incentive to stay gone.
The Spurs guaranteed part of his $5.2 million 2011-12 salary to entice him to choose San Antonio as his July 2009 free-agent destination. He’ll collect more than $2 million if he hangs up his sneakers. He also knows his creaky feet and knees cannot hold up much longer.
The team has disappointed, at least in the postseason, since landing McDyess and Richard Jefferson that summer.
Don’t blame the former for those failures. Since arriving in the Alamo City, he has been nothing but an exemplary teammate, leader and post banger. His sedulous defense on Dirk Nowitzki helped the Spurs oust the Mavs in April 2010.
McDyess played Herculean defense against Zach Randolph mere months ago but could not slow the perplexing behemoth in San Antonio’s first-round defeat.
Wiping his deal from the books might get the Spurs just below the luxury tax threshold and afford them the full mid-level exception to use in free agency. Where else, though, can Buford find a comparable locker room presence at that position, with as much perspicacity and postseason experience?
McDyess knows what he thinks his body can handle. The Spurs should remind him they want him back.
Another possibility: He may retire for a few months, then weigh returning for a stretch run.
3. Throw Battier a Finley Fastball
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Popovich should rehearse the blunt, sincere pitch that convinced Michael Finley to sign in San Antonio more than five years ago and deliver it to Shane Battier in a private meeting.
Arranging a face-to-face chat should not prove difficult. If the decorated Spurs coach picks up the phone, Battier will listen for myriad reasons. The meticulously prepared defensive specialist eschews pomp and circumstance and embraces challenges.
The Miami Heat can offer People Magazine sex appeal, the chance to join historic bedlam and its full mid-level exception. Popovich’s candor, though, can beat Pat Riley’s Armani panache.
Finley picked San Antonio in July 2005 instead of flashier Phoenix and Miami because he appreciated Popovich’s concision and honesty. The Suns and Heat executed an exorbitant full-court press to land his services but could not force the Spurs to cough up the ball.
The former Mavs star instead valued dry professionalism more than slick salesmanship. Battier has carried himself the same way throughout his career and will not shrug off a similar offer.
Popovich wooed Finley with concrete role and minutes expectations. The coach told the prized free-agent guard just how he could help San Antonio defend its title. That detail, of course, makes acquiring Battier less certain.
The Spurs cannot approach any bachelor baller as the reigning champs. That helped sway Finley’s decision. The current squad flamed out in the first round for the second time in three seasons.
The Memphis Grizzlies might throw a shocking curveball and find a way to retain both Marc Gasol and Battier. No NBA reporters or pundits, though, have suggested the Memphis brass wants to re-sign Battier at Gasol’s expense.
That gives Popovich a cracked window to steal away one of 2011’s best available role players. The 32-year-old small forward would not send fans scurrying to the AT&T Center or Spurs.com to snatch up the remaining tickets, but he would make a substantial difference for a team with a faint title pulse.
It does not hurt San Antonio’s chances that donning silver and black would keep him closer to his family than some other potential non-Memphis destinations.
Popovich accepted that his squad needed to emphasize a fast-break pace to manufacture easier buckets. At times, the Spurs deleted the selective part in “selective running.”
Now, the coach wants his missing defense back.
Battier can aid that reclamation project, but he will weigh other attractive options. All Popovich can do is pick up the phone and give another fastball his best shot.
The front office has already done that with Caron Butler and Josh Howard, according to the Express-News.
4. Sign a Backup Big
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
The nightmarish guarantee of at least one back-to-back-to-back set makes signing another 4 or 5 essential. Popovich does not need any reminders about the importance of keeping Duncan upright.
He sprained an ankle in the season’s final weeks, and the Spurs piled up agonizing losses in his absence. Even if Popovich and Buford convince McDyess to give it one more go, the five-man frontcourt rotation seems ill-equipped, sans additional assistance, to survive a grueling, compacted grind.
A serviceable big capable of juggling spot duty and occasional significant daylight would solidify a solid, if not top-tier roll call. The unnamed free agent would join Duncan, Tiago Splitter, Matt Bonner, Dejuan Blair and maybe McDyess.
A few attainable names to consider: Josh McRoberts, Craig Smith and Spencer Hawes. The Spurs—as mentioned in the opening slide—lack the cap space or trade pieces to fetch a frontline augmentation with cachet.
The drop down from Nene, Chandler, Jordan, West and Gasol isn’t so steep, though, that the front office should avoid looking in the first place.
Finding the right bargain guy may require whiffing on some restricted free agents. The Sixers can match any offer for Hawes, but how much do they want to keep him in Philadelphia?
In the dream scenario, the Spurs land Battier for a chunk of the mid-level exception and use the rest to purchase a big and another backup point guard.
5. Sign a Third Point Guard
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
The Spurs used the 29th pick to select Joseph, a familiar name to Longhorn supporters from just down the road in Austin.
As Express-News columnist Buck Harvey said, someone missed with this defensive-minded point guard. Either Rick Barnes mishandled Joseph’s playing time and role, or Buford overvalued a freshman not ready for the NBA’s rigors.
“Both can’t win this,” Harvey said, and that fact looms large as training camp approaches.
Joseph impressed enough to qualify as a standout player at the FIBA Americas Tournament in Mar Del Plata, Argentina this summer, if only because he ran Team Canada with the newfound confidence some were not sure he had. His game still lacks professional polish and may benefit from D-League assignments where Toros Coach Brad Jones can promise him ample playing time.
He could challenge for the reserve spot behind Parker right away, with Ginobili and Gary Neal as other fill-in options at the 1. However, it would behoove San Antonio to ink a veteran who can provide a measure of certainty.
T.J. Ford, anyone? Other names to consider: Ronnie Price, Sebastian Telfair (gulp) and Carlos Arroyo.
6. Use Amnesty Clause on Jefferson
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
The Spurs screwed up—OK, they sputtered like Herman Cain’s presidential campaign—when they re-signed Jefferson with a four-year, $39 million deal. Trading for him two years ago was a mistake, but his bloated contract seemed worth the minimal price of three expiring deals and the allure of his athleticism and previous Finals experience.
How could the franchise miss by bolstering its wing firepower and fast-break attack? Jefferson, much to the brain trust’s chagrin, showed them the ways. He tossed too many bricks and lost his confidence on too many evenings to justify his hefty salary.
He disappeared—some, including me, would say he quit—in the 2011 postseason.
That does not make the decision to invoke the one-time amnesty provision in the tentative Collective Bargaining Agreement a facile one.
Buford and Popovich would have preferred to score a hit with Jefferson, but he flopped. The titanic miscalculation will cost the Spurs, even if both sides terminate this doomed, awkward partnership.
Owner Peter Holt would still pay Jefferson every dime not accounted for by the new deal he signs elsewhere.
The amnesty clause offers cap relief and nothing more. It does not erase a personnel blunder or its consequences.
In the Spurs case, axing Jefferson would get the Spurs below the luxury tax threshold, not the salary cap, which prohibits a mammoth free-agency splash. It would allow them to use the full mid-level exception.
Waiving him via the provision, though painful, makes sense if Buford can use the exception to reel in Battier or a comparable role player. The team can also opt to keep Jefferson for now and send him packing later.
7. Make Judgments on Green and Butler
Harry How/Getty Images
Buford’s low-cost, low-risk acquisition of former Heat pick Da’Sean Butler escaped most pundits’ radar screens. A devastating knee injury derailed the start of his career, but he has worked his way back with a dedicated rehabilitation regimen.
The Spurs now need to see what this kid’s got. Ditto for defensive-minded forward Danny Green.
Butler boasts lottery-level talent and projects as a capable NBA scorer. San Antonio can stash either youngster in Austin, but it would be nice to know soon if they can carve bench spots on the big-league roster.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
This week offers Buford and Popovich a capital opportunity to call Brad Jones, Austin’s sideline chief, with a heartfelt “Sorry.”
Cramming 66 games into a few months means all 30 teams will face grueling slates. It is impossible to imagine Popovich allowing Duncan, Ginobili or Parker to suit up for three consecutive nights when that inevitable scheduling quirk arrives.
Can the Spurs, given the circumstances, not carry the 15-man maximum? The lineup on that third night of a back-to-back-to-back situation will feature the youngsters and a D-League call-up or two.
If Jones accepts a fluid roster as part of the organization’s Spurs affiliation in normal seasons, he should expect the extreme through April.
Maybe San Antonio stays miraculously injury-free and does not need to dip into the Toros well much for practice bodies or 11th or 12th men. I doubt that. Instead, I expect a record number of call-ups for this veteran squad, as Popovich balances health and winning.
Yeah, sorry about that Brad.
9. Prepare Splitter for Increased Role
Chris Graythen/Getty Images
No developing player matters more to the Spurs prospects than the 6’11” Brazilian once hailed as Europe’s best center. He struggled with various ailments and failed to crack the regular rotation. He averaged 4.6 points, 3.4 rebounds and 12.3 minutes in a frustrating rookie campaign.
He wasn’t even the best rookie on his own squad. Neal won that designation.
San Antonio needs Splitter’s pick-and-roll defensive prowess and interior toughness to get back in the title hunt. He will have to play a lot more.
That requires staying healthy and in Popovich’s good graces—no small feat, even for a former Spanish League MVP.
10. Split Preseason Duties
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
In other years, Popovich would have paced his older cogs through as many as eight preseason contests. In a matter of weeks, he gets two tune-up games. Yes, two.
That leaves little time for evaluating fringe roster players and necessitates getting the expected cast to coalesce as quickly as possible. He must do in mere days and weeks what he would, in other years, achieve across several months.
The Spurs face the Houston Rockets in a home-and-home set Dec. 17 and 21. The coaches and executives may need one game to focus on the youngsters and the duration of the second to test the vets before what could mark the end of the Duncan era come next spring.