Sacrifice has become synonymous with the San Antonio Spurs' success stories, its relevance not so much ubiquitous as commonplace, an assumed part of how they play and approach the future.
Most of the time, this everyday sacrifice refers to individual touches and status, demanding players understand and embrace their part in a collective project that will always be bigger than any one name.
Sometimes, it pertains to a financial concession that has players accepting below-market contracts for the sake of roster flexibility.
During the upcoming offseason, if San Antonio wishes to register as a major free-agency player, this long-held belief in community will have to generate the boldest sacrifices yet—none more imperative than the potentially unfathomable pay cuts Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili must accept.
Free agency is seldom a resource the Spurs look to for more than odds and ends and bargain-bin finds. But this summer is different. They delayed Kawhi Leonard's extension, temporarily cheapening his cap hold, and are expected to make runs at Marc Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge, according to ESPN.com's Marc Stein.
Cap finagling is a prerequisite of those pursuits no matter what, but more financial posturing must be done if Duncan and Ginobili return.
Relevant: Dunan and Ginobili plan to return.
Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher said San Antonio is "planning for them to be back in some capacity." This keeps in theme with Gregg Popovich's slapstick banter following the Spurs' Game 7 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers.
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"People ask me about Tim and Manu and myself for the last five years, what we're going to do," he said, per ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne. "It's all psychobabble. I have no clue. We'll probably come back. Paycheck is pretty good."
It's fitting Popovich emphasized their paychecks. They won't just play a part in convincing Duncan and Ginobili to return; they'll determine what free agent San Antonio can afford.
The salary cap is set to hit $67.1 million for next season, according to DraftExpress' Jonathan Givony. And because the Spurs held off re-signing Leonard, they'll have plenty of wiggle room.
Dan Feldman elaborated on this for NBC Sports in October:
If the Spurs give Leonard a max extension now, based on the NBA's projected salary cap, he'd count $15,502,415 against the cap next offseason. If Leonard becomes a free agent, he'd count just $7,235,148 against the cap until signed. That extra $8,267,267 of cap space could be quite useful, and San Antonio could exceed the cap to re-sign Leonard after using it.
Including Leonard's cap hit, the Spurs will have six guaranteed holds counting against next season's bill: Tony Parker, Tiago Splitter, Boris Diaw, Patty Mills, Kyle Anderson and Leonard himself.
For the sake of maximum flexibility, we must assume they'll renounce free-agent rights to Marco Belinelli and Danny Green, decline the qualifying offers on Aron Baynes and Cory Joseph and part ways with Reggie Williams' non-guaranteed deal ($1.2 million).
Keeping them on the books would add to San Antonio's holds and limit spending. Remove them from consideration and the Spurs are left with those initial six holds totaling just under $41.4 million, plus whatever they need to waive Williams.
This is where things start to get dicey.
If San Antonio retains the rights to Duncan and Ginobili, the cap holds on both will be 150 percent of this past season's salary, per Larry Coon's CBA FAQ. Duncan just earned $10.4 million and Ginobili $7 million, so they would count against the books for more than $26 million.
Tack that $26 million onto $41.4 million and the Spurs are at $67.4 million—over the cap before filling out the entire roster.
Now, they have the option of brokering new deals for Duncan and Ginobili using their Bird rights before making a run at Gasol or Aldridge. The thinking here is both would re-sign for less than their cap hold—$15.5 million for Duncan, $10.5 million for Ginobili—and give the Spurs more flexibility.
Those discounts seem inevitable. Duncan's salary dipped by nearly 55 percent in the first year of his last deal, while Ginobili's fell by almost 47 percent. As Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express-News pointed out in 2012, Duncan went from being the third-highest paid player in the league for 2011-12, to the fourth-highest paid Spur in 2012-13.
But those discounts will have to be equally steep, if not steeper, this time around.
Below is a look at the Spurs' possible salary outlook for next season. Note that minimum cap holds are added as placeholders for every roster spot under the league-imposed minimum of 12:
|Spurs' Projected Salary Outlook for 2015-16|
|Kawhi Leonard||$7,235,148 (hold until next contract)|
|No. 26 Pick||$991,600 (at minimum)|
|Minimum Cap Holds||Three @ $525,093 = 1,575,279|
|Source: Basketball-Insiders, CBA FAQ and RealGM|
Just over $23.1 million won't be enough to keep Ginobili and Duncan and sign Aldridge or Gasol.
Someone like Aldridge, with nine years of experience, is eligible for a maximum starting salary that soaks up 30 percent of the cap. Basketball Related Income (BRI) inevitably comes into play, so the player salary-to-cap ratio is typically smaller than the listed percentage. But, as a rough estimate, 30 percent of $67.1 million is more than $20 million.
No matter how generous Duncan and Ginobili are feeling, having only slightly more than $3 million to hand them is absurd.
Hence why, according to Stein, the Spurs are prepared to move Splitter and his $8.5 million salary. In the event they can unload him without taking anything back in return, they're up about $8 million (Splitter's salary minus one minimum cap hold).
Add that to the roughly $3 million-plus from before and the Spurs would have a little more than $11 million to split between Duncan and Ginobili.
Is that enough? After they combined to make $17.4 million in 2014-15?
If we keep the same salary ratio, Duncan would go from bringing home $10.4 million to raking in $6.7 million; Ginobili would go from $7 million to $4.4 million.
It sounds reasonable in theory, but Duncan, an All-Star this past season, is working off a below-market contract already. The idea of slashing his earnings by another 35 percent feels disingenuous.
Could they perhaps be willing to accept even less, not only to help the Spurs chase Aldridge, but also facilitate Green's return?
Less Is More...Again
All of this could end up being, as Popovich would say, psychobabble. The Spurs could return with the exact same core, having made little or no changes, thus simplifying their financial situation.
But standing pat would assume they were right there this year, when really, they weren't. As Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding wrote following their first-round exodus:
San Antonio came close to redeeming Game 6 also with a great Game 7, but even with a victory, the Spurs would have been pushing uphill again in the next round, starting without home-court advantage against Houston.
Even though this was far more intense and better played than almost any first-round series in NBA history, let's not mistake the reality that the Spurs were eliminated almost as far from the championship as can be.
The Spurs, as they are, remain impressive. Relevant, even. But the rumor mill has them seeking something bigger. And to get that something, it'll take more maneuvering and, most importantly, sacrifices.
Steep though those concessions seem, the Spurs—specifically Duncan and Ginobili—are no strangers to making sacrifices, both on and off the court.
Just as it's been foolish to count them out at any point over these last 18 years, it would be equally irrational to bet against them now, when the difference between an aggressive free-agent push and low-key offseason is the Spurs' willingness to do what they've always done.
Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @danfavale.