Moments after a heartbreaking loss in the NBA Finals, discussion quickly turned from the brilliant season the San Antonio Spurs had just submitted, to speculation on whether it was their last go round.
Would Manu Ginobili play another season? Would Tiago Splitter be retained? A resounding no to either question would have freed up significant cap space for the Spurs to dabble in a free agent market that included intriguing players in Paul Millsap and Josh Smith. But the Spurs have long favored continuity of their program, and, perhaps recognizing time is short and contention possibilities favorable with this roster, quickly brought back the same team with slight changes on the fringes in substituting Marco Belinelli and Jeff Ayres for the departing Gary Neal and DeJuan Blair.
It was hardly shocking, considering the Spurs are the Spurs. Continuity leads to successful chemistry on the court, but boredom in our comments sections, rumor mills, and Twitter. That’s why, when presented with any bit of speculative insider information on the Spurs, it’s gleefully devoured.
The latest? This one paragraph mention in a larger piece from Ken Berger of CBS Sports:
“We've been predicting the Spurs' last hurrah for years, but this time it might really be the end of the road. The Spurs have been unusually aggressive trying to upgrade their roster in the trade market, a signal to rival execs that Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford realize this might be the final shot at a title with the triumvirate of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Duncan, 37, has a $10.4 million player option for next season, and Parker's future also has to be addressed; only $3.5 million of his $12.5 million for next season is guaranteed.”
First, Duncan and Ginobili are in their late 30’s; each season you mention their last hurrah, you’re increasing more likely to be right than wrong. Second, “unusually aggressive” is relative. Does it mean unusually aggressive for them, which wouldn’t take much, or unusually aggressive relative to normal NBA activity? The important thing to keep in mind, before letting your imagination run wild, is that aggressively pursuing a deal doesn’t necessarily mean pursuing an aggressive deal, or one that would drastically alter the team’s composition.
It’s important to remember the Spurs are still an elite team with unparalleled depth, as evident by their place atop the Western Conference standings. But they value process over results during the regular season, and there’s been some slippage of the defense recently, a rough start on offense from their starting lineup, and a lack of “signature wins” against elite teams. There’s both room for improvement and concern over slippage.
So if the Spurs were active in the trade market, what chips do they have to bargain with, and what needs do they have? In constructing deals, it’s important to consider that first and foremost, the Spurs consider themselves viable championship contenders, even if there can be disagreement over their exact odds. These opportunities are rare, and wasting them for the prospects of an uncertain future is not likely to happen. Any move made has to be viewed in the context of upgrading now, or moving laterally immediately while shedding assets for better prospects moving forward.
The Prime Assets: Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard
If the Spurs were aggressively seeking to shake things up, these would be the two most valuable assets they have on the table. It’s not likely to happen because they’re largely (and rightfully) untouchable.
Parker is the only elite Spurs player still in his prime, though likely entering the downside of it. A move for Parker is a signal that a team is prepared to go all-in immediately, and it’s hard to fathom such a trading partner with enough assets to make it worth the Spurs while without leaving the cupboards too bare to compete.
Leonard is still young enough to grow with a team, and good enough to contribute significantly right now, that almost every front office in the NBA would be willing to move considerable resources to obtain him. The problem is his ceiling is too high to make a move laterally, and his skill set fills too many gaps in the Spurs roster (elite perimeter defense, length on the wings, athleticism, the ability to play heavy minutes at high levels, rebounding) to consider moving him for anything but one of the top 10-15 players in the NBA. The Spurs best two assets would be their most untouchable, if not for the next two players.
The Tenured Professors: Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan
Their immediate basketball value is still very high, even if it’s not quite what it once was. Duncan arguably remains a top-10 player in his limited minutes, and Ginobili one of the NBA’s most important subs.
Both would immediately raise the bar on any team, but too briefly to make it worthwhile to return enough value. And even if a team was willing to make that call, they’re embedded enough in the Spurs culture that the Spurs aren’t listening to offers. Duncan’s not going anywhere. It doesn’t make any basketball sense in the world, but the Heat could call and offer up LeBron James, and I’d still say no. And the Spurs likely value San Antonio’s infrastructure too much to risk the rioting in the aftermath of a Ginobili trade.
The Viable Assets: Danny Green and Tiago Splitter
Danny Green is not a prospect. He is what he’s always going to be, a quality defender (though not a stopper) who can space the floor and find soft spots in the defense; and one that should never ever be asked to create his own shot, or dribble in any way, shape, or form.
But shooting and defense have become very valuable commodities in the NBA, and at a contract set at fair market rate, a rebuilding team might be willing to cast off a veteran upgrade for a complementary player that can grow with their other young pieces.
The problem is negotiating a deal that doesn’t weaken too much of what the Spurs will need from Green in the playoffs, namely defending Westbrook/Jackson and Steph Curry.
At his best, Green has largely been responsible for defending opposing point guards and shifty shooting guards, freeing Kawhi Leonard to do other things (like guarding Kevin Durant, or Klay Thompson), and allowing Tony Parker to conserve energy. Ideally, a Green trade would provide an all-around upgrade at shooting guard, or return an asset the Spurs don’t currently have on the roster—an athletic power forward that can stay on the court against teams that can force the Spurs out of their Duncan-Splitter alignments. There are a growing number of worrisome playoff opponents capable of doing this: they include the Thunder, Heat, Warriors, and Rockets.
Splitter is hurt, has his limitations, but has known value to analytically driven teams. He’s entering his prime, and though some consider him overpaid, his contract actually measures up well to what other big men get on the market. It took years for the Spurs to find a viable partner for Tim Duncan that would return the Spurs defense to elite levels. Is Splitter moveable? Probably more so than you’d think, but tread with caution.
Boris Diaw is a significant factor for the Spurs because his versatility and passing are amplified by the system, while downplaying his limitations. His value is high only in very specific contexts. Matt Bonner is a spot player, but legitimate stretch four. They both have some value to the Spurs, but as outgoing pieces of a deal, the most important aspects of their value is that they have a little bit of meat on their expiring contracts while being viable rotation pieces.
Any Spurs deal is likely to operate along the fringes of their roster and assets, where draft picks, overseas prospects, and their 8-15th spots on the roster come into play. The Spurs can’t absorb contracts freely, so some dollar figures will have to go out with any of these fringe assets to make deals work.
It’s hard to speculate on any deals the Spurs might make, mostly because once a rumor reaches the public, it’s almost certain that said rumor is dead. Additionally, the Spurs role players are already good enough to contend for a championship team. Rearranging the furniture isn’t going to move the needle much.
As you get deeper into the playoffs, depth matters less, and elite players more. The Spurs title chances largely rest on Duncan, Leonard, and Parker playing at elite levels under a heavy minutes workload with Manu Ginobili ably filling the gaps. It’s hard to construct a trade that upgrades the top seven of the Spurs rotation players with the assets they have. Nevertheless, feel free to try. You know how to find the ESPN Trade Machine, you can hit us up on Twitter @BlanchardJRB or @ProjectSpurs. Send a few, I’ll give them some space here, pitch it to other team’s bloggers, and we can have a fun weekend go of it.