By Jesse Blanchard
The San Antonio Spurs reportedly entered the offseason with aspirations of signing Chris Paul or possibly bringing George Hill back into the fold.
For brief moments around the NBA Draft, there was talk of deals involving LaMarcus Aldridge and Danny Green, hinting at the sort of blockbuster summer trades not typically associated with the Spurs.
Instead, the Spurs mostly return the same group responsible for 61 wins and a Western Conference Finals appearance.
On Monday, they made their last significant offseason move, barring an unforeseen trade, bringing back 37-year old Pau Gasol to a three-year, $48 million contract, with the third year only partially guaranteed, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
In a vacuum, banking on the steady growth of an already MVP-quality player in Kawhi Leonard, the internal development of even younger players like Dejounte Murray, Davis Bertans and Kyle Anderson, and a cache of steady, quality veterans is fine.
Relative to other Western Conference teams adding All-NBA talent, the Spurs’ offseason is a loss; and Gasol’s contract sums up so much of the Spurs’ summer.
First and foremost, this is not a good contract. Gasol is skilled, long and smart; all things that slow age-related decline. He should retain most of the same functionality from last year—in which he was quite useful for the Spurs—if in increasingly limited stints. But he’s 37 years old, difficult to put on the court against certain teams and, in the free agency market, was not going to see that type of money from any other team.
But just as important to remember, this is hardly a below-the-waterline mistake from the Spurs.
In many ways, this is just the cost of doing business as the Spurs.
San Antonio wanted to explore moves this summer and, at the very least, retain all of its key players without hitting the luxury tax. Team ownership has shown a willingness to pay the tax, but the Spurs’ small market and ownership pockets a little more shallow than their competition dictates they do so judiciously. To their credit, RC Buford and Gregg Popovich have tiptoed that line masterfully, dipping into the tax only when opportunities to significantly upgrade are available.
Without losing key players, Gasol’s player option was the only card the Spurs had to play to accomplish any of that.
Not even Wojnarowski’s reach penetrates the Spurs’ veil of secrecy far enough to know the exact details of the promises made to Gasol, but given San Antonio’s history, some strong hypotheses can be made.
Two years ago, Manu Ginobili took a massive pay cut to help give the Spurs the cap space necessary to sign LaMarcus Aldridge. Last year, the Spurs signed Ginobili to a one-year, $14 million contract, making Ginobili financially whole.
In 2010, Richard Jefferson, then with the Spurs and coming off the worst season of his career, opted out of the final year of his contract and $15 million. At 30 years old and clearly on the decline at a time when players weren’t extending their careers into their mid-to-late 30s, that appeared to be a costly decision.
But the Spurs quickly re-signed him to four years, $39 million; or, more guaranteed money at a smaller annual cap hit. This bit of financial maneuvering allowed the Spurs to add Tiago Splitter without hitting the luxury tax.
On the surface, the Spurs, a team not known for handing out bad contracts, put together one of the most questionable deals of that summer.
The Gasol contract is essentially the same deal struck with Jefferson so many years ago. The only difference is, unlike with Splitter, the Spurs didn’t accomplish all of their offseason goals.
Chris Paul quickly went to the Houston Rockets this summer. Talks between Hill and the Spurs reportedly broke down. San Antonio re-signed Patty Mills to a fair deal and added Rudy Gay, but lost Jonathon Simmons.
They also let Dewayne Dedmon go, but it appears he wasn’t a priority if the deal the Atlanta Hawks gave him (two years, $14 million) was an option. Popovich soured on him in the middle of the playoffs for reasons only a handful of people will probably ever know and, after starting for a stretch of the season, Dedmon disappeared completely from the Spurs’ plans.
Had the Spurs retained Simmons, it’s a safe bet Gasol sacrifices and takes a smaller annual cap figure to make it all work. The Spurs, with newfound confidence in Simmons, basically add another full-time rotation player, remain under the luxury tax and come out looking fine.
But something happened between the Spurs and Simmons and, as Jabari Young of the San Antonio Express-News reported, that relationship deteriorated:
After talks on a new contract stalled, a sign-and-trade with the Phoenix Suns was presented. The deal featured the Spurs getting center Tyson Chandler in exchange for Simmons, but at the last minute, the Spurs backed out of the trade, not wanting to take on the remaining two years and roughly $26 million on Chandler’s deal.
According to league sources, Simmons’ representatives then spoke with Spurs officials late Wednesday in Las Vegas, where it was requested he become an unrestricted free agent. The team granted the request Thursday morning, the last day teams can pull qualifying offers…
…league sources tell the Express-News his representatives were displeased with the way the Spurs negotiated with Simmons and will seek deals elsewhere before a commitment to re-sign in San Antonio.
Pau Gasol made good on his end of the deal and, with no Simmons or stars, the Spurs appear to have rewarded him with the space beneath the luxury tax. Many will understand the cost while quibbling with the years, but if this was the agreement the Spurs and Gasol made, it had to be honored.
In this era of super teams, especially as the expensive designated player extension skyrockets certain individual salaries, holding star cores together is going to take some level of sacrifice and trust between both players and organizations.
The Spurs’ longevity comes not just from the talent they draft and develop, but the sacrifices all have made to keep this together.
Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Ginobili have all, at times, taken below market deals to add to the team. Even in their primes. In what figures to have been his best payday opportunity, Danny Green didn’t appear to test his free agency value, re-signing almost immediately on a fair deal for all sides; even if he could have gotten more money elsewhere.
Kawhi Leonard had the opportunity to demand an extension before hitting restricted free agency. He also could have signed a shorter contract and taken advantage of the skyrocketing salary cap everyone saw coming. Instead, he allowed the Spurs to use his relatively low cap hold in free agency to sign Aldridge, then signed for the full five years.
The lack of these kinds of deals have felled other teams before.
And this advantage is often dismissed as some sort of Spurs-ian mystique few teams should be able to count on. But for those wondering how the Spurs manage to get free agents to wait their turn, sign on the organization’s timelines at preferred prices to maximize every resource the team has, look no further than the Gasol deal.
On paper, it’s a bad contract. Hell, in context, it’s not much better. But it’s something to point to the next time the team needs to shake loose some cap flexibility. And that matters.
Again, this is simply the cost of business.
And in the long run, it’s not a damning cost. This roster, because most of its components didn’t use every amount of leverage available to extract as much money from the Spurs as possible, is still cheaper than it probably should be; even with Gasol’s contract.
If an opportunity presents itself to sign a star player next summer, the Spurs can likely still create the necessary cap space. Especially if Aldridge, who is reportedly unhappy, opts out.
Assuming Aldridge opts out next season, the Spurs are within reach of a max contract to find a second star; which remains a long shot, even if they didn’t have Gasol’s deal on the books. (It’s important to remember San Antonio isn’t a prime free agent destination. The Aldridge signing remains the exception, not the rule).
If the Spurs need to clear more room around the margins next summer, they can attempt to work a Gasol-like deal with Gay or Green, taking an annual pay cut for more money over more years—something the Spurs have a history of doing thanks to the reputation they have taking care of players who work with them for cap space.
And, though Gasol’s contract is bad, there is one way in which it could be helpful.
Say the Spurs make one or several key additions next summer and Murray makes a significant, but still shy of star-like leap. Then, that summer or the following year a team decides it’s time to hit the reset button and deal its star.
Gasol’s deal is only partially guaranteed the final year, making it a valuable salary matching tool to add to the Spurs’ best trade assets of Murray and draft picks, whose cap hits are significantly lower than their value.
Remember, Jefferson’s deal was seen as equally bad in 2010 and he ultimately didn’t spend that entire contract with the Spurs.
The Spurs lost this offseason, for those keeping score. And the Gasol contract, in a vacuum, isn’t a good one.
But it’s also not bad enough consequential. That contract isn’t going to be what stops the Spurs from, say, a LeBron James pipe dream. There are plenty of outs and ways to pivot from the current roster to rebuild around Leonard.
The Spurs took care of Gasol. In a year or two, they’ll likely use that goodwill for deals with Green or a veteran free agent to be named later. Not every transaction has to be won, not every amount of leverage has to be used.
San Antonio didn’t suddenly become a poorly run organization because of what’s perceived to be a poor offseason. They didn’t lose their minds and value Gasol as being more than twice as valuable as Simmons. There are reasons, both public and behind the scenes.
These are the Spurs, they’ve earned the benefit of the doubt. The next few years should be interesting with no guarantees. The Spurs may not have won this offseason, but they’ll continue pounding the rock with that same intelligent, long term outlook.