As the Spurs and their fans deal with a crushing loss and the prospect of rebuilding in Oklahoma City’s conference with precisely zero under-30 star pillars, they can take heart in a few things:
• The Spurs’ front office has been thinking about the post-Tim Duncan era for several years, likely in ways more creative than you or I could imagine. The George Hill-Kawhi Leonard trade is a nice example, even if the deal ultimately made sense for the present as well as the future. Gregg Popovich is intimately involved in every Spurs personnel decision, and he willingly signed off on a deal in which a legitimate championship contender dealt away a proven cog — the team’s Sixth Man — in exchange for a totally unknown NBA commodity. How many coaches, a stubborn and risk-averse lot, would do something like that?
The deal showed cap savvy, since Leonard will be on a cheap rookie deal for three more seasons — a stretch in which the Spurs will look to add major salary — and Hill is about to earn a mid-sized veteran contract. It also made on-court sense, since the Spurs have nabbed a third/fourth banana who fills a position at which any serious team must have a good defender.
• The Spurs’ ownership has proven willing to spend up to and even exceed the luxury tax in order to field a championship-level team. They jumped over the tax this season after barely skirting it last season and blowing by it the year before. The tax gets new teeth in 2013-14 and carries an extra harsh penalty for repeat offenders (teams who exceed it in three out of every four seasons, with the clock starting with the just-concluded campaign), and so Spurs’ owner Peter Holt — a relative hawk during the lockout — would doubtlessly prefer to come in under the tax next year and going forward. That isn’t necessarily cause for alarm, because …
• The Spurs are in a very good place, cap-wise. They have about $49.2 million in committed salary for next season, assuming they pick up cheap guarantees on DeJuan Blair and Gary Neal and that Patty Mills enacts his minimum-level player option (something he may not do). They won’t have cap space (we’ll get there shortly), but they will have access to the full mid-level exception — a great way to attract a productive veteran, especially since several potential contenders (Miami, Chicago, the Lakers) will have access only to the small mid-level afforded taxpaying teams. They could use another reliable shooting guard with some creativity in his game or a big man who can defend the rim and hit a jump shot (a rare commodity in this price range). Erazem Lorbek, a Slovenian big man playing very well for Ricky Rubio’s old team in Spain and another piece of the Leonard deal, may fill this role eventually (the jump-shooting part, anyway), but the Spurs could have to dip into the mid-level to sign him.
Beyond next season, only Tony Parker and Matt Bonner are guaranteed any salary at all. The Spurs have no record of attracting star free agents, though they flirted with Jason Kidd early in Parker’s career. But the Spurs haven’t really needed any star-level free agents since Duncan’s arrival, and they have had little room for them since rookie deals tied to Parker and Ginobili expired long ago. Financial flexibility is useful regardless, and the Spurs will have it going forward.
Still: Financial flexibility and a promising young player or three can make you the Nuggets, Rockets or Pacers, but without a franchise-level star, can it make you a champion? That will be the question for the Spurs over the next half-decade: Do they believe they need that star player? And where do they get one without a first-round pick in this year’s draft (it belongs to Golden State) or a very unlikely lottery home run? It will be exciting to watch San Antonio’s thought process play out.
Back to next season: That $49.2 million figure is well below the anticipated cap level of about $58 million, but that does not mean the Spurs have cap room to sign free agents. They have one hugely important outgoing free agent — Duncan — and in order to keep the right to re-sign him and exceed the cap, they must retain a giant artificial charge on their books linked to Duncan’s old salary. That charge rockets them over the cap. The Spurs could in theory renounce their rights to Duncan and snag about $9 million in cap space, but that doesn’t really do much; they’d still have to re-sign Duncan within that amount, and though he’s a really nice person who loves the Spurs, he has given no indication he’s willing to sign there for nothing.
In theory, renouncing Duncan and using the amnesty provision on Matt Bonner (set to make $3.6 million next season) could make the Spurs a player for a free agent one notch below the elite, but there just aren’t many of those that fit, and other teams could outbid San Antonio in potential sign-and-trades or deals for other stars.
The very best scenario for now might be to re-sign Duncan, add a key piece via the mid-level exception and go for the whole thing again next season — the final year of Ginobili’s contract, and (as of now) the last season between the Spurs and serious cap space. Writing off the Spurs is an annual tradition, and they prove us wrong every year. The only real reason to assume a healthy Spurs team could not win the title in 2012-13 is the Thunder, and barring a poorly-timed injury, that reason is not going anywhere. But sometimes the best answer is to hold your cards, hope for a bit of luck in free agency and some internal improvement, and see where the luck — playoff seedings, injuries, shots — falls in May and June. And if things go much worse than anticipated before the spring (note: they never do), the Spurs do have potential trade chips in Ginobili’s expiring deal and Parker, who has only about $29 million guaranteed to him over the next three seasons (at the fair price of $12.5 million a pop for the first two). The Spurs can stay very competitive and keep all options open at the same time.
How competitive can they be, though? The Spurs are older now, and both Duncan (36) and Ginobili (turning 35 next month) are at the point in their careers where accelerated decline could set in any moment. Duncan looked spry for most of the post-season, but he struggled to finish in the post against Oklahoma City. Ginobili is as clever and aggressive as ever, and he’s a tremendous athlete, but he also struggled to create space against the younger, quicker, longer, jumpier Thunder. He used that stop-and-show-the-ball fake on drives twice in the same possession on Thursday night, and you don’t do that unless you’re convinced you cannot finish in the lane.
Still: Both remain All-Star-level players when healthy, and Popovich will manage their minutes in the regular season. Parker is a star, if not a franchise-level foundational piece. Leonard should make at least a mini-leap this season after emerging as a reliable shooter from the corners and an active, willing defender. He has also shown some promising off-the-dribble moves and a developing mid-range game, important skills he should be less tentative using next season. He’s not close to being a lockdown defender yet, but the raw tools are there. He had trouble reading the Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook pick-and-roll for much of the conference finals, and he and Jackson suffered some fatal miscommunication issues on a couple of pivotal Durant three-pointers in Game 6. Popovich ultimately preferred Jackson on Durant, in part because Jackson could guard Durant the way the Spurs’ staff preferred on those plays in which Durant curls off screens along the sideline. One suspects this will change next season.
Another year should also help Tiago Splitter, a decent defender and skilled pick-and-roll player whose fall from the rotation was a bit puzzling.
These Spurs aren’t dead, and with good health, they could be right back in this round next season. But the Thunder are better already and improving, and the future of the Spurs’ looks like that of any uncertain franchise. San Antonio isn’t used to facing the questions everyone else has to face every season, but they have the right front office to find the answers.