Tim Duncan’s presence on the floor transformed the Spurs’ defense from ordinary to among the 10 best in the NBA last season. (EPA/John G. Mabanglo/LANDOV)
The Spurs entered the offseason in a very similar position as the Celtics, only much closer to realistically contending for the title. The four straight losses to Oklahoma City linger around the perception of this team in a bad way, but three of those losses were close, and they came after the Spurs blitzed the NBA over the course of 35 games at a level we have rarely seen in the entire history of the league.
Those four losses, though, did give off the feel of one team figuring out another — by shifting Thabo Sefolosha onto Tony Parker, leveraging an athleticism advantage by defending the paint more aggressively and playing small more often against a team ill-equipped to punish Oklahoma City on the block. And the Thunder are only going to get better with experience. Still, The Spurs are close, and they have a few young and young-ish players — especially Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter — who should continue to get better in their own right. And that’s why it’s not surprising San Antonio has essentially decided to run it back, agreeing to re-sign Tim Duncan to a three-year deal structured very much like the three-year, $34 million deal those Celtics game to Kevin Garnett ten long days ago, per Yahoo!’s Johnny Ludden.
That decision comes after the Spurs had decided to bring back Danny Green on a three-year, $12 million deal and dip into their mid-level exception to sign Boris Diaw to a two-year, $9.2 million contract. Ludden reports the Spurs have also come to terms with Nando De Colo, a French combo guard they drafted in 2009, and back-up point guard Patty Mills — moves that could make Gary Neal or Mills expendable on the trade market. All the moves taken together bring the Spurs right to the edge of the tax line, though with all the movable little contracts here, including DeJuan Blair’s non-guaranteed deal, sliding under the tax shouldn’t be too hard for San Antonio. Bringing back Duncan at his price could compromise the Spurs’ cap room next summer, but not fatally, and a lot can happen between now and then.
Duncan and Garnett handcuffed their teams by being so damn good at such an advanced NBA age. The Spurs and (especially) the Celtics had positioned themselves with cap room this summer, ready to move onto new eras in the history of their respective franchises. But Garnett and Duncan soaked up almost all of that cap room via charges, linked to their (giant) old salaries, that hang on a team’s books until that team renounces its rights to those outgoing free agents. And Duncan and Garnett played so well last season, on such lively legs, that they made it very hard for their teams to wipe away those cap charges and use their space to sign someone better. And so the other path made some sense for each: keep those holds on the books, stay over the cap, bring back most of the old gang on cheap, short-term deals and see what happens next season.
The ideal would be to stay in championship contention for 2012-13 while remaining flexible enough to hit the reset button, or something close to it, pretty quickly if things go sour. The Spurs remain in decent position to do that, with Manu Ginobili’s contract expiring after next season along with Stephen Jackson’s, and with the rest of these guys — Diaw, Green, etc. — coming back at lower prices than Boston’s Brandon Bass/Jeff Green/Jason Terry crew. Assuming an $11 million salary for Duncan in 2013-14, the Spurs could work their way to max-level cap space a year form now, though cap holds linked to Ginobili and Tiago Splitter will take up most of that space initially — just as Duncan’s hold would have in this free agency period. Tony Parker’s contract expires a year later and is only partially guaranteed for that 2014-15 season, so the Spurs could be in the same position again — with an attractive trade chip if need be. Read More…