Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
Unlike other contenders, the Spurs changed team-building approaches and decided to sign cheap, young role players instead of veterans. So far the results have been impressive. But could the move also pay off in the future?
We've recently had a great post by Racm where he discussed the Spurs' reinvention and whether on not it was worth it. If you haven't read it, you should because it raises some interesting questions. While I was reading it and in the following days I couldn't help but think how those issues affected three other teams: the Mavs, The Lakers and the Thunder.
Those three franchises provide three different examples of the challenges teams face when trying to build a lasting contender. If you are a small market team like the Thunder, you might need to put cost over quality. If you are facing questions on how good your core can be in the future, like the Mavs or the Spurs, what should you do? And finally, what are the options when you finally decide to make a huge move attempting to reload without taking fit into account like the Lakers did?
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It used to be that rebuilding teams primarily focused on getting help through the draft while contenders, who by definition already have their foundation in place, traded away or used their late first rounders to fill the bench and simply signed veteran free agents or resigned their own to complement their stars. But things have changed. The league has shifted slightly towards a more conservative spending paradigm that makes finding the right role players at the right price essential to any sustainable chance to contend. The cheapest role players tend to be either young players on rookie contracts or veterans on their last legs.
Having one or two of the league's top players is still the first step towards building a team that has a chance to win it all, but finding the right pieces to surround those stars has become harder and therefore just as important. The best example of this might be this past off-season's biggest surprise: the James Harden trade.
Houston benefits from OKC's problem
The Rockets got their man because OKC overextended itself by resigning Ibaka to anchor the paint next to Westbrook and Durant. Faced with the decision of committing a huge chunk of their cap space long term to just four players and paying a hefty tax bill, the Thunder front office decided instead that the initial hit in talent and chemistry was a worthy trade off for a string of potentially good players on rookie contracts. So they sent Harden to Houston. Both the Harden trade and, to a lesser degree the Rudy Gay trade, proved that having too many highly paid players, regardless of their quality, is becoming a problem for small market teams.
Big-market LA running out of options
While money is the biggest motivation behind small market teams' decision to prefer good, cheap, young players over very good but expensive ones, the problem for big market teams is all about flexibility. If recent moves are any indication, however, they didn't get the memo. Take the Lakers, for example. They signed two pricey free agents over the off season to go with Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and their huge contracts. But they lacked depth and athleticism and more importantly, ways to acquire them, since no one wanted L.A.'s veteran role players on mid-size deals like Chris Duhon, Metta World Peace or Steve Blake. Going into next season, and provided they resign Dwight Howard, the Lakers could be forced to trade Pau Gasol for nothing more than a few cheap, preferably young role players in an attempt to balance out the team.
Is Big D, Big Done?
Mark Cuban seemed aware that the landscape was about to change, claiming that he broke up the championship team because he wanted cap flexibility for the future. The part he didn't understand is that having flexibility is about more than just cap space; it's about securing the depth required to contend on the cheap via the draft or bargain bin signings to go with the expensive stars. If Dwight bolts and joins the Mavs, they have no real depth to surround him and Dirk Nowitzki. Their young players range from useless (Jared Cunningham) to about to get expensive (O.J. Mayo). They simply don't have good pieces under reasonable contracts already in place for next year.
They could always use the rest of their cap space to sign veterans to mid-size, short term deals but they would basically be going back to the same situation they tried to escape by not resigning Tyson Chandler, Jason Terry and Jason Kidd. Instead of trying to find young, cheap role players, the Mavs have consistently signed veterans to mid-size deals in the past as stop gaps, which in a way forces them to keep doing so in the future and has seriously damaged their chances at sustainability as contenders.
The Lakers and the Mavs have been so focused on getting that big fish that they've neglected all the smaller steps required to build a long term contender under the new rules. They won't sift through the waiver wire for Danny Greens and they won't travel Europe looking for the next De Colo or Baynes. They won't make a move for a Leonard in the draft either. And as an obvious consequence, there are no Leonards, Greens, Baynes or Josephs in Dallas to take over for Carter, Marion and Kaman just like there weren't any when it was time to replace Kidd, Terry and Chandler.
PATFO once again seems to have been ahead of the curve on this subject. After focusing their energies in acquiring veterans like Antonio McDyess and Richard Jefferson, the Spurs changed their approach. They will go into next season with Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Nando De Colo, Cory Joseph, Aron Baynes and possibly Patty Mills under contract. And because they have all these serviceable young players on the books for cheap, including a potential star in Leonard, this off season the Spurs will have the option to remake themselves on the fly, reload or stay the course. They can do whatever they want, from overpaying Tiago Splitter and resign the rest of their own free agents without fear of the luxury tax to renouncing Splitter, Neal, Jackson and even Ginobili and signing a couple big time free agents to help shoulder the burden on Tim Duncan's final years and everything in between.
Unlike the Thunder pre-Harden trade, the Spurs managed to balance both the monetary concerns intrinsic to a small market team while giving roster flexibility the importance it merits. Instead of taking drastic measures regarding the core when it would have been premature and inadvisable to do so like the Mavs did, they were patient and chose instead to focus on the fringes of the roster, getting ready for the time when tough decisions were going to be inescapable. If they decide to get a big time free agent and succeed in doing so, there won't be any concern regarding who will surround that guy; the Spurs have everything already in place, unlike the Lakers.
Without much fanfare, PATFO has put the franchise in a great place facing the future and thanks to their long term approach to team building, they didn't have to surrender the team's title chances to do so. To many, the success of the Spurs' reinvention will be determined by how well the team does come playoff time. But it might be important to keep in mind that the decisions the front office has made this past couple of years might result in a championship window than could stay open for longer than we first imagined.