This is the second installment of the Should He Stay or Should He Go? Series in which I look at Spurs free agents and try to figure out whether they should re-signed or not. In the first installment I looked at the team's situation with Manu Ginobili. Now it's Gary Neal's turn.
Why should a player be re-signed?
This is an explanation of the parameters I'm using. You obviously re-sign someone because they can play but also because you can't find a better, or equal but cheaper replacement. And even if they can play you don't re-sign them if there is't a role they can fill for your team, or if their market worth outweighs their contributions.
Let's see how all of the above applies to Neal.
Gary Neal, unremarkable or solid?
Here's what Gary Neal has done in his three years in the league.
Nothing jumps out, really. He gives you around 20 minutes a game, hits some shots, rebounds adequately for his position and is not much of a playmaker for a combo guard. His value is in his outside shooting. Every team needs a guard that can come in and make shots off the bench and while Neal is not on the level of a Lou Williams or a Marcus Thornton, he can fill that role adequately.
Now, Neal will become a free agent and, after playing for way less money that he deserved in his first three years in the league, he is probably looking to bank. But what that does mean for a guy like Neal? Let's look at players that can provide similar production: decent three point shooting (35% or more) on a considerable number of attempts (three or more) in a short period of time (25 minutes or less). Here's the list.
Outside of Manu Ginobili and Ben Gordon, who will see their salaries severely reduced on their next contract, low minute volume shooters are not handsomely compensated. That's because outside shooting alone is not a hard skill to find. If we expand our parameters to include players that have a more prominent role, the talent pool expands, as you see here. Outside of a few notable exceptions like Kevin Martin and Manu, players that take that many three pointers struggle getting to the line and finishing at the rim. Neal fits that description, barely edging 50% from eight feet or less from the basket and less than two free throws per 36 minutes last season.
If a team thinks Neal can improve his defense and ball handling considerably, they might offer him $5 million plus. But at 28 it seems really unlikely he develop new tricks. Neal is a bench gunner with below average athleticism whose outside shooting usually makes up for his lack of an all around game.
So the Spurs can have Neal back for cheap?
Not necessarily. And the reason is Neal's ability to hit off the dribble. Yes, he's not your average sharpshooter, as he can make unassisted three pointers and spot up looks.
In the 2011/12 season, Neal shot above 40% on non corner three pointers despite being assisted on only 47% of his makes. For reference, Danny Green was assisted on 95% of his above the break three pointers this season. It's crazy that someone can hit that high a percentage mostly on pull up threes. This past season Neal shot below 40% and was assisted on around 80% of his shots but in his first year in the league Neal was a 42% three point shooter and he did it mostly on assisted looks. There's a difference between guys that can only hit open spot up shots and those who can do that and create a three for themselves and, while a bit inconsistent, Neal falls into the latter category. That skill brings serious value.
A potential playoff team that needs a designated gunner off the bench, like the Bucks, Wizards, Wolves and even Pacers, could be enticed to pry Neal away, offering him a bigger role or near the max his type of player gets, which looking at the list from above, we can establish at around 4 to 5 million dollars. If that happens, I doubt the Spurs will try to retain him. The reason for that is they might have more pressing needs.
Why wouldn't the Spurs try to keep Neal?
Because with Green emerging as an elite shooter, Parker getting heavy minutes, and Cory Joseph and Nando De Colo already under very affordable contracts, Neal would be a luxury and not a necessity. With the league seemingly getting longer in the perimeter, having an undersized two-guard just doesn't make a lot of sense. Regardless of whether Ginobili returns or not, the Spurs should try getting bigger at the wing, as some contenders like OKC and Miami thrive with small ball units and teams like the Nuggets, Dubs and Rockets are following suit in the West. Getting another wing with size will probably take precedence over re-signing Neal.
Someone like Martell Webster, Dorell Wright or Carlos Delfino (if he's healthy) could give the Spurs similar spot up shooting while also allowing for more lineup versatility. Neal's ability to create a shot off the dribble would be missed, but a bigger, stronger player could make up for it by turning spot ups into drives, which is not something at which Neal excels. The minor defensive upgrade alone, to be honest, could be worth it assuming Green and Leonard don't regress as shooters.
The other factor is that Neal can't really play point guard. The Spurs could mostly get away in the past with Neal as the nominal PG while Ginobili ran things and they probably could still do it next season. But with Neal not showing improvement on his handle or court vision, and the Spurs already having two other younger guards under contract in De Colo and Joseph that could potentially be a better fit with Ginobili at this point, sticking with Neal at the one doesn't seem to make much sense.
Feel out the market and only act if the money, and especially the years, are right. Neal on a $5 million, two year contract would be a great get. Despite having a down year, Neal is still a great shooter, he knows the system and seems to have Pop's trust. If he is on a reasonable contract he would be easy to move if things don't work out or he is outplayed. So the risk is minimal.
If someone tries to poach him and throws more than $3 mill a year or more than a two-year contract, the Spurs should move on. At 28 and with below average physical tools, it's not likely Neal becomes more than the solid fourth guard he is now. Not having The Nail back would hurt, but betting on Joseph, De Colo or a bigger, more athletic shooter seems smarter than paying a limited player the type of mid-size contract the Spurs always try to avoid like the plague.
Stats via Basketball-Reference and NBA.com/Stats