So the Spurs 2013 off-season is off to a rip-roaring start. They have used up almost all of their cap room by going crazy on free-agents. The fans couldn't be happier. Oh...wait, those free-agents are players San Antonio already had? With the exception of the newly announced Belinelli and Pendgraph deals (which are hardly getting the blood pumping), all the Spurs have done is re-sign their own guys and do their old "draft and stash." This has some San Antonio fans upset. These fans wanted to see big free-agents come to the River City and that would have meant big changes. That's just not how the Spurs work.
I'd like to address a few points I've seen made about why the Spurs aren't making the "best" choices in free-agency. First off, that tinkering only works when your superstar is in his prime and second, that a championship caliber team should be willing to be make risky moves and add bigger and better pieces that put them over the top. To address those two points let's take a look a the recent history of two NBA teams.
The 2011 Dallas Mavericks seemed to come from nowhere and beat the heavily favored Miami Heat to get Dallas' first title. Dallas had their superstar in Dirk Nowitzki and then a very nice compliment of veterans and role players. What did the Mavs do after they won? Blow it up, of course. That off-season was the one where Derron Williams and Dwight Howard were supposed to be available and Dallas was going to get them both and create the new "Super Friends" team in North Texas. The problem for the Mavs was when Howard exercised his option in Orlando and Williams decided to stay in Brooklyn. Since then, the Mavs have been playoff foder and then couldn't even make the playoffs last year. This is the danger of trying to go get the big name free-agents, it just doesn't always work. I believe that Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson have long done what some Spurs fans hoped to see San Antonio do this year, they treated their franchise like a fantasy team.
The Mavericks are famous for rolling over a lot of their roster every year, and that's exactly what they did after they won the title. Outside of the obvious fact that they didn't get either of the possible big free-agents that year, what could the Mavs have done differently? (Just to be clear, I'm not a Mavs expert and I am not fully familiar with their cap situation, this is an outside perspective that I think is probably pretty accurate.) For starters, the Mavs should have re-signed Tyson Chandler. He was the perfect compliment to Dirk's offensive game. A defensive big man who rebounds and compliments Dirk's softer outside game. Dallas could have also re-signed Caron Butler to have another scorer on the wing aside from Jason Terry or even kept J.J. Barea to backup the aging Jason Kidd. They could have done a lot of things, but they blew it up in hopes of getting better and they failed to do so, obviously.
The other example is the Thunder after their 2012 Finals run. Not many teams were sitting as pretty as OKC after 2012. They had 3 legit stars and a very nice big man in Serge Ibaka that had acquitted himself nicely in the 2012 playoffs. This example is more about money rather than a team trying to get better, but the principles hold true. The Thunder, as we all know, traded James Harden to the Rockets in return for parts and Kevin Martin. Martin is a nice player, but he had proven he's not a game changer. OKC took the risk that Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka were enough and they didn't need to spend big money on their electric sixth man. This seems like a no brainer mistake at this point, but the bottom line was that Harden was no where to be found in the 2012 Finals and there was a chance that he might not be more than just a guy riding the coattails of two superstars. As Spurs fans, it was all too clear that Harden was the guy that put the Thunder over the top in the 2012 WCF. The risk was the player wasn't worth the big money and he, so far, has proven he is worth the price in Houston. Once Westbrook went down in the 2013 playoffs, the Thunder leaned completely on Durant and Memphis was too much. Clearly, hindsight being what it is, the debacle of at least not getting more in return for a budding superstar will haunt OKC for years.
So what does it matter, surely other teams have made drastic changes to title contenders and they've gotten better....right? Not as far as I can recall. All the teams that made drastic changes were either worse off after those changes or they weren't title contenders to begin with (i.e. 2008 Boston, 2011 Miami, 2008 Lakers). No team makes big sweeping changes to a title contender and gets better, at least not very quickly. One can even look at the Lakers last year and see that adding what appeared to be strong pieces doesn't always add up to a lot of playoff wins.
If the Spurs went out and got Josh Smith, they couldn't have kept Tiago Splitter or Manu Ginobili, at least at the deals they got. You then have to decide about brining back lesser players in Gary Neal and DeJuan Blair. If you can even keep those guys, you lose two of your best 6 players for one really good player who may or may not fit into your scheme or even grasp it (ala Richard Jefferson). If you lose Blair and Neal, you have now got to replace 5 of your rotation players (including Stephen Jackson) and likely with less talent with the exception of the 1 big free-agent. It's just too risky of a move if you want your team to be legit title contenders for both of the next two seasons.
The bottom line is the contending window for the Spurs is open as long as Tim Duncan plays at his current level. He's old, we all know that. Therefore, the smart play is to keep your core guys around for another run or two and try to tweak your lineups with players that are better role guys than what you have, all while staying financially solvent.
That's ultimately what this off-season is about. Contending now. In Duncan, you have one of the all-time greats, but also a player that is still a top 5 player at his postion and a guy that's a game changer. If your job is on the line, you cannot risk getting rid of a core that was that close to a title in the hope that they'll be just as good or better. I have to be honest, as an avid Fantasy Football player, I'm not sure I wouldn't treat a team I owned or managed like Mark Cuban. It's fun to think about and I'm guessing it's fun to do, but it's been proven that corporate knowledge as well the understanding and applying of the system is more important that winning the off-season on paper. You never want to count on luck.