Since the Richard Jefferson for Stephen Jackson trade there has been much debate on PtR as to how big of an upgrade the trade presented and if trading a starter this far into the season was worth it. Most Spurs fans are happy with the trade while some of us who didn't feel particularly optimistic about it are starting to slowly come around for various reasons.
Aside from the basketball merits of the trades, pretty much everyone agreed that it made sense from a business perspective. It doesn't take a genius to know that it clearly saves the ownership group money, but does it really benefit the Spurs' cap management and their chances of improving the team for the future? After looking at the numbers, I'm not sure that is necessarily the case.
First, let's looks at the Spurs cap numbers after the trade:
Disclaimer: there will be a lot of speculation on my part when it comes to future contracts, since it's impossible to accurately guess what a normal FO will do, much less PATFO. That being said, the conclusion wouldn't vary that much even if the numbers do a little.
Salary cap numbers after the trade
According to Hoopshype, the Spurs will have $48,262,972 in committed salary for next season in the following players:
Tony Parker $12,500,00
Manu Ginobili $14,107,492
Stephen Jackson $10,060,000
Tiago Splitter $3,944,000
Matt Bonner $3,630,000
Kawhi Leonard $1,861,920
Cory Joseph $1,105,560
DeJuan Blair $1,054,000
To that we have to add Neal's unguaranteed contract that the Spurs are certain to pick up since it's a fantastic deal at only $854,389. That leaves us with a grand total of $49,117,361. The Spurs have two key free agents of their own to consider: Tim Duncan and Danny Green.
Even at his advanced age, Duncan is still one of the best bigs in the league. Assigning value to any player is a tricky subject, especially big men, but for the purpose of this exercise let's assume that Duncan will get nowhere near the compensation he's getting this year ($21,164,319) nor will he sign for way below market value. Timmy will surely accept less than what he could get on the open market, where a guy like Kwame Brown got over 8 million a year, but he will still get paid more than say, Matt Bonner. A reasonable range would be anywhere between 7-10 million. Let's split the difference and call it $8.5M. With Tim's new contract, the Spurs would have $57,617,361 in committed salary, which would leave them a shade below the salary cap threshold, assuming the cap stays at a similar level as this year (around 58 million), with only 9 players under contract.
Duncan is staying, barring a catastrophe, but Green's future with the team is not as certain. With Stephen Jackson and Kawhi Leonard under contract, the need for a 2-way wing will not be as pressing and being a young, up-and-coming player, he might get an offer from a team with cap space that might be too rich for the Spurs' blood. There are two possible scenarios:
Note: the Spurs can get over the cap to resign Green only if they have his Bird rights. I couldn't find conclusive evidence either way. I would be inclined to say they don't, since they waived him and then resigned him but a few sites say that the Spurs have the option to offer a qualifying offer next season, making him a restricted free agent. If they don't have his Bird rights, Green cannot be resigned without using the ""room exception" for a total of 5 million over 2 years. For now let's assume they have his rights.
- The Spurs resign Danny Green. Despite having four wings already under contract the Spurs see enough in Green to make a commitment going forward and Green decides he'd rather stay and be a key reserve on a good team than leave for more money and a bigger role somewhere else. A reasonable contract for Green would be around 3,5 million, which would put the Spurs over the cap, with 10 players under contract at $61,117,361. The Spurs would have the full mid level exception to sign another player and could fill the two other roster spots with their second rounder and someone on the veterans minimum, for around 67 million.
- The Spurs don't resign Danny Green. Danny receives an offer from a team under the cap that needs competent wing play (Wolves?) or the mid level exception from someone else and decides to leave since the Spurs can't offer the money and/or the role he wants. San Antonio would be under the cap and able to use the room exception, leaving them with around 61 million in committed salary to 10 players. The Spurs could get over the cap by signing their second rounder, which would allow them to use the MLE.
The Spurs cap numbers are low enough that I believe they will resign Danny Green unless the price tag is outrageous and use the MLE to sign a big (Erazem Lorbek?) in an attempt to keep the championship window open. If they decide to continue cutting costs, they might decline to sign Green and maybe won't spend the whole MLE. Either way, the Spurs will not be tax payers next season, and looking ahead they shouldn't even come close to the tax line in the near future. The team for next year should be similar to the one they have now, with only a new priced player brought in with the MLE or room exception. If Manu, Jackson and Duncan manage to keep playing at a high level the Spurs should make the playoffs.
Barring extensions, in 2013 Jackson, Ginobili and probably Duncan will be off the books and the Spurs should be major players in free agency even after potentially resigning DeJuan Blair and Tiago Splitter.
Salary cap numbers without the trade
Had the Spurs kept Richard Jefferson, the cap numbers would have been similar since RJ and Jackson make pretty much the same, but considering Jackson's contract expires after next season while RJ's has 2 years left, the trade makes sense from the Spurs perspective.
But there is a twist: the amnesty provision. If the Spurs kept RJ but used the amnesty clause on him, that would have given them much more flexibility this off-season, while still potentially allowing them to be players in free agency in the future. With RJ amnestied, the team would have had around 40 million in committed salary to 8 players before resigning Duncan. Following the same parameters we used in the other scenario, after signing Tim and Danny Green, the Spurs would have had $52M in committed salary to 10 players. Being $6M under the cap, they would have been able to add another free agent and then fill out the roster with the room exception and minimum salary players. If they didn't sign Danny Green, they would have had around 8-9 million to offer a free agent while still being able to use the room exception of 2.5 million to add someone else. Going forward, the Spurs might have still been able to have flexibility in 2013, depending on how they used that cap space (front-loading contracts, offering only one-year deals, etc.).
So as you see, the trade doesn't automatically put the team in a particularly better shape going forward. The NBA salary cap has its own rules and those don't necessarily resemble the ones we are used to. Getting rid of RJ's contract doesn't have the big effect on the basketball-related economics of the franchise in the same way it saves ownership real dollars. The owners do save lots of money through this trade, but the rules we mentioned before prevent them from using that money to improve the roster even if they wanted to, as they can't simply offer the 13 million they saved form trading RJ and the guaranteed contract a first round pick gets to another player. The only reason the trade might actually help improve the roster aside from Jackson arguably being an upgrade over RJ, is if the Spurs trade Jackson's expiring contract for a better player next season, but that kills the argument of flexibility in 2013, since no one is going to trade a better player with an expiring contract for Jackson.
This is not a new chapter on my "I don't like the trade" tirade; it's just to show that there are a lot of angles from which to look at it. We all know that Peter Holt is not the wealthiest owner out there and that he did venture over the tax in the past couple of years, so it's understandable that he might want to cut costs, but from a purely basketball-related view, the franchise doesn't seem to be in a considerably better shape for the future because of the trade. Of course, things can change and everything I just wrote could be moot in the off-season if there's a trade, or if the Spurs manage to turn Jackson's expiring into a Player of the Future, but I wanted to add some perspective to the financial side of the trade, since it's wildly believed that it helped the Spurs enormously.
It did help the SAN ANTONIO SPURS save enormous amounts of dollars, but our Spurs team isn't likely to benefit in quite the same way.