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Why the Spurs are in such a good salary cap position

The Spurs didn't make any headline-worthy acquisitions this off-season but they executed their signings with the same flawless precision as their pick and rolls. Let's take a look at how the Spurs find themselves in an enviable situation

Tiago jump hook!
Tiago jump hook!

The always fantastic Shamsports has updated the salary figures and the Spurs' cap sheet looks so, so pretty. In case you are a normal person that doesn't spend their free time reading Larry Coon's CBA FAQ and checking salaries, I'll summarize things for you.

The Spurs are in an enviable situation...

The Spurs are not even close to the tax line, which has been set around $70 million, and they're even further from the apron that in some cases acts as a de facto hard cap. Their most expensive player is not even close to the maximum allowed salary. Their role players are all getting paid below the league's average salary, except for Splitter (bigs get paid in this league, but we'll get to that). They had cap space the last two seasons, even if they just used it to resign their own free agents, and could have some next season as well. That is not normal, especially for a contender.

The Thunder, Grizzlies and Clippers are all very, very close to the tax line, and Memphis had to trade some useful players last season to avoid it. The overpaid bigs on these teams (Deandre Jordan and Kendrick Perkins) make Tiago look like a bargain. The Clippers and Thunder also have two max guys while the Grizzlies have an overpaid role player in Prince and a vastly overpaid star in Randolph. Back East, the Pacers, Heat, Knicks, Bulls and Nets all have similar situations.

I'm not saying that's wrong. Most of those teams have more money to spend (i.e. owners more willing to go into the tax) than the Spurs and needed to make those moves to contend. It's hard to always avoid mistakes and never overpay, as the Spurs found out with Richard Jefferson. After flirting with the tax line and once crossing it, the Spurs also benefited from their player's loyalty to get discounts in the past, which is why Parker and Duncan make what they make. Age also plays a part, of course. So it's not all front office savvy; there are other aspects to consider. But still, PATFO has done a ridiculously good job of managing their resources.

...and it's not an accident

After using the draft-and-stash strategy for a few years, the Spurs realized they could get cheap role players through the draft and acted on it. George Hill, DeJuan Blair, James Anderson, Cory Joseph and Kawhi Leonard all arrived in that period that now seems over. Those cheap role players prevented them from overpaying for complementary skills in free agency, like they did in the past with McDyess.

They combed Europe to find contributors. Gary Neal and late second rounder Nando De Colo provided guard depth at a great price. Even someone who didn't pan out, like Marcus Haislip, was a good gamble.

They completed the trifecta of smart role player acquisitions when they went bargain bin shopping for the up-and-coming Danny Green and the seemingly washed up Boris Diaw.

That's how you build a deep team on a budget: draft, Europe, bargain bin shopping. If you have good scouts, a stable environment and the patience to develop players, you get a competent supporting cast without overpaying for it.

According to reports, the Spurs also get in touch with American born second round picks before drafting them to ask if they are willing to spend a year or two abroad. That allows them to keep the rights to those guys without spending money on their development. And they are actively involved in their European second round draftees' futures, bringing them over to the US practically every off-season to check up on them. The Spurs used to have a tendency to give up on young players a little too early for my taste but they worked around that by eliminating the risk and developing them for free. That's how the Spurs have stockpiled some interesting (if, at this point, marginal) assets without dipping into their precious cap space.

But how about this off-season?

As for this off-season, there's been much debate here and on other sites about it so I won't rehash it. All I'll say is the Spurs, forced to be cautious by their limited resources in the past, remained cautious even in the face of a situation that allowed them to potentially be bolder. Some people will disagree with the plan and that's fair. But now that we have contract details, even they need to acknowledge that at least the execution was flawless.

Two boring but cheap role players > an exciting but overpaid one

The Spurs signed two potential rotation guys for a little under the full MLE. Marco Belinelli was a key component on a good team last season and with less responsibility in a reduced role, he could positively thrive. Jeff Pedergraph will get paid the equivalent of what the Thunder will pay Steven Adams, so even if he is just injury insurance, he is cheap enough to be a good signing. And the depth they provide makes the Spurs really flexible when it comes to possible future trades.

More importantly, they were signed for two years, which coincides with the expiration of the Big Three's contracts. The players that signed for the full mid-level (edit: Kaman actually signed for the tax payer's MLE, J.J. Hickson) or close to it (Corey Brewer), did so on three year deals. Players that were supposed to be available for the full mid-level exception, like Carl Landry, Jarrett Jack and J.J. Redick signed more lucrative and longer deals. The mid-level free agent market was not all that good, so the Spurs avoided it and settled for nice cheap pieces that can nevertheless contribute. If a bigger upgrade is needed, they can likely trade to make that happen.

They made the right choices with their own free agents

The Spurs let Blair and Neal walk and it's hard to blame them. Manu's contract might seem a little steep but the Spurs held off from signing Ginobili until a price had been set on Splitter. After they knew how much Splitter was going to get, paying Manu $5 million or the $7.5 million he will he get next year made no difference, as the Spurs were only going to be able to target players on the mid-level exception range.

Now we get to the more divisive of their moves: Tiago Splitter's contract.

The market price for Splitter was always going to be between $8 and $10 million because that's what good defensive centers get and there was a market for Splitter. Portland always seemed like a natural suitor for Tiago, since they needed someone to pair with LaMarcus Aldridge and Tiago was clearly the best fit for their needs, at least for that price. It was widely reported they were ready to sign him to an offer sheet for basically the same contract he got from the Spurs. So both past signings for similar players and a real interest from another team suggest that the Spurs simply paid market value for Splitter

Why didn't the Spurs force Tiago to actually sign the offer sheet? This has interested some fans. There are many completely rational reasons. To expedite things and avoid everyone some trouble seems like the most reasonable explanation. It's obvious the Spurs wanted to keep Tiago Splitter and Splitter preferred to stay put. The question was his prize. Just as restricted free agency helps teams it can also help players gauge their value. The Spurs were not going to bid against themselves, so Splitter's agent (the influential Arn Tellem) got an offer and communicated that to the Spurs. The price was reasonable for the Spurs, so instead of dragging Splitter and the Blazers through an unnecessary process they told Tiago's agent (who then communicated it to the Blazers) they were ready to match. That sounds reasonable to me.

Another reason could be that the Spurs would have had to abide by the principal terms of the Portland offer sheet, like payment schedule or signing bonuses, instead of negotiating those with Splitter directly. Finally, by re-signing him outright, the Spurs now have more flexibility to trade him. Once a team matches an offer sheet on a restricted free agent, that player cannot be traded for a full year, among other restrictions. Now the team is able to trade Tiago as soon as December. Now, I'm not saying the Spurs pulled a Nene with Tiago and only signed him to flip him later, but the possibility is there and it would not have been had they waited.

Final thoughts

Even though I don't always agree with the Spurs' plans, I have to admire the execution. We know how PATFO kept the costs down in the past when it came to role players and they implemented the same principles while slightly upgrading the roster with the signings of Belinelli and Pendergraph and the dismissal of Neal and Blair.

Ginobili and Splitter might have signed for more than would have been ideal but it doesn't seem their contracts will keep the Spurs from upgrading in the future. The front-loading of Splitter's deal and the length of Manu's makes them adequate, at the very least. The Spurs have also built a a lot of flexibility in terms of potential trades, with a lot of depth and players in either very good value contracts or in expiring deals, which allows them to both make moves in the short term and ready themselves for the post-Duncan future.

The Spurs didn't manage to extend their two year window this off-season but at least they kept it open and set up a potentially good future for themselves through smart maneuvering. There's not a lot more I could ask.

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