Hey gang. How are y'all doing on this fine July day? Me, I'm still miserable, as always, for reasons "on and off-the-court," and I suspect some part of me will never get over the last few seconds of Game 6 against Miami and the subsequent, fait accompli Game 7. It doesn't help matters any that the Spurs lost to a bunch of jerks. Jerks, I tell you.
One thing that isn't making me grumpy though is the Spurs relatively non-eventful free agent signings.
Lets start with the big news first. It was touch-and-go there for a second, I always thought that Manu Ginobili's only choices this off-season would be to re-sign with the Spurs or to retire, but this tweet looked a bit ominous when I sent it through the ol' Google translator.
Por 2da vez en mi carrera soy "agente libre". La última vez había sido en el 2004! Veremos que pasa en estos días.— Manu Ginobili (@manuginobili) July 2, 2013
Basically, it reads, "For the second time in my career, and the first since 2004, I'm a free agent. We'll see what happens."
We'll see what happens? To my paranoid brain that sounded like a hiccup in communication between Ginobili and the team, a marked difference of opinion in his worth, his role, his future, etc. Out of nowhere it looked to me like Manu might be, reluctantly, opening his mind to the possibility of finishing out the string elsewhere.
So of course, not even 24 hours later Ginobili sent out this tweet:
Der. In a completely unrelated coincidence, I've decided to re-new my League Pass subscription.
Manu's re-signing, for a reported seven million per, coming on the heels of Tiago's reported four year deal for $36 million, means that all the relevant members of the team's rotation will be in the fold for the next two seasons, for better or worse.
I'll be honest; I think it's too much money, particularly in Ginobili's case. I was hoping the Spurs would lock up the South Americans at somewhere around the 13-14 million range (my childish scenario had GM R.C. Buford huddling with the two in a windowless room, dumping a bag containing 14 million dollars on the floor and telling them, "Here. This will be your money for next season. You two decide how to split it among yourselves, and get back to me. I really don't care. Now if you excuse me, I've got to board a plane to watch this 15-year-old from Tibet who's going to be the next Duncan."
16 million is too much I think for the pair, but I'm fully cognizant that this is a bias, a trick of the mind based on was experienced most recently, i.e. Ginobili and Splitter both playing pretty poorly in the Finals. If you base your value on their overall contributions of the 2012-13 season and what to expect from them going forward, the deals are more than fair.
In Splitter's case, nine-million-a-pop is about the going rate for a starting center and he certainly proved his worth in the Western Conference Finals against Memphis and throughout the regular season as well, when the Spurs had a top-3 ranked defense and were nearly impregnable with Splitter playing alongside Duncan and the rest of the fellas in the starting lineup. I mean, forget his efficient scoring and his marked improvement at the free throw line, just the way Splitter showed enough defensive versatility to get out on the pick-and-roll and to protect the rim is almost enough in itself to justify his salary. The scoring is kind of a bonus.
The fear with him is that, at 28, this is as good as he's ever going to be, that there is another plateau beyond this for him, and that he'll never develop a consistent short jumper or learn to be a bit more dogged rebounder or stronger finisher.
For now I'm going to choose to be optimistic. Splitter improved a fair bit in all areas from '11-12 to '12-13, so there's no reason he can't again next season with more experience under his belt. I was particularly impressed by his durability, as he answered the bell for 81 games during the season and was more than tough enough to hang with the Lakers and Grizzlies bigs in the playoffs. Ironically it was the "smalls" of Miami that stymied him in the end.
Really the only concern I have with Tiago is that for two postseasons in a row he's blown a gasket defensively. For whatever reason, once somebody seems to have a good game on him, it's over. Splitter's confidence gets shot and he just turns into an unplayable sieve for the rest of the series. I don't know if fatigue set in, or if his ankle was bugging him or if the Heat were simply too quick and athletic for him, but Splitter's rotations to protect the rim were far too slow and late and Miami had a virtual layup line whenever he was out there. It didn't help him any that because the Heat were almost always playing small that Splitter was mostly on the court without Duncan, and without Timmy on the floor they just saw the Brazilian as fresh meat.
The Spurs were unable to play big vs. small and exploit the size mismatch on the other end because Splitter couldn't score consistently against Shane Battier, or whomever was checking him, and would get stripped too easily by LeBron James or Dwyane Wade. Getting almost no respect from the refs also hurt him. In retrospect, Splitter should've thrown an elbow or two. The technicals would've been worth it, just to earn some respect from his opponents and buy some room on the court. Alas, it's just not in his personality.
Was there anyone else on the market that would've been an upgrade over Splitter? No, not really. Marcin Gortat has a better jumper and is a superior offensive player and rebounder, but he's less mobile on defense and I don't picture him as someone who'd be able to grasp Gregg Popovich's intricate defensive schemes quickly at all. Ditto Nikola Pekovic, another lumbering brute who's a great interior scorer and tough rebounder but isn't mobile enough to bother the freak athletes on the Thunder or the Heat.
I think if there's ever a point we'll regret Splitter's deal, it will be in the final two years, once he's past 30 and playing without Duncan at his side. But here's the thing: After Duncan hangs 'em up, who cares anyway? They're not contending without another superduperstar to replace him and that guy won't be coming to the Spurs via free agency a la LeBron to Miami. Something like that will NEVER happen for the Spurs. That's just not realistic.
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As for Manu, I was a bit disappointed he didn't accept a smaller amount, but that's more a case of my own selfishness than his. Not too many Hall-of-Famers take 50 percent pay-cuts, as he did. I guess it is something beyond the pale to ask him to chop it to 60 or 70 percent. This contract is something of a reward for past loyalty, for Ginobili's willingness throughout his career to sublimate his game and his ego for the betterment of the team. He could've demanded to start, to play more minutes, to want more shots, more opportunities to put up better numbers, but he's never been that kind of player. Instead, he's fit into the "x-factor" role where he has to jump-start or "save" the team when it's sluggish, or blend into the scenery when Tony Parker has everything under control, as he often does.
The pundits who judge Ginobili purely by his numbers will never understand the limitations the role places on him. He plays less minutes, often with far less talented teammates on the floor, and is often the third or fourth option even when he's on the court with the starters and everything's going well. Ginobili is the team's fire alarm, their bat signal they turn to when things are dire, and because of that, his intensity and sharpness just aren't going to be there on a game-to-game basis on a great team. It's like asking a great relief pitcher to pitch well in the 6th inning of a 9-2 game every night. He's just not going to do it, not when he's built for coming into 3-3 or 2-1 games in the 9th inning.
If Manu's role was to be the team's resident "star," his numbers would've been much better, both in the regular season and the playoffs, but he would've quickly worn down to a nub as well. It's better for the team, ultimately, for him to be used the way he is. His fragility and injury-proneness almost demands it. But yes, it is going to make his stats look rather pedestrian most nights.
I think what a lot of people forget is that Ginobili missed the entire month of April with a hamstring injury right before the playoffs and then was asked to play at his peak when the games mattered most. I think we would've seen a better version of him, closer to the guy we saw in January-February, if he hadn't gotten hurt.
Obviously, this could be wishful thinking. It's very possible, perhaps even probable, that at 36, Ginobili is done. We'll find out next season. I do think he'll have to change his game a bit next season, to be less of the main ball-handler with the second unit and to play the same way with them that he does with the starters, where he gets to back-cut, to catch the ball on the move or to hoist catch-and-shoot jumpers. I'm not sure that's possible with Cory Joseph on the floor, but I'm optimistic it could be with improved play from Nando De Colo. Maybe Pop can tweak the rotation where Parker plays only half his minutes with the starters and the other half with the subs to carry that unit while Ginobili plays more with Duncan and Leonard, but that seems like a drastic step.
Regardless, Ginobili has to work on his jumper and be more consistent with his three-point shot. If he simply doesn't have the legs to take it, then he shouldn't. He's enough of a math whiz to understand that it's not an efficient shot if you're only making it at sub-35 percent clip.
One thing I'd like is for Pop to build Ginobili up for playoff minutes. Don't give him 22-23 minutes in the regular season if you expect him to play 28-35 for the playoffs. That just doesn't work, and his stamina ends up being shot for fourth quarters. I'd rather see him play more minutes and fewer games. Place him on a 65-game maximum limit for the regular season, healthy or no, and with an absolute no-effing-way hard stance on all back-to-backs (this should probably be the case for Duncan too, and maybe even Parker.)
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The Spurs have been linked to various free agents, and obviously Andrei Kirilenko was the one that had us drooling, but my policy with scuttlebutt has long been to believe nothing, expect nothing and hope for the best regarding any name free agent. It's hard to expect the team to retool much when they were one rebound or free throw from a title and Pop is too stubborn to change things dramatically anyway.
Kirilenko never struck me as a guy who'd take a penny less from Team A, regardless of whether they were contenders or not, if Team B offered him more. I think he just wants to get paid and I don't begrudge him that.
As for other rumored guys like Gortat, Kyle Korver, Carlos Delfino, Anthony Morrow, Antawn Jamison, Chase Budinger, Monta Ellis and Pablo Prigioni, I was suspicious or dubious of the Spurs' interest in them or vice versa. And really 95 percent of these things are leverage plays anyway. Most of them are bad fits on one end of the floor or the other or both.
In a sense, I'm cynical of any free agent who'd want to join the Spurs. I mean, their closing five is pretty much set. It's going to be five of six between Duncan-Parker-Leonard-Ginobili-Green-Splitter, pretty much in that order. So any new guy that's coming in is either A: comfortable into a role where he's hoping to get some reflected glory in a non-important role (is that really who you want, somebody wants to win a ring with no responsibility?) B: is arrogant enough to think he can crack that closing lineup because of his name (think Stephen Jackson) or C: the best case scenario, an individual who's confident enough that he can work his way into a bigger role by earning it with his play, not his mouth.
Green and Leonard were two examples of this as young players. Heck, Manu was another, long ago. For a lot of guys though, it's almost impossible to earn Pop's trust in such a short time.
And this is where we segue into the Marco Belinelli signing.
At first glance, the temptation is see far more negatives with this move than positives. Belinelli has the kind of personality and mistake-prone game that will drive Pop nuts and quickly land him in the doghouse. He's going to miss some defensive assignments and be non-chalant about others. He will take some bad shots, make too many dumb turnovers and commit too many bad fouls. He's going to remind you a lot of Gary Neal, frankly, but without the corporate knowledge, the memories of Neal's game-winning plays and all his positive history in a Spurs jersey.
However, there are positives too. Belinelli has matured some over the years. He's bigger than Neal, underrated athletically from a quickness standpoint and is better at dribbling, passing and creating shots (for himself and others) than most critics realize. He's not just a catch-and-shoot guy. He also improved his footwork, toughness and awareness enough to earn valuable floor time on the Bulls in the playoffs, ahead of the more celebrated Rip Hamilton, for what it's worth.
I think it would've been impossible for him to fit in with the Spurs in his younger days, but he'll have a better chance now, and I look for him to have some chemistry with Ginobili right off. Playing with a primarily foreign team should help his game I think. Still, there will be peaks and valleys and rough patches galore. He could be our eighth-man in the playoffs or he could be out of the rotation entirely a la De Colo this season. I'm ready for anything. For Belinelli's sake, I hope he knows what he's getting himself into. Pop will roast him to a crisp early on. If Belinelli shows the resolve to get past that (if he shows "moral fiber" in Pop parlance), can play smart and competitively, he can thrive and be a slight upgrade over Neal. At a three million annual salary, we shouldn't expect much.
Chasing after some true "difference-making" free agent was always a pipe dream at some level and really it was never going to happen without losing Manu, Tiago or both, and then really where does that get you? You're taking two steps back to take one step forward?
Sadly, how close --how ridiculously unlucky-- the Spurs were to a title last year will get lost to history as the years pass. How can anyone claim a team needs to improve when all that was needed was one free throw or one rebound? They had it. They were good enough. If Parker's hamstring was a bit healthier, if Manu played his Game 7 in Game 6, if one of a hundred things happened differently, it would've been plenty good enough to win and we'd still be in our refractory period right now as fans.
Splitter and Green continuing their development, and Leonard embracing his destiny as a star, will be more relevant than any free agent the Spurs could've realistically hoped to sign. Their best off-season improvements, as always, will come internally.
Just be thankful we still root for a contender, that the definition of a "disappointing" off-season is to just re-sign a Hall-of-Famer in Ginobili and a center in Splitter who was integral in their Western Conference Finals sweep of the Grizzlies. We could be the Wizards, who are stoked to be bringing back Martell Webster, or the Hawks who will be losing an overrated Josh Smith for nothing and who had no future with or without him, or the Timberwolves who saw Kevin Martin soil himself in the playoffs and thought to themselves, "We've got to have some of that."
There are only a handful of teams that matter in the NBA every year. It's as close as any American sports league comes to the European soccer league model where more than half the teams exist just to fill out the schedule. For virtually the entire history of their franchise, the Spurs have been one of those teams, even before Duncan got here. They'll probably have one awful year after he retires, then promptly win another draft lottery for the next once-in-a-generation talent. You know they will. It's just what they do.
A bad off-season isn't when you don't sign Kirilenko to be your fourth-best player. A bad off-season is when you don't sign him to be your best player.