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How the Spurs can keep Baynes, get Ayon, and seriously increase their cap flexibility

If the Spurs want to retain Baynes and sign Gustavo Ayon, they could first trade Jeff Ayres and Austin Daye, and get themselves some salary cap flexibility.

Kevin C. Cox

This story was written before Saturday morning's Ray Allen rumor, but it's possible that all the recent reports are actually connected.

According to reports from ESPN's Marc Stein, the Spurs are interested in signing Mexican forward/center Gustavo Ayon.

Assuming the interest is real, this could be a good move. Stein mentions that that Spurs see him as a fitting replacement for Baynes should they choose to part ways. And it's easy to see why with just a glance at the two players' career advanced stats:

Gustavo Ayon 2012 2014 135 2251 14.7 .539 .536 .251 9.7 20.5 15.1 12.2 2.3 2.6 17.2 14.6 106 102 1.9 3.2 5.1 .109
Aron Baynes 2013 2014 69 632 9.5 .478 .447 .166 12.9 18.5 15.9 8.9 0.2 1.3 18.0 18.7 97 104 -0.1 0.8 0.7 .054

Ayon has better career stats in every metric except offensive rebound percentage and total rebound percentage. A case can be made that Ayon's career stats are inflated by his rookie year in which he actually got a chance to play serious minutes, a situation Baynes has not been in. But plus/minus measured over the years still likes Ayon much more than Baynes and knowing a guy can handle a significant role is hardly a bad thing.

For all intents and purposes, Ayon is an upgrade. He is a bit older than Baynes but not significantly so and it's not like either guy would figure into a post-Duncan future. It obviously depends on what his contract ends up being if signed but if they both cost about the same, the Spurs should probably use their last roster spot on Ayon.

Yet Stein says the Spurs could look to sign both:

San Antonio has 14 guaranteed contracts in the books and the maximum amount of players a team can carry during the season is 15. So the Spurs would have to waive someone to make room for both Baynes and Ayon. If money is the determining factor, the prime candidate to get the axe would be Austin Daye, since his contract is the smallest on the books (Bonner is going nowhere). But having three bigs with overlapping skills in Ayres, Baynes and Ayon would not be all that smart.

Obviously the Spurs could simply waive Ayres, despite him putting up similar numbers to Baynes and being under contract already. But there's also another option that seems interesting.

Recently the Thunder traded Hasheem Thabeet and his non-guaranteed contract to the Sixers along with cash considerations. The Sixers took the money and immediately waived Thabeet. As a result of the transaction, the Thunder created a small trade exception. If the Spurs can find a team willing to take both Ayres and Daye, they should try to do the same OKC did, as it would increase their flexibility significantly.

If the Spurs include cash considerations covering the combined salaries of the two players and a little extra, which they could do according to league rules, making such a trade happen shouldn't be hard. While the amount they would be spending wouldn't change much, by trading Ayres and Daye and letting another team waive them, the Spurs could create a trade exception worth almost $3 million.

With Ayres and Daye out and Ayon and Baynes in, the Spurs would have 14 players under contract, assuming the guys on training camp deals (Cotton, Davis and Green) don't make the final cut. Having that open roster spot and the traded player exception (TPE) would immediately turn the Spurs into the contender with the most flexibility to make a small addition during the season.

Remember, the Spurs haven't used their mid-level exception or bi-annual exception and are not even close to the tax line, which means they will have the most money out of all the contenders to make an offer to a free agent. Ayon's contract would eat into the MLE but most waived players sign small, one-year deals because that's all contenders have to offer. So the Spurs already have the ability to simply outbid any of the other playoff teams for a waived veteran or even a Euro prospect -- as Baynes originally was. They can do that regardless of how they handle this situation.

Where the trade exception would come in handy is in trade talks. The Thunder and Rockets have bigger TPEs. They won't be looking to add too much salary thanks to their luxury tax situation but they will still be able to snatch up a young player whose team has given up on him (Shabazz Muhammad, Austin Rivers, Andrew Nicholson, etc.) or a veteran who has fallen out of favor (Luigi Datome, Wayne Ellington, Danny Granger, etc.).

If the Spurs had a TPE of their own, they would be able to play in that market as well. While we're talking about small moves that won't move the needle much, San Antonio doesn't need a huge upgrade, at least on paper. What they might need is injury insurance and/or a chance to keep the other Western contenders from trading for a cheap, productive player.

So going into the season armed not only with money to spend on emerging free agents but also with an extra trade asset would put the Spurs in a uniquely great situation. The question then is whether or not the frugal Spurs would be willing to spend more than they usually would in filling out the 15th roster spot. Initially the move would be close to cost neutral. Instead of paying the money themselves to whoever they waive, they would send that money to another team. But if the team actually ends up using that trade exception, the payroll would increase.

In all likelihood, the Spurs will just fill that last spot with either of Baynes or Ayon. All this extra shuffling just to create a marginal asset seems a bit too clever for the Spurs' taste. They usually leave that stuff to Presti and Morey. But if Stein is right and their interest in Ayon is not just a ploy to push Baynes into signing his qualifying offer, the Spurs should try to find a trade to clear an extra spot and create that TPE instead of outright waiving someone. The marginal cost of doing it could be worth it down the line. It never hurts to increase your flexibility.