The frenzy leading up to the Feb 7 trade deadline continues, and at least for a few minutes it involved the Spurs. Kristaps Porzingis asked to be traded and San Antonio was among the teams interested in acquiring the Latvian center, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe.
Alas, the Mavericks swooped in with their giant expiring contracts and finalized a deal for the former All-Star. They sent Wesley Matthews, DeAndre Jordan, Dennis Smith Jr. and two first-round picks for Porzingis, Courtney Lee and Tim Hardaway Jr. in a blockbuster trade.
Let’s see what this deal means for the Spurs.
The West keeps getting stronger
A core of Doncic, already one of the league’s best creators, and a defensive anchor and versatile scorer like Porzingis looks scary on paper. Those two could terrorize opponents on the pick and roll, as both can score inside and out. How do you guard that? Porzingis can either dive for a lob or pop for a three and Doncic can either drive or pull up. Surround those two with shooters and you have an offense. Defensively Porzingis will represent a huge upgrade over the centers the Mavs have been trotting out lately. When he was healthy he absolutely owned the paint while having enough quickness to step out to the perimeter and allow for an aggressive defensive scheme. As long as Dallas figures out how to hide Doncic in the perimeter, they should be solid on that end with a healthy Porzingis. The Mavericks suddenly have one of the best young cores in the league.
That’s why the Spurs and Rockets, the two Southwest division powers that were not contemplating rebuilding, can’t be happy about this trade. Instead of facing three mediocre to bad teams four times each next season, they’ll only get to potentially bully the Grizzlies and Pelicans. As for the conference, which looks like it will have another legitimate contender if the Lakers trade for Anthony Davis, as expected at this point now also has another potential 50-win team. The regular season will once again be a buzzsaw, especially if the Kings and Clippers improve. There won’t be as many bubble playoff squads but the top 10 or 11 teams will be likely better than this year. San Antonio should improve as well, so they should still be close to a lock for the postseason, but anyone hoping the conference would get weaker has to disappointed about the Porzingis trade.
Of course, everything could go wrong for Dallas. Porzingis is still not healthy after tearing an ACL and has been injury prone in the past. There could be chemistry issues. The veterans coming in and their big contracts could prevent Dallas from putting the right players around Luka and Kristaps. Yet even with all those potential pitfalls, the deal was still worth making, as it makes the Mavericks a significantly more talented team, to the chagrin of he rest of the West.
The Spurs couldn’t swing the deal because they lack flexibility
Beyond creating yet another competitive team they’ll have to fight against for a playoff spot, the trade also showed the Spurs how limited their flexibility is right now when it comes to swinging a big trade. That’s why it would be surprising if they actually made a big move before the trade deadline despite actually having some assets.
There was no report of what the Spurs were willing to offer for Porzingis, but they could have put together an enticing package of young players and picks. Since Kristaps is still on his rookie deal, matching salaries would have been easy. Jakob Poeltl and any of the young guards would have been enough. On top of that San Antonio could have added two 2019 picks. That’s at the very least comparable to getting Dennis Smith Jr. and the likely protected 2021 and 2013 picks the Knicks are getting, since Dallas has already moved their 2019 one in the trade to acquire Doncic. What put the Mavericks offer over the top was the fact that they could offer 2019 cap relief in the form of huge expiring contracts, which the the Spurs simply lack.
In any big transaction the Spurs would be asking the other team to take on salary that extends past this season, which very few teams would be willing to do, even for decent role players. Teams facing a rebuilding process or simply looking to chase stars in the offseason need to clear their books and Marco Belinelli doesn’t help with that, no matter how good of a bench piece he can be. They could acquire him and try to flip him, but why go through that trouble when others are offering expiring deals? It would be a different story if the Spurs had legitimate blue-chipper to include — that would change the entire dynamic. Unfortunately they have been too good to find that type of player in the draft. As good as Dejounte Murray and Derrick White have been as pros and as promising as Lonnie Walker IV is, they are not the type of players that will make an opposing front office swallow Patty Mills’ contract to acquire them.
Typically when a team trade its star it wants three things: young players with star potential, cap relief and other young assets or draft picks. The Spurs only have the latter to offer, which means they are probably going to get outbid on most negotiations by franchises that have made it their priority to preserve flexibility and build a treasure trove of assets even at the expense of winning.
Fortunately the Spurs should be in a better position to swing a big trade next season, if they believe they need to make one. They’ll have expiring contracts to go with their stable of solid young players and all their future draft picks. In the meantime they remain good enough to make the playoffs and potentially make some noise, so there’s no need to cash in all their chips to make a big move.
Those 15 minutes in which the Spurs looked like a serious threat to get Porzingis were fun, but they probably wasn’t realistic to expect them to outbid teams that have been preparing for a star to become available for years. That’s fine. For now we’ll settle for Stanley Johnson rumors and actually making the playoffs.