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Free agents the Spurs missed — and it worked out for the better

Sometimes the free agency gods are watching out for your team, even if it doesn’t seem like it at the time.

San Antonio Spurs v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Danny Bollinger/NBAE via Getty Images

In sports, it’s impossible not to look back at history, reminisce, and wonder what could have changed had things gone differently. Every team has those moments, and they’re often associated with on-court events and championships. For the Spurs, such moments include what if Derek Fisher doesn’t hit a shot with 0.4 seconds left? What if Robert Horry doesn’t go crazy in Game 5? What if Manu Ginobili doesn’t foul Dirk Nowitzki? Etc.

However, what-ifs don’t always have to come on the court. Franchise-altering events can happen off the court as well, and sometimes in ways that seemed bad at the time but ended up working out for the better. For me, there are two key examples of such events for the Spurs, and they come in the form of free agency.

What if Derek Anderson re-signs with the Spurs in 2001?

It’s the summer of 2000. The Spurs are coming off a disappointing first-round exit after losing Tim Duncan to a knee injury and are desperately trying to get him to stay in free agency, with promises of a new arena and building another contender around him.

They begin that process by signing third-year swingman Derek Anderson, who is coming off a career year with the Clippers. Initially, it seemed like a perfect match. He averaged 15.5 points, 4.4 rebounds, 3.7 assists, and 1.5 steals in his lone season in silver and black, was by the third best Spur after Duncan and David Robinson (maybe even second), and he appeared to be their answer to the Shaq/Kobe-led Lakers. Unfortunately, a karate-chop from Juwan Howard dislocated Anderson’s shoulder and ended his season in the second round against the Mavericks, and the Spurs would go on to get swept by the Lakers in the 2001 Western Conference Finals.

Despite the unhappy ending to the season, it seemed like he would happily sign a six-year, $40 million contract (which was right in line back then) and be a part of their future core. However, it wasn’t enough, he complained to the media that he wasn’t their top priority (the Spurs were also working on re-signing Robinson), and instead he was traded to Portland for Steve Smith, where he signed a slightly larger six-year, $48 million contract.

It seemed like a blow at the time, but Anderson’s refusal to sign the Spurs’ offer ended up being a blessing in disguise, because if he had signed, it’s quite possible they never would have brought over a certain draft-and-stash named Manu Ginobili. Anderson would go on to have an injury-plagued career after leaving the Spurs, and while he did ultimately win a ring as a bench warmer on the Heat’s 2006 team, he was out of the league by 2008. Meanwhile, Ginobili turned into a Hall of Famer with four championship and had a much longer career (not to mention, he’s a much more likeable person), so Anderson rebuffing the Spurs’ offer more than paid off.

What if Jason Kidd signs with the Spurs in 2003?

Although the Spurs had just won the championship, there were few (if any) indications that Ginobili and/or Tony Parker would become the Hall of Famers they are today, and with Robinson retiring, the Spurs were in search of another star teammate for Duncan. Their target? The point guard they had just defeated in the Finals: Jason Kidd. He was certainly better than Parker at the time, and by all accounts he was thiiiis close to putting pen to paper before ultimately deciding to stay with the Nets.

While his rebuff didn’t seem like quite the blow losing Anderson did — I was personally on Team Parker and wanted to see the Spurs keep and develop him instead — it’s another case of missing out on a free agent working out in their favor. Obviously, Parker did end up being a star in his own right and helped lead the Spurs to three more championships, and while Kidd may rank higher on some all-time lists, Parker fit the Spurs’ timeline better.

Kidd, who is 9 years older, was arguably at his peak in 2003, and even though he made four more All-Star appearances and helped lead the Mavericks to a championship in 2011, his scoring slowly dipped from 2003 on. While Kidd was always a more prolific facilitator than Parker, Parker was the better scorer, and that’s what the Spurs ended up needing from him as Duncan exited his offensive prime beginning around 2009. At that point, the older Kidd was mostly a playmaker while prime Nowitzki was the Mavs’ offensive centerpiece, so they each ended up fitting their respective teams better.

Do the Spurs still win a championship (or multiple) with Kidd as their starting point guard alongside prime Duncan? More likely than not. Did the younger Parker extend their championship window, help create the Spurs’ reputation as a developmental juggernaut, and allow us fans to run with the moniker of “built, not bought”? Absolutely, and all this doesn’t even consider the fact that it would have cost a pretty penny to sign Kidd in 2003, so the Spurs may not have even had the money re-sign to Ginobili had Kidd become a Spur. He still would have been a good pickup for the Spurs, but it worked out for the better that he didn’t come.

Will Kawhi Leonard eventually join this list?

Obviously, the biggest “mishap” in modern Spurs history was Kawhi Leonard demanding a trade. While that technically wasn’t a free agency move, it forced the Spurs hands if they wanted something in return for him instead of losing him for nothing. Although that was back in 2018, and the potential “payoff” (if there is one) only just arrived in 2023 and has yet to prove himself on an NBA court, Leonard’s departure could someday join the ranks of Anderson and Kidd saying “no thanks” being a benefit to the Spurs.

If Victor Wembanyama lives up to extremely high expectations and leads the Spurs back to the promised land, the questions surrounding Leonard will become, “If he stayed, would the Spurs have even gotten Wemby?” Again, you never know — Leonard’s continued health issues and missed time may have led to a similar situation that made drafting Duncan possible — but most likely not. For now, he is still “the one that got away”, but someday, he may turn into “the one who made Wemby possible”, and if that happens, we’ll all be thanking instead of hating him.