A year ago, Tim Duncan went from being the third highest-paid player in basketball to the fourth highest-paid on his team.
No one particularly noticed, because everyone knew he would to re-sign in San Antonio, and yes, his $12 million per year represented a pay cut, but it was the Spurs, so of course.
In an Associated Press story about the new contract, though, one quote sticks out, more now even than it did last summer. It’s from Spurs general manager R.C. Buford, who told the AP that day: “I was going to announce that we traded for Steve Nash, but the Lakers beat us to it.”
Almost a year later, those words are as much of an eerie preview of this spring as they were the kind of joke that proves that the Spurs, somehow, just get it a bit better than the rest of basketball.
The Lakers’ acquisition of Nash, who’s two years older than Duncan and light years past his peak, received approximately a trillion times more press time than anything the Spurs did last summer. The Lakers got the fanfare and the championship predictions, the wild hope for the best basketball Los Angeles had seen in years.
Buford sat in San Antonio and cracked a wry joke. Now his team is in the NBA Finals, and the paths of the two most successful teams of the past 15 years have utterly and completely diverged.
While the Lakers’ roster – and Kobe Bryant’s Achilles’ tendon – hang in tatters, things hum on as usual in San Antonio, as they have since the late 1990s. Eventually, it will change. Probably soon. But for now, the success is sustained, and if there was ever any question of whether the Spurs’ way was the right way, it should be gone. There’s something special going on in San Antonio, obviously, and what’s most ironic of all is that the old, decrepit, knocking-on-death’s-door Spurs are the perfect example of all that is modern and adapted in the NBA.
When Duncan signed his deal, the initial story was the fact that he’d just sliced his pay essentially in half. And though that might make sense from a logic standpoint – he was, after all, listed as DNP-OLD for one game last year – logic rarely enters into the picture in contract negotiations with a player of that caliber.
That’s a story.
More important, though, is the ripple effect, one that gave a distinct sense that what Duncan and the Spurs were doing was bigger than one contract negotiation, that in a way, his pay cut represented the team gunning for yet another championship.
And gunning they are, right into June, right though the Lakers, Warriors and Grizzlies, right into the Finals, as if the whole thing is just the next logical step in what they set in motion.
Because of the deal Duncan signed, the Spurs were able to re-sign Danny Green and Patty Mills, keep Boris Diaw and bring over international prospect Nando De Colo. They’ll also be able to extend Manu Ginobili this summer and have a good shot at keeping restricted free agent Tiago Splitter when he hits the market come July 1.
That’s a lot of ripple for one contract decision, and it’s magnified by the fact that so few teams could pull of this kind of stunt. It also in a way marks the third transition of leadership of Duncan’s career; the Spurs have gone from David Robinson’s team to Duncan’s to now, perhaps, Tony Parker’s, all without a glitch. You get the sense that it doesn’t matter whose team it is, really, as long as it’s winning.
Which then begs the memory of the Lakers in the early 2000s, when they won those championships from 2000-02 before Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal proved unable to coexist, and the whole thing fell apart. Could they have won a few more rings had succession been smoother and Shaq not been traded? Who knows.
Then you think about today’s Lakers, and their salary logjam, and Kobe’s Achilles and the fact that they have essentially no money to pay a supporting cast this summer. It’s not exactly uplifting.
Those Lakers had as much success as did the Spurs, but it’s in the past. Only three players – Bryant, Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace – remain from the team’s most recent championship in 2010. (And two of those three could be out the door in the next month.) Phil Jackson is gone. The money is locked up and unable to buy a future.
As the rest of basketball debates the Lakers’ roster and the Thunder dealing James Harden and the Rockets’ valiant quest for cap space, the Spurs will just keep on keeping on. There’s a reason, after all, that their progeny – everyone from new Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer to Thunder GM Sam Presti – are slowly but surely infiltrating the NBA. It’s because these guys know what they’re doing, and basketball has quietly accepted that what they’re doing is right.
Asked about the sustained success of his team and his “big three” of Duncan, Ginobili and Parker on Wednesday in Miami, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich summed it up simply. “It’s a function of who those guys are,” he said. “What if they were jerks?”
Maybe that’s it, they’re just nice guys, and Pop lucked out. Maybe, but there’s likely something more there, something that even the jerks should maybe get on board with, something that could be viable even in the biggest of markets if the right system were in place.
Last summer, a quiet signing trumped a loud trade, and in basketball going forward, that way, the Spurs’ way, is certainly the smartest option.