David and Goliath isn’t a story about achieving success despite massive odds. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, David defeated Goliath because characteristics we perceive to be weaknesses are strengths and strengths can actually be major weaknesses.
Big market teams have a strategic advantage in the NBA, right? They can hoard cap space and offer the best players the most money with the opportunity to flourish in a major market. Therefore, the San Antonio Spurs are at a major disadvantage because they cannot offer what Los Angeles or New York can. Both the Lakers and Knicks are in the lottery in large part due to the fact that they’ve continually turned over rosters in their haste to grab a big-name free agent. Dallas was a playoff team, but they’ve dealt with the same roster unease for the exact same reason. The Chicago Bulls put the future of their franchise multiple times in the hands of free agents, and after striking out, comically turned over a small fortune to Ben Wallace and then Carlos Boozer. The Spurs seized on this opportunity, exposing a market inefficiency by making subtle changes over a long stretch that has allowed them to bypass other rebuilding projects through the strength of continuity and ingenuity.
The Spurs’ unparalleled run of success could very well be coming to its much anticipated conclusion, but it’s just as reasonable to think that their championship window remains open. As long as Tim Duncan is still playing, and still performing at a high level, the Spurs have a piece that allows them to stay very much in the NBA’s game of thrones.
During his exit interview with the San Antonio media, Gregg Popovich made a statement that contradicts the values that have allowed the Spurs to have sustained supremacy. “The team will probably look considerably different than it looks this year,” said Pop. “Because we have so many free agents and we want to re-tool a little bit.”
The oddity of Pop’s comment is that the Spurs have been an organization in control of their own fate. Unlike many of the major market teams, their success hasn’t hinged on a decision from one of the league’s top players. They’ve always been one step ahead, with an impeccable organizational vision for what looms around the bend.
The Spurs’ greatest strength over the rest of the NBA has been their chemistry and continuity. They’ve been able to run circles around the rest of the league, schematically speaking. This past year’s roster has been fully together for the past three seasons, and the core group of Spurs has played under Popovich substantially longer.
It’s difficult to overlook their incredible success over almost two decades and not attribute much of that to sustainability. Fans want change when their team doesn’t win a title. Many organizations take a step back in acquiescing to that wish.
The average amount of time a current coach in the NBA has spent on the job is 4.6 years, and that figure is dramatically skewed by Popovich’s 19. Coaches are hired and then subsequently fired before they can get any semblance of continuity from a personnel standpoint, and the resulting byproduct is a coach who was never afforded the opportunity to fully implement, let alone expand on their offensive and defensive philosophies.
That’s the challenge the Spurs now face. Move forward with large changes, or believe in an aging roster and maintain the status quo. Spurs fans have wanted large changes, as most fans do, but for the Spurs those large changes come at a massive cost.
The Spurs could bring back their roster from this past season almost fully intact, with perhaps a change here or there depending on the free agent status of Marco Belinelli and the looming retirement question for Manu Ginobili. Or they could redefine their organization by making a play for a max free agent like LaMarcus Aldridge.
The LaMarcus Aldridge route is perceived to be the fastest path towards sustained championship contention, and it’s hard to disagree; we’re a society that demands quick fixes.
There’s a reason the Spurs have never been about the quick fix. Remember, David, a perceived weakness has been a massive strength. The Spurs have used continuity to out scheme the rest of the league, and a move for Aldridge would alter that.
Next year’s salary cap will be set around $67 million. Parker, Diaw, Mills, Splitter and Anderson will take up about $34 million. Kawhi Leonard will assuredly receive a max deal starting at around $16 million annually, but his cap hold is about $7.2 million, and the Spurs can sign Kawhi last and use his Bird Rights to exceed the cap limit.
But things would still get a bit tricky with the cap if the Spurs want Aldridge. Assuming Duncan returns, you figure he’ll get somewhere between $5-10 million, still a massive discount for an all-time great coming off an 18 and 11 playoffs. But with the five other guaranteed contracts, Duncan at $5-10 million and Kawhi’s $7.2 million cap hold, that’s about $46-51 million in cap for seven players. Add in some of the other smaller cap holds (first-round pick, roster charges), and there’s not quite enough space to sign Aldridge to a max deal that’ll start around $19-20 million annually. None of this even factors in Danny Green, who has a cap hold of over $6 million and is in line for a raise. There’s also Ginobili, who still could return.
There are rumors suggesting Splitter is on the trade block, which could help free up some space, but Splitter has had a major hidden value to the Spurs. Matt Tynan wrote about this hidden value for 48 minutes of Hell a few years ago, and linked Splitter’s role as being a major key to Duncan’s fountain of youth. Tiago’s hidden value just scratches the surface. Within the Spurs’ ecosystem, all of the individual components work together to strengthen the collective good.
I’m not arguing that signing LaMarcus Aldridge would be a bad move for the Spurs, but it would be a move with consequences, and not just cap wise, but scheme wise too.
The irony is most people are vehemently opposed to change in their own lives. In sports, change is a necessary evil. The Spurs had a roster this year good enough to win a championship, so a massive change isn’t necessarily the most ideal route. The Spurs’ organizational philosophy has always mirrored the individual construct within our society, by incorporating minor changes over a long period of time. Should they do a philosophical heel turn? Will the Spurs stave off death once again by remaining David, or will they go for Goliath? Two massive franchise altering paths for the Spurs that remain uncharacteristically outside of their own control.