Why the Spurs won the summer, too
Amid a flurry of movement, '14 champs prove that retaining is the new improving
The most successful offseason of any NBA team didn't involve a news conference or an as-told-to story. It quietly reached its conclusion in the form of an email from the San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday morning that announced the re-signing of Boris Diaw.
If the immediate goal is to win the 2015 championship, there's no better place to start than preserving the 2014 champions. No, the Spurs didn't make the eye-grabbing move of the summer -- the return of LeBron James to Cleveland snagged that honor -- but they made a series of low-key announcements that four main components of their championship squad are coming back: Diaw, Tim Duncan, Patty Mills and coach Gregg Popovich.
Put it this way: Would you rather have a team with LeBron adapting to a new group of players, or a team that just beat LeBron by a total of 70 points in five NBA Finals games? The Spurs epitomize the underrated story of the 2014 NBA free-agent fest, which is that retaining is the new improving.
Yes, LeBron altered the landscape in the East while making a move that will bolster the financial value of the Cavaliers and the psyche of the city. It was transformative. The Spurs did not transform, and that was the point. They stuck with what works, similar to last offseason when they brought back Manu Ginobili and Tiago Splitter. If other teams want to model themselves after San Antonio, they can start with that. To borrow from Rudyard Kipling: If you can keep your players when all about you are losing theirs...
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For example, the Indiana Pacers would be better-positioned to capitalize on LeBron's departure from Miami if they hadn't lost Lance Stephenson to the Charlotte Hornets. Stephenson was Indiana's second-leading scorer and rebounder in the playoffs and led the Pacers in assists. In the same vein, Stephenson's addition to the Hornets would have meant more if they hadn't lost the versatile Josh McRoberts, who was second on the team in both rebounds and 3-pointers.
Toronto got the message and locked up Kyle Lowry early in the free-agency period, then brought back Patrick Patterson and Greivis Vasquez, which means they'll have a chance to keep the momentum from their unexpected trip to the playoffs. So will the Washington Wizards, who re-signed Marcin Gortat. Yes, they lost Trevor Ariza to the Houston Rockets, but they made Gortat their priority and kept him. Big men are harder to find than wing players, and the Wizards rebounded nicely from Ariza by snagging Paul Pierce.
Pierce, don't forget, won a playoff game against the Raptors with some clutch fourth-quarter buckets and saved Game 7 with a blocked shot on the final play. If he can still win playoff games in crunch time for you, he's a worthy addition. Let John Wall and Bradley Beal handle the scoring duties throughout the regular season.
We've never questioned Carmelo Anthony's ability to score throughout the regular season. With his return to New York, the Knicks don't have to start from scratch, and Phil Jackson has more to sell to free agents than just bright lights and Broadway when he recruits next year. The Memphis Grizzlies, after a tumultuous front-office shakeup, have roster stability with Zach Randolph and coach Dave Joerger back in the fold. They also nabbed Vince Carter because they didn't make the same mistake as the Mavericks, who presumed Carter would stay in Dallas at a low price.
The Mavericks failed to proactively preserve their assets, similar to how the Clippers lost Darren Collison to Sacramento. Collison showed his value in holding things down for the Clippers while Chris Paul missed 18 games with a shoulder injury, and Collison's offense helped fuel the fourth-quarter comeback in Game 4 of the Oklahoma City series that proved to be the Clippers' final victory of the playoffs. He wanted to stay in Los Angeles, but he didn't want to wait while the Clippers explored other ways to spend their available money.
That's why I liked Toronto's swift lockup of Lowry, even if $48 million sounds steep for a player who's never made an All-Star team and just set a personal high of 18 points per game. The Raptors knew they weren't going to find a better recipient for their money. Lowry went against the history of stars leaving Toronto, which dates back to Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter. Lowry bought into what general manager Masai Ujiri is creating.
"It's rare that you can get a situation that you can call a team your own," Lowry said. "We're building. Jonas [Valanciunas] is young. DeMar [DeRozan] is young. Terrence [Ross] is young. They need somebody to lead them. That's the long-term plan."
You can think long-term when only one player on the roster is over 30 ... and when the impact-player movement isn't as dramatic as it was four years ago.
In 2010, it wasn't just LeBron changing teams. Four other players who led their teams in scoring moved on. Chris Bosh went from Toronto to Miami, Carlos Boozer went from Utah to Chicago, Amar'e Stoudemire went from Phoenix to New York, and David Lee was traded from New York to Golden State. The Knicks had a net positive by adding Stoudemire and then trading for Carmelo Anthony the next season. But Cleveland, Utah and Toronto haven't won a playoff series since.
The only leading scorers to move on thus far this summer are LeBron and Arron Afflalo, who was traded from Orlando to Denver. The market's a little colder because teams want to keep their payrolls flexible for the 2016 free-agency class, so they're not quite as willing to hand out hefty deals now. Meanwhile, the fact that Carmelo, Bosh and Gortat are in their 30s made the extra year and larger guaranteed amounts in the contracts offered by their home teams more appealing than if they'd been in Dwight Howard's shoes as a 27-year-old free agent last year. It's easier for Dwight to assume that the same type of money will be there four years later at age 31 than for Gortat to guess he can make it back when he's 35.
The Rockets were the biggest victims of the lack of appetite for movement by the likes of Carmelo and Bosh, but their summer isn't as disastrous as it's been made out to be. Yes, they wound up trading Jeremy Lin, Omer Asik and Omri Casspi without maximizing the salary-cap space they received in exchange. They lost Chandler Parsons after they passed on the chance to bring him back for less than $1 million next season. But they still have two All-Stars in Dwight Howard and James Harden. They still average out to a high grade if you factor in the previous two seasons.
But this year they failed to get players to come to them when it turned out many players were more inclined to stay where they are. The Rockets' wheeling-dealing ways were then. The Spurs, who seemed so long ago, are now.