The San Antonio Spurs' Offseason Has Them Falling Behind the Competition
Across professional sports, there are certain teams we expect to consistently win -- whether it's during the season or in the offseason. The San Antonio Spurs have done exactly that for quite some time.
After all, the 1996-97 season was the last time San Antonio failed to reach the playoffs, which was Gregg Popovich's first year as the team's head coach. Since then, they've racked up five NBA titles in six Finals appearances while posting a winning percentage of .712. It hasn't been all about the legendary coach, though -- he's been blessed with great talent throughout his time with the organization.
With players like Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan and David Robinson, it's no surprise that the Spurs have boasted one of the league's top-five players, in terms of win shares, 10 times in the last 20 seasons. Furthermore, the Spurs' top player from any single campaign fell outside of the NBA's top 20 just twice during this same period of time.
Popovich has had the privilege of coaching at least two of the NBA's top 50 players in each of his seasons. But it looks like those golden years might come to an end in San Antonio.
The Spurs' outstanding front office has arguably played the biggest role in the franchise's sustained success.
They've drafted the five aforementioned players, while adding other valuable secondary pieces throughout the years. Most recently, they've brought LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol into the fold alongside Leonard, Parker, and Ginobili, but that wasn't enough to make it out of the West last season.
You could argue that on-court play and front office competitiveness has never been higher than it is right now. The Golden State Warriors have built and retained the makings of a dynasty while raising the bar for NBA excellence and efficiency. That's just how the last five years have been in the light of our nERD metric, a team ranking -- on a scale of 0 to 100 -- predictive of the team's ultimate winning percentage.
Over that span, the Spurs have taken a distant backseat to the NBA leader on three occasions (they led the NBA in 2015-16's regular season, as you see below). Twice (2014-15 and 2016-17), the Warriors set NBA's standard for efficiency.
This past season, the Spurs' nERD ranked them second in the league, but it was still nowhere near the Warriors' mark. And if that wasn't reason for concern already, the rest of the West appears to be catching up to the long-term powerhouse.
For the Nuggets, they brought on Paul Millsap, who posted a 3.5 nERD by our individual nERD numbers (player rankings indicative of a player's overall contributions, based on efficiency, where 0.0 is league-average), which would've ranked fourth on last year's team and that ranks third on the current roster. As for the Timberwolves, they did even more work by adding both Jimmy Butler (17.3 nERD) and Jeff Teague (4.7). And, in case you forgot, those two teams weren't among the eight playoff teams in the West this past season.
With all this in mind, Spurs general manager R.C. Buford was out making calls to improve his team this summer, right? Right?
An Uninspiring Summer
For the most part, the Spurs' summer of '17 has been eventful for all the wrong reasons.
It all started at the end of June when rumors suggested that Aldridge was unhappy in San Antonio and the Spurs were reportedly making the veteran available in hopes of landing a top-10 draft pick. Nothing happened, though, and Aldridge now looks poised to stay on as the right-hand man to Leonard.
Soon thereafter, on July 1st, the new NBA year officially started, and, with it, they re-signed point guard Patty Mills to a four-year, $50 million deal. In the following 10 days, the team signed veteran forward Rudy Gay and big man Joffrey Lauvergne to two-year deals. The issue is that neither player was really impactful a season ago. In an injury-shortened season, Gay earned a -0.5 nERD with 18.7 points in 33.8 minutes a game while Lauvergne split his 70 games, 980 minutes and -1.0 nERD between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Chicago Bulls.
You might consider those moves subtraction by addition, but renouncing restricted free agent Jonathon Simmons and allowing him to sign with the Orlando Magic on the cheap (for three years, $20 million) was probably the most questionable non-move in the eyes of Spurs fans. In watching Simmons walk, the Spurs looked on as a versatile 27-year-old wing took his bench production (12.5 points per 36 minutes) and on-court value (2.0 win shares) with him.
Ginobili will return to the Spurs' backcourt, but, at 40 years old, will he be asked to again be a key contributor off the bench once again? Under Gregg Popovich's liberal resting regimen, will he be able to play more than 18 minutes per game? Even if he can, that might be an issue for the Spurs, as Ginobili's 0.6 nERD -- tied for the worst mark of his 15-year career -- would tell us that the veteran is on the decline.
That alone isn't all that bad, but when you combine that with the pricey (three years, $48 million) re-signing of the 37-year-old Gasol, it looks much worse.
With an average age of 28.2, the Spurs aren't getting any younger. In fact, according to RealGm, the Spurs are nearly two years older than the average NBA roster at this point in time. And if Parker resumes his role in the starting lineup, that unit could carry an average age of 32.
One way to help decrease their aging squad is by acquiring a young, proven point guard, like maybe Kyrie Irving, who has recently become available and named San Antonio as one of his preferred destinations. Whether they have or will make an offer is another thing, but adding a 25-year-old All-Star would be a welcome upgrade for a team that has failed to do much in the way of improving this offseason.
By our math, Irving was the 13th-best guard (8.2 nERD) in 2016-17, so would he make them favorites out West? No, he probably wouldn't, but he would make them better now and for the future. You can't say the same for guys like Derrick White, Brandon Paul and Matt Costello -- all three of whom are rookies and have recently signed deals with the Spurs.
More is Less
After all that's happened to this point, the Spurs have spent more money without the promise of being better. As a matter of fact, our player nERD metric tells us they're actually 10 wins worse.
As the revised roster's nERD has fallen off by 10.3 wins, they have increased their salaries by more than $3 million, putting them $12.7 million above the cap for the 2017-18 season -- and that's not counting the unreported contracts of Ginobili and Lauvergne.
In case you're not so keen on the advanced numbers, the Spurs have also suffered a net loss of 3.2 points, 12.2 rebounds and 2.0 assists per 36 minutes as a result of their offseason action.
In years past, we've questioned the Spurs' sustainability, only to see them rise to the top of the Western Conference ranks time and time again. But this time around, things are different. The West is even better than it's been, so the Spurs' reign among the conference elite might finally be coming to an end.