If the NBA draft is the Wild West – a landscape fraught with peril but also the promise of untold riches – then the free agency period that follows is the Industrial Revolution: millions of dollars in hoarded cap space poured into known assets in the hopes of ridiculous rates of return.
With the salary cap rising from $63 million this past year to $69 million next year, then ballooning to $89 million the year after and a staggering $108 million in 2017-18, the numbers coming out on contracts have already gotten ludicrous: a five-year, $145 million dollar extension for Anthony Davis and the Pelicans; a five-year, $110 million dollar deal for Kevin Love and the Cavs; a five-year, $95 million dollar deal for Jimmy Butler and the Bulls. Damian Lillard’s five-year deal with the Blazers for $125 million is the most ever for a guard. DeMarre Carroll – the 27th overall pick in the 2009 draft – agreed to a contract with the Raptors that will pay him an average of $15 million a year. By way of contrast, reigning MVP Steph Curry will make $12 million in the final year of his current contract.
In short, in a league where 25 of the 30 teams could carve out room for a max contract next summer, money is flying around like it was stuffed inside Stephen Colbert’s Scandal Booth.
But although the dollars are fun to count up and compare, the real engine that drives free agency is, just like muscle contraction and water purification, imbalance across a porous barrier. A certain amount of adopted hometown fealty is baked into the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement in the form of Bird Rights. There are wrinkles to the rule, but it essentially gives the team that currently holds a player’s contract a big advantage in re-signing him by allowing them to go over the cap to do so, plus allowing them to sign him for five years instead of four.
It is, essentially, a way to artificially generate loyalty where there is generally no reason for it. Long gone are the days of territorial picks and so we end up with fans questioning Kevin Love’s loyalty to Minneapolis when he was born in California and mostly raised in Oregon. The only reason for him to feel any such thing would be the Timberwolves exercising their ability to give him more money than any other team, which they did not when they had the opportunity.
This ability to lock up star players for big money and for longer periods of time is a counter to a different imbalance: the one between major market and small market teams. It has long been taken as a given that star players will seek out places that are either warm or lucrative in terms of attention and endorsements or, preferably, both. So players want to go to the Lakers or the Knicks, or maybe Miami or Chicago.
Free agency, then, is customarily a process of watching these two forces work against each other: small market teams that are successful and smart trying to hold on to their star players by throwing money at them while major market teams attempt to lure them with the promise of bright lights, legacy, lifestyle and ad dollars.
But then into this maelstrom of contract and endorsement dollars steps the San Antonio Spurs, who may not have won the NBA championship this season but who have shown in this free agency period that they still have what it takes to reign supreme.
With a proven track record of getting maximum bang for their buck – Tim Duncan, after all, made just $10.3 million dollars in 2014 when the Spurs won it all, while Kobe Bryant pulled in $30.5 million and played in six games – the Spurs started off free agency by retaining Danny Green with a four-year, $45 million contract. Although Green is not a max contract player, a contract averaging $11.25 million a season is still well below what the services of a playoff-proven vet who can both shoot the 3-pointer and defend could have gotten on the open market. Khris Middleton – who’s promising but also just 23 and with nowhere near the resume Green brings – will be getting an average of $14 million a year from Milwaukee for the next five years.
It would be easy to dismiss this as a Spurs guy sticking with the Spurs, but Green was selected with the 46th pick by the Cavaliers and cut not once but twice, including by the Spurs, and is now 28, meaning that at the end of whatever contract he was looking for this offseason he would be on the wrong side of 30. Plenty of players would chase the money or chase a ring, but Green already has both, and seems content to stay in San Antonio. No one could argue he isn’t being paid well; he’s just not being paid the maximum the market could bear, and Green seems fine with it.
And then there’s the big fish the Spurs landed over the weekend: LaMarcus Aldridge on a four-year, $80 million deal. Aldridge ultimately gave up the bigger deal that Portland could have given him, as well as the deal on the table from the Los Angeles Lakers. He also canceled his meeting with the New York Knicks (or maybe he didn’t). A native of Dallas, Aldridge certainly had familial reasons for returning to Texas, but reports that the Lakers’ pitch focused too much on “outside opportunities” didn’t sit well with Aldridge, given that he ultimately signed with one of the most monastic of basketball teams.
Twenty million a year is nothing to sneeze at, but the difference with the Spurs is that they didn’t offer a max contract with the hopes that this new player would help them figure out who they are or define a new direction for the franchise. The system is already in place, the culture is well defined: it can maximize Aldridge so long as he puts in the work.
Even with a (relatively) younger core built around Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard – whom the Spurs inked to a five-year, $90 million deal that feels like a bargain for a Finals MVP when Reggie Jackson has signed a five-year, $80 million deal with the Pistons – the Spurs are not suddenly favorites for another title, but that’s never been their way. To fit in Aldridge’s and Leonard’s contracts, the Spurs had to move Tiago Splitter to the Hawks and Duncan will likely take less money again, as will Manu Ginobili, if he returns for one more season, as expected.
As a team like the Lakers clings to Kobe Bryant and other teams overspend to either retain so-so players or lure big names, the Spurs are methodically retooling themselves, quietly and effectively. One of the persistent drumbeats in the NBA is the call to make small markets competitive with their larger brethren. Things like Bird Rights and team options for draft picks are mechanisms meant to correct that imbalance, but San Antonio is showing once again that no amount of technical support can trump being really, really good at basketball from top to bottom.