How the Spurs created a dynasty in the salary cap era

Ronald Martinez

As they prepare to meet the Miami Heat in the first NBA Finals rematch since 1998, the Spurs owe much of their success to an ability to manage the salary cap. Here's how they have done it.

A lot is made of the San Antonio Spurs' philosophy towards team building. A LOT is made of the San Antonio Spurs' philosophy towards team building when they ride a 38-year-old to a second consecutive NBA Finals appearance. It is entirely deserved, of course. And it is also emphatically documented.

Said documentation invariably talks about the franchise's philosophies of unselfishness, equality and all that good stuff. There is much more that goes into building a team than just wrenching the salary cap around, and the discourse about the humanist aspects of it are poignant and captivating. They do, however, tend to overlook the salary cap wrangling part of the construction that none of it would be possible without.

San Antonio is, and has always been, built around the Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan trio. They are able to do what they do only because those players are the foundation, and because that foundation is one consisting of players who have taken highly reasonable contracts.

Tony Parker signed a six-year, $66 million rookie scale extension in 2004 after his third season in the league, but before he had become Tony Effing Parker. The strong playoff showing immediately prior was at that time the enticing but anomalous exception -- the leap he took in his fourth season and has sustained to this day had not yet happened, and the $66 million that a merely decent starter had received looked ambitious. $11 million per season was a huge amount back in 2004, a summer in which Steve Nash also took $11 million, Jamal Crawford took $8 million, Zach Randolph took $10 million, and in which even Erick Dampier's famously excessive contract called for only slightly over a $9 million annual average. Nevertheless, Parker played up to the billing, and tied on a four-year, $50 million extension in October 2010, long after he had proven himself. He could have signed an extension in excess of $60 million, or at least tried out the free agent market (realities of the impending 2011 lockout notwithstanding), yet instead he took an entirely fair price without looking for another bidder.

Meanwhile, despite his European achievements, Ginobili started out at a shade over a million dollars for his first two seasons, before taking six years and $52 million the same summer that Parker took his six years and $66 million. Being paid less than $10 million in every season except the final one was a significant underpayment for the quality of player Ginobili went on to become, and he quite justifiably took a maximum value three-year, $38,943,114 extension in April 2010. Yet when he was again a free agent in the summer of 2013, Manu took a mere $14.5 million over two years without testing the market, a $7.25 million average salary in the same market that gave O.J. Mayo $8 million.

Then, of course, there is Timmy. After being drafted, Duncan signed for the maximum allowable under the rookie scale, a three-year, $10,239,080 deal taking him through to the summer of 2000. In that summer, he courted Orlando and its six-year maximum salary offer, eventually yielding to loyalty and re-signing with the Spurs for a three-year maximum deal, in accordance with prophecy. When this expired in the summer of 2003, Duncan -- by now entrenched as a player who will surely never realistically leave his team -- signed a further seven-year maximum contract that ran through 2010. All standard fare so far -- if a prime Tim Duncan wasn't worth the maximum, no one is.

However, in November 2007, Duncan stopped getting the maximum. Still with three seasons left to run on his maximum deal, and while still a 20/10/3 player coming off his fourth NBA championship, Duncan signed a two-year, $40 million extension that ran through 2012. The maximum two-year extension Duncan could have signed at that time would have been $48,914,000 -- had he taken the three-year extension he was eligible for, that figure could have risen to $76,864,854. And yet there he was, in the prime of his career, discounting his future, three years before he needed to even address it. Duncan followed that up with a sort-of-illegal-but-they-seem-to-have-gotten-away-with-it three-year, $30 million contract in the summer of 2012, paying him less than DeAndre Jordan in his twilight years at a time he is just as effective as Blake Griffin.

The trio haven't exactly played for minimum wage here. The discounts have been moderate. They've gotten theirs, especially early doors. However, in the second halves of their careers, all have taken discounts to facilitate spending elsewhere. Without them doing so, the Spurs would have found it much more difficult to keep bringing in the new talent that has kept their window so open for so long.

In addition to being able to lock down its stars without stagnating the roster, San Antonio's other strength comes from how it rarely overpays. We cannot say the Spurs never overpay -- Rasho Nesterovic was one such contract that did not work out and had to be moved on, as was Malik Rose's, who was given a seven-year $42 million deal either to replace David Robinson as the long-term starter alongside Tim Duncan or because he shared Duncan's agent, depending on how cynical you're feeling. On a smaller scale, Matt Bonner probably didn't need $16 million to slowly fall out of the rotation, and as welcome as it was when Richard Jefferson opted out of his ill-fated $14 million-plus deal, giving him $40 million to replace it with was never the percentage play.

Take it a bit further, and the contracts of Derek Anderson and Steve Smith were also probably a bit too big to take on. Yet that is about it. It ought be remembered that in the early days of the Duncan era, before the 2004 payouts to Parker and Ginobili, the Spurs put together championship-caliber teams while still serving up significant cap room every other season. Who does that?

The Spurs turn over the last few players on their roster regularly, including midseason. They are often to be found engaging in midseason waivings and pickups, closely monitoring the D-League for anyone sneaking below the radar (and having the financial and roster spot flexibility to often get in there first), and monitoring the European game for further value pickups. More often than not, it does not work out -- more often than not for all teams, it does not work out. But the Spurs strike gold more than most, as Danny Green and Boris Diaw can currently attest to. This, combined with good value obtained from low first-round picks, keeps the bench fresh, hungry and productive without overpaying to do it.

Indeed, they cannot afford to overpay much. This is not a team capable of regularly paying over and beyond the luxury tax threshold. They have paid it in the past, five times to be exact, yet those five times have seen only a total of $12,597,554 paid in luxury in the entirety of its history. To put that into some context, Brooklyn is paying more than that this season for Mirza Teletovic alone.

Of that $12.6 million expenditure, $8,810,302 was paid in the 2009-10 season, easily their biggest ever payroll commitment. Three of the remaining four luxury tax seasons were for payments of less than $1 million, and two were for less than $200,000, back in the early days of the luxury tax when the exact threshold was not known until season's end and teams had to operate on projections without definitive information. As owner Peter Holt puts it, the Spurs realize that paying the tax on occasion is a reality of the business they are in, and can dip into it occasionally. Yet by and large, they keep the pieces of their bench young and cheap, and the roster turnover so high, so as to best score on steals and keep costs down.

When serenading the 1998-99 Spurs' title-winning team as they took their ticker tape on the court, Bob Costas described the winning San Antonio team as a series of "misfits and late bloomers,'' a ramshackle bunch of castoffs able to be salvaged, crafted around the core and put only in the roles they were designed for. Fifteen years on, and, barring swapping Robinson for Parker and Ginobili, the philosophy remains the same. Castoffs and late bloomers are cheaper than valued commodities, and, if you get the right ones, just as valuable. "Retread" is so often used as a pejorative, yet when we watch Danny Green, Boris Diaw, Marco Belinelli and Patty Mills play big minutes in an NBA Finals, we must remember that it ought not be.

We ought not pretend this philosophy, these discounts, is all just one great big act of magnanimity. Given the opportunity with a larger budget, the Spurs would spend more in order to get and retain the best players their budget allowed. Of course they would. That's what they are doing now. The difference now, though, is that they are doing it noticeably better than their peers. Everybody wants a bargain, and everyone likes to think they can spot one. The Spurs' philosophy here is not unique.

They're just better at it.

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