Quietly, the San Antonio Spurs are bringing back basically the entire band from the team's championship season. Tim Duncan avoided free agency by opting into his $10.3 million salary. Main cogs Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Tiago Splitter, Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard were already under contract for next season.
But that left the fates of a few key Spurs in the balance as free agency opened on July 1. San Antonio took care of the two most important role players already, signing Patty Mills and Boris Diaw to three-year deals. Mills will make about $4 million per season, while Diaw will pull in an average salary just over $7 million. That's $11 million per season for two guys usually coming off of the bench.
Back for More
Boris Diaw returning with 3-year deal
The 32-year-old played a key role in San Antonio's run to a championship and was rewarded with a three-year extension.
Back for More
And San Antonio can totally get away with it, because even if Mills and Diaw aren't bargains in 2015, 2016 or 2017, almost every other Spur will be.
At $10 million, Duncan is an absolute steal. Barring an extension, he'll be a free agent next summer and will probably convince himself to take even less despite still being effective. He kept his body in impeccable shape into his late 30s, and there's really no telling how long he can go. Manu was the Spurs' last bad contract in 2012-13 at $14 million. In 2013-14, he took a huge paycut (down to $7.5 million) and had a huge comeback season. Because, of course. These are the Spurs.
Parker is the cheapest perennial MVP candidate alive not on a rookie deal or second contract. Kawhi is a legit star these days ... and a mid-first rookie deal, which is even cheaper than most studs' rookie deals. Green will make $4 million and be one of the league's best perimeter defenders next season. Splitter's the only starter who isn't an outright steal at $9 million next season, but that's a totally reasonable, fair and affordable deal for San Antonio. Skilled centers ain't cheap.
If Diaw rediscovers Gruyere and pinot noir this summer and becomes Bobcat Boris on the new contract, San Antonio's cap sheet will survive. If Mills doesn't recover well from his injury, or loses his sudden effectiveness in subsequent seasons, the Spurs can absorb the hit. By using salary cap space so ridiculously wisely so consistently, San Antonio has created a virtuous cycle. The cap management is good enough to make iffy contracts no big deal and allows enough space to sign primarily small, reasonable deals. It's perpetual excellence in decision-making.
The amazing thing is that given the NBA's financial reward system, this could easily be a vicious cycle in any other franchise's hands. Players' contracts are partly based on how their team performs. The Spurs are always amazing. That should boost their free agents' contract offers! But through some combination of salesmanship, coercion and magic, the Spurs get all of their best free agents to take relative discounts to stay in San Antonio. Duncan's been doing it for years. Manu did it a couple of times. I'm still not sure exactly why Parker is only making $12.5 million.
What teams invested in the end of the Spurs' reign need to hope for is the end of the hometown discounts. And the best hope on that front comes in the form of Kawhi, who is now eligible to sign an early extension that would go into effect for the 2015-16 season. Every West team's fear should be that San Antonio locks that up at sub-max levels this summer, pre-empting Leonard's restricted free agency (scheduled for July 2015) and setting the cornerstone for the next virtuous cycle of the Spurs.
So when you hear rumors in the next few weeks about teams salivating at the chance to offer Kawhi a max contract next summer, know what it's about: preventing Kawhi from taking less than that now before he has a chance to hit the market.