The San Antonio Spurs have had star-laden rosters since before the phrase "superteam" was a part of the NBA lexicon. First, they had the luxury of the Twin Towers in 1999, and then by 2003 they had three future Hall-of-Famers in place in the team's core. How do the Spurs do it? R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich draft really well, avoid bad contracts better than any other front office and manage the salary cap sheet expertly.
Oh, and the Spurs convince all of their stars to take below-market salaries for the good of the franchise.
It's amazing, in retrospect, how much heat LeBron James and friends got for taking minor pay cuts to play together in Miami given that the Spurs have been doing that for ages. Tim Duncan has 14 All-NBA honors in 17 seasons. He's made more than $20 million in only three seasons because he consistently signs for less than the max. Just two years ago he took an $11 million pay cut after a(nother) All-Star season, all so that the Spurs could keep their other free agents and sign, uh, Nando de Colo. Two years before that, in 2010, Duncan signed a short deal leaving $11 million on the table to help the Spurs get back to the Finals.
Tony Parker is a five-time All-Star, four-time All-NBA honoree, four-time NBA champion and one-time Finals MVP. He's never made more than $13.5 million in a season because the Spurs keep convincing him it's in his long-term interest to take less and keep the club together. Manu Ginobili is a two-time All-Star and one-time Sixth Man of the Year, and potentially the third best shooting guard of his generation. He's made $100 million in a 12-year NBA career, or less than what Joe Johnson makes over five years.
You can't knock the Spurs for making this happen: tales from San Antonio's negotiating sessions are famous for their odd creativity. (Buford and Pop are reportedly fond of offering Duncan a max contract alongside a presentation showing what they plan to do with the savings if he takes less.) The Spurs use their own success to facilitate future success. It's a brilliant scheme.
Until the Spurs land a player who doesn't buy it. Enter Kawhi Leonard:
As Kawhi Leonard holds firm on his desire for a maximum contract, extension talks with the San Antonio Spurs have failed to gather traction despite a looming Friday deadline, league sources told Yahoo Sports. [...]
[M]ultiple league executives told Yahoo Sports he'll command a max offer sheet on the market next summer. The Spurs would assuredly match a sheet and retain Leonard, but there remains the risk of Leonard signing a similar offer sheet to Dallas Mavericks forward Chandler Parsons.
As Adrian Wojnarowski reports, Leonard is a no-brainer max player. He's already an elite defender and can shoot from the corners, an increasingly valued skill in today's NBA. He slowed down the greatest player on Earth in the Finals at age 22. Most NBA franchises would recognize Leonard's value and potential, thank their lucky stars for his presence and fork over the max offer. Probably in July, when negotiations can begin.
From the archives: How Kawhi Leonard Earned Finals MVP
Not the Spurs. The Spurs are trying to do with Kawhi what the Spurs have done with Duncan, Manu and Parker for a dozen years: they are trying to convince a superstar to give up some money for the good of the team. And Leonard isn't (to this point) playing ball.
Good for him. The willingness of the Spurs' stars -- or anyone else in the NBA -- to take less for the good of the franchise is praised too often, just as it was reviled too much when LeBron and Dwyane Wade did it. Giving up salary that can go to teammates in this soft-capped NBA isn't really worthy of praise or disgust. NBA franchises aren't charities. Duncan and crew haven't been generous to mankind. They've been generous to Peter Holt, managing partner of the Spurs and construction equipment salesman par excellence.
A Whole New Season
It's not like the Spurs wouldn't be able to find a way to pay role players if Duncan took the max in 2010 or if Parker declined an early, cheap extension to test the free agent market. The Mavericks' Mark Cuban, the Knicks' James Dolan and the Nets' Mikhail Prokhorov have shown that the league's salary cap is more of a guideline than a rule. The only way Duncan taking less actually makes the Spurs a better team is if Holt refuses to pay luxury tax or exceed a certain salary threshold. Meanwhile, the Spurs were the sixth-most profitable franchise in the NBA last season.
Of course, the difference between Holt and guys like Prokhorov, Dolan and Cuban is that Holt isn't a billionaire. He actually needs the Spurs to make money. That's not Kawhi's fault. The collective bargaining agreement limits what Leonard can make any given season. He's been a damn bargain for the Spurs through three seasons thanks to the rookie salary scale. If Holt isn't willing to pay him $15 million, two dozen other teams will. That's why Leonard has the leverage here. The Spurs know that if a deal isn't reached by Friday, they'll be forced to max him out next July or match a potentially tricky offer sheet, like one that could make Kawhi a free agent early and restrict San Antonio's ability to repeat history with Leonard.
It's totally fair for the Spurs to ask Leonard to take less so that the dynasty can continue for another generation. And it's totally fair for Kawhi to respond with Ray Liotta's infamous [NSFW] line from Goodfellas. What makes it amazing is that this is the first time in a long time that someone is telling the Spurs no, and we're all waiting with bated breath to see how Pop and Buford deal with it.