Coming off a franchise-best 67-win regular season and armed with two-time Defensive Player of the year Kawhi Leonard, low-post star LaMarcus Aldridge, the cleverness and experience of point guard Tony Parker, and gruff five-time champion head coach Gregg Popovich, the San Antonio Spurs will remain a Western Conference power in the 2016-17 NBA season and likely continue their dominance as the league’s most consistent franchise no matter what happens in free agency this summer.
But the prospect of bringing Oklahoma City Thunder forward and pending unrestricted free agent Kevin Durant into the fold could not only put the Spurs back atop the league’s championship podium, it could further extend what’s become the most dominant stretch for any NBA franchise since the Boston Celtics of the 1960s.
Durant, who’s expected to opt-out of his current deal with the Thunder in order to test free agency, is reportedly primarily interested in the Spurs and the Golden State Warriors, with the New York Knicks, Miami Heat, and Los Angeles Lakers possibly in the mix.
And while many reasonably believe the Warriors have the best shot to lure Durant away from Oklahoma City, the Spurs, who felt Durant’s wrath and were ousted by his Thunder squad in the second round of this year’s playoffs, may be the biggest threat and best fit.
Durant has said his choice will strictly be a “basketball decision,” and while Golden State’s 73-win run overshadowed San Antonio’s historic regular season, the Spurs and Popovich have a far longer track record of success than the Warriors in almost every facet of the game and business.
Since taking over the bench in 1996, Popovich has led San Antonio to a 1,089-485 record with five championships, six West titles, and five 60-plus win seasons. Yes, also acting as president of basketball operations since 1994, Popovich has led a front office that made the “no-brainer” selection of Tim Duncan as No. 1 overall in the 1997 draft, a pick that is inarguably the biggest reason for San Antonio’s success.
But it was Popovich’s job to not only coach the Spurs talent, but also to corral more of it around Duncan. In turn, Popovich mined Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Leandro Barbosa, Luis Scola, Tiago Splitter, George Hill, and Cory Joseph from the draft and no higher than the No. 26 overall selection over the last 20 years.
The Warriors and their front office deserve heaps of credit for their recent success, but it’s occurred over the last four years or so, and it’s yet to be seen if Golden State can keep parlaying and building that success.
Golden State has the three hottest young players in the league in Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green, all of whom have moved to the Bay Area in the last five years and could certainly make Durant’s path back to the finals much easier and more frequent.
But beside the ever-improving and just 24 years old Leonard, floor-stretching big man Aldridge, and pass-first Parker, the Spurs have just as strong of a roster to make it past the Warriors with Popovich at the helm once again.
Durant, Leonard, and Aldridge would easily make up the best frontcourt in the NBA. With largely the same roster coming back next year, the Spurs offense would improve from the 10th highest scoring to likely just above or below the Warriors, and they’d still have the league’s best defense after allowing a miniscule 92.9 points per game.
Also consider that while the Warriors averaged 114.9 points per game and their point differential was a league-best 10.8 a contest, the Spurs were right behind at 10.6. Toss in Durant and the Spurs immediately become the best team in the NBA.
Acquiring Durant will require some salary-cap maneuvering and perhaps, unfortunately, the exit of 39-year-old Duncan and 40-year-old Ginobili. Even under the new league-set $94 million cap, the Spurs only have about $12.3 million in cap space before free agency begins July 1, according to Spotrac.
However, San Antonio could waive veteran forward Boris Diaw before June 30 since only $3 million of his $7 million cap hit for the 2016-17 season is fully guaranteed if he’s dropped on or before that date, Ginobili’s already opted out of a deal that would’ve paid him $2.9 million next year, but he’s expected to return and would likely do so on a team-friendly contract.
Duncan’s status is presently unknown but retirement is a possibility. He and the Spurs have shown tremendous loyalty to each other for the last 19 seasons, with the future Hall of Famer even giving the team a significant discount when he inked a two-year $10.5 million extension last year. To say nothing of the three-year $30.3 million deal Duncan agreed to in 2012.
However, Duncan could go another step further and decline his final year’s option, worth roughly $6.4 million, and free up even more space for the Spurs to sign Durant.
Duncan recorded across the board career lows this past season, especially in scoring, rebounding, blocks, and minutes, and it would seem like his career has come to a close, but the Spurs are unlikely to pressure him to go. And for that matter, Durant might not want Duncan and his 19 years of wisdom to leave San Antonio before he arrives.
Of course, Durant could also forgo salary for a stronger chance at a title. He’s can account for roughly 30 percent of the Thunder or any other team’s salary cap under league’s collective bargaining agreement, which could push the first year of a new max deal in the $27 million range, but as reported Thursday Durant’s already pulling down even more than that in endorsements every year.