NBA Finalists' Fine-Tuning At Summertime
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For NBA Finals execs, summer is the time for wine, for equals parts congratulation and commiseration, and also for figuring out how to return to the championship round again, by fine-tuning existing teams into better vehicles the following season.
Such is the life of Riley (Pat) and Pop (Gregg Popovich), two execs in charge of the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs basketball operations, who enter this week of the NBA Draft (Thursday) and start of free agency next week (Monday, July 1) with less than seven days to make some franchise-altering decisions.
For Riley, most of his team is already intact.
In fact, it looks like 12 of the 15 Heat players are locks to return at a team bill of $86.5 million, if Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis and James Jones choose to extend their contracts as expected, and as long as the team extends Mario Chalmers and Jarvis Varndado at bargain rates.
Chris "Birdman" Andersen, Mike Miller and Juwan Howard are the questions marks, with 15th man Howard most likely not being re-signed for summertime, just as last season.
So here's the question, Birdman will most likely receive offers from other teams in the $3 million to $5 million range: If you're Pat Riley, do you match?
Do you pay Birdman, even $3 million annually, raising your 2013-14 team salary figure to 89.5 million, when the luxury cap is estimated to be $71.6 million this year, which in turn sticks the Heat franchise with a $38.175 million luxury tax once the more-punitive collective bargaining agreement goes into effect this season?
The Heat obviously need to keep a shot-blocking center like Birdman on roster for teams like the Spurs and the Indiana Pacers in future postseasons.
So does Riley then amnesty Miller's $6.2 million contract this year and $6.6 million next year, to bring the team costs' down. After all, this season's price tag alone would drop from $89.5 million to $83.3 million, which would drop the luxury-tax penalty this season from $38.175 million to $20.5 million. Yes, they've got to eat part of a $6.2 million contract this season, but even then the total savings would be at least $11.475 million, not to mention similar cost-cutting savings next season.
Or the Heat could just decide to foot the whole bill and pay an uncharacteristic $38.175 million dollar penalty, almost three times the amount they will pay in this year's championship season.
So that is Miami's choices this offseason, with no first-round draft pick to speak of this week: keep Birdman or keep Miller or let one go and save tens of millions of dollars.
San Antonio's salary-cap position is much more flexible and franchise-altering than any NBA Finals team could hope for.
Basically, Pop's team has nine Spurs locked up under contract for a minimal $37.7 million.
That means, if someone like Dwight Howard wanted to join San Antonio, the Spurs could simply sign him by renouncing the rights to a half dozen players and add him to the mix of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Boris Diaw, Gary Neal, Cory Joseph, among others.
Now that is not likely to happen, but it gives you an idea of the Spurs' cap flexibility in this first year of a new collective bargaining agreement.
More likely, San Antonio will re-sign free agents Manu Ginobili and Tiago Splitter for a combined $14 million or less.
They have the option to buy out Matt Bonner's $3.9 million contract for $1 million, but won't likely do so, unless they choose to pursue a major (Andre Iguodala, Paul Millsap) or mid-major free agent (Emeka Okafor, Jermaine O'Neal, Samuel Dalembert).
Add that up ($55.6 million), and without getting into cap holds and all that, the Spurs will soon be crossing the anticipated $58.5 million salary cap, which would prevent them from signing anyone over the league minimums without using their $5 million mid-level exception.
Now if Ginobili retires, the Spurs would then have approximately $10 million or so to go out and sign a free agent to replace him. I don't see the Spurs wanting Ginobili to retire, but if he chose to do so, San Antonio is in position to replace him.
. The most likely scenario is that 12 of the 15 Spurs will return for the 2013-14 season, and the number of returning players could actually be even higher than that.
I am guessing free agents like DeJuan Blair, Patty Mills and Tracy McGrady will sign with other teams for more money, since they probably would only get $1 to $2 million tops for playing with the Spurs next season.
So with those three potential roster spots on the horizon, I would expect Pop and GM R.C. Buford to use any remaining cap room, along with splits of the mid-level exception on a free agent like 36-year-old rookie Knick Pablo Prigioni, who played with Ginobili on so many historic Argentina medal-winning teams, or former Spur Beno Udrih, who played on San Antonio's 2005 and 2007 NBA championship teams.
Then they'd use $2 million or $3 million slices of their MLE to draw European shooting bigs Davis Bertans and Erazem Lorbek, both whose NBA rights are owned by the Spurs from that famous Kawhi Leonard-George Hill trade two years ago.
The 20-year-old Bertans has become Europes' top shooter nailing 43 percent of his 3s and 52 percent of his 2s for a .623 true shooting percentage as a 6-10, 210-pound forward.
The 29-year-old center Lorbek is built more in the Mehmet Okur mold, with his 6-10, 260-pound frame as a top Euro big, nailing 35 percent of his 3s and 55 percent of his 2s for a .577 true shooting percentage last season.
Neither will take the NBA by storm--both averaged 10 points per game in Europe--but both give the Spurs added depth to stretch their offensive arsenal out even further than before.
San Antonio does have two selections in the 2013 NBA Draft--the 28th and 58th picks--but it wouldn't surprise me if the Spurs draft-and-stash two European prospects with those choices, like they've been known to do with so many players on their roster today (Ginobili, Parker, Splitter, De Colo and Bertans).
Like the headline says, both NBA Finals teams just need a little fine-tuning to stay elite.
But it is both teams' commitment to chemistry--annually bringing back a dozen-or-so of the same players--that has made the Heat and Spurs the two winningest franchises in the regular season and playoffs combined the past two years.