Over the past few years, as the Spurs have seemingly nudged closer to their current core’s expiration date, a specific, if predictable, form of curiosity about the franchise’s offseason plans has taken root. Are Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobli finally set to retire? Has Tony Parker lost a step? Can San Antonio cobble together another functional cast of role players? The Spurs proceed to answer these questions by finishing near the top of the Western Conference standings and embarking on deep postseason runs. San Antonio’s position in 2015 bears resemblance to that in years past, only reports indicate it also stands poised to vie for an A-list free agent in Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge.
The rampant speculation runs counter to the relative quiet associated with the Spurs’ recent summer personnel maneuverings. Whether San Antonio can realistically aspire to land Aldridge—and the salary cap space it would take to execute the move—has taken precedent in an offseason defined by a semi-awkward salary cap climate and fairly unremarkable crop of players on the move. If the Spurs do pull it off, they can thank Danny Green. Not only did Green’s contract situation present the potential to hinder, or at the very least complicate, the Spurs’ pursuit of a marquee big man, he may have commanded more lucrative contract offers had he decided to bide his time on the open market.
Green, 28, reportedly agreed to a four-year, $45 million deal with San Antonio on Wednesday.
That’s a freaking steal, but perhaps we shouldn’t have expected a different outcome. Green recently told the San Antonio Express-News that the Spurs “have expressed that they’d love to have me back and I’d love to be back,” while adding that he hopes he can “capitalize on I guess what you’d call a career peak.” It’s not difficult to see how those two priorities could have undermined one another. The Spurs, by all accounts, wanted to retain Green, and there were no indications he would have been opposed to signing on to play for one of the best-run organizations in the league, under the guidance of its best coach, for a few more years. Of course, the reality seemed at least seemed more complicated than that.
It wasn’t. San Antonio handled its business with Green less than 24 hours after the start of the free agency period (teams and players cannot consummate deals until July 9).
Green reportedly had multiple suitors from both conferences, including the Mavericks, the Blazers, the Pistons and the Knicks. Depending on how the Spurs planned to go about filling the rest of their their cap sheet—and to a lesser extent their urgency to chase Aldridge—several teams were likely to present Green with offers that eclipsed whatever San Antonio could fork over. That meant Green needed to weigh his affinity for and comfort with the team that helped groom him into a top-shelf 3-and-D threat versus his desire to get paid. It also left open to interpretation the level of compensation Green should have commanded and whether that squares with the deal he eventually did sign.
The general assumption at the end of the season that it was only a matter of weeks before Green would be cashing an eight-figure paycheck glosses over how close he came to being washed out of the league. He was selected in the second round of the 2009 draft by the Cavaliers after playing second fiddle to Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington on North Carolina’s 2009 national championship team. Green then appeared in only 20 NBA games as a rookie and logged two contests with the Development League’s Erie BayHawks before being waived prior to the start of the next season in favor of Manny Harris. The Spurs took a flier on Green in November 2010, only to cut him less than a week later.
San Antonio reportedly didn’t think Green would fit in with the team’s culture and was put off by his attitude. Green practically begged Popovich for another opportunity. "I'll do whatever you need me to do,” Green remembered telling Popovich in a voicemail, according to ESPN. “Rebound, defense, towel boy, water boy … whatever you need me to do, I'm going to do that."
That marked the low point of a career that saw Green latch on with the Spurs later in the season and start 38 games the following year before earning his first multi-year, fully guaranteed contract (three years, $12 million). He’s since developed into one of the league’s premier wings. Green is best known for breaking the Finals three-point record and making an unlikely case for series MVP, but he also deserves recognition for his consistency: He’s started 96% of the 229 games he’s appeared in over the last three seasons and only once over that span missed extended time due to injury. Still, Green’s appeal can be boiled down to two core traits: three-point shooting and perimeter defense (we’ll get to that later).
He ranks sixth among qualified active players in outside shooting percentage, and has finished in the league’s top 10 in three-point makes in each of the last three seasons. Green’s long-range marksmanship is rarer still because of his size and age; there are only two players 6’6’’ or taller and under 29 years old who have attempted a minimum of 700 threes and connected on a 40% clip or better over the last four seasons, according to basketball-reference. One of them is Klay Thompson, whom the Warriors maxed out last October. The other is Green. Khris Middleton would check all those boxes had he launched 100 more threes between 2011-2015, and the Bucks just rewarded him with a five-year, $70 million deal.
In San Antonio, Green has thrived as a roving floor-spacer alongside Kawhi Leonard, Parker, Duncan and Ginobli. There are few sights more terrifying for an opponent than a shoddily contested Green three. His mere presence on the perimeter forces concessions in coverage, as defenders must account for the possibility of a quick ball reversal or action to free up space for Green. The Spurs wisely have deployed him in a capacity that leverages his deep-shooting proficiency. More than 60% of Green’s attempts in each of the last three seasons have come from beyond the arc and canned nearly half of his tries from the corners. Green also ranked in the league’s 95th percentile in jump shot efficiency in 2014-15, according to Synergy Sports,
Lose track of Green on the break, and your best bet is to turn around, shake off the mistake and start trudging back up the court:
Green has performed admirably as a complementary scorer within a system in which his chief responsibility perfectly aligned with his greatest strength. His range of offensive responsibility was narrow, and for good reason. Green is far from a prolific shot creator. According to SportVU tracking data, more than 77% of his shot attempts last season classified as either jumpers or pull-ups. When asked to put the ball on the deck as part of perhaps the modern NBA’s defining offensive set, the pick and roll, Green underwhelmed. In the 57 possessions in which Synergy logged Green as a pick-and-roll ball handler last season, he converted only 17 field goals, averaged 0.7 points and turned it over 14% of the time.
On the other end of the floor, Green is considered an elite stopper. He can stay in front of opposing ball handlers, does well to recover to contest shots, maintains his composure on closeouts and is surprisingly disruptive. Among shooting guards who logged at least 300 minutes last season, only K.J. McDaniels posted a higher block percentage. Unsurprisingly, the Spurs have yielded fewer points per trip during Green’s floor time, and he ranked seventh at his position last season in ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus. Yet what distinguishes Green from others is his ability to check virtually every perimeter position. At 6’6", 215 pounds, he’s strong enough to provide resistance against bigger wings and can hold up against quicker guards.
There’s no question Green can guard, but it’s fair to question the value he’d offer a different team. For one, he’s liable to make Pop go absolutely mental over a lapse in judgment, and like most every assessment of individual defensive proficiency, context matters. With Leonard typically shackling the opposition’s best player, Green often matches up with a secondary scoring option.
It’s instructive to compare the Spurs’ defensive performance in the absence of both Leonard and Green separately. When Leonard sat last season, the Spurs yielded an average of 0.05 points more per possession, compared to 0.03 when Green was off the floor. If that seems like a minor difference, consider that 1) it adds up over the thousands of minutes they log each season and 2) San Antonio’s defense, which ranked third in efficiency over the course of the season, slipped to 17th during the 17 consecutive games Leonard missed between December and January with a hand injury. At the same time, that’s holding Green to a lofty standard; Leonard was named the Defensive Player of the Year because he deserved it.
In any case, Green profiles as a high-level, two-way wing, one for whom rival teams—after watching the Warriors win a title on the strength of a three-point-happy offense and raft of versatile defenders—would have had to break the bank to pry away from southern Texas.
His contract is a bargain in any context, but it’s even more remarkable given the economic environment in which it was transacted. The Spurs managed to lock Green up on a cost-friendly pact through the end of his prime a year before the league’s new media rights deal boosts the salary cap to a projected $89 million. It’s impossible to know what Green would have fetched next summer, but teams who struck out on top targets may have been inclined to splurge on a valuable, if not quite superstar-level, guy like Green as a fallback plan. San Antonio got him to take a sweet hometown discount that looked even better hours after the fact when Toronto opened its checkbook for DeMarre Carroll.
The chart below shows displays Wings who have reached verbal agreements on new deals, ranked according to SI.com's list published late last month.
For San Antonio, the Green signing could be framed as part of a larger plan to add a more important piece. Given the price Green was expected to earn this summer, it seemed unlikely the Spurs could keep him and add Aldridge. Inking Leonard to a five-year, $90 million max deal was the first step in the process, and San Antonio cleared more room on Wednesday by unloading the final two years of Tiago Splitter’s contract in Atlanta (which is coached by former Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer). The Spurs may not be in the clear just yet—getting Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobli to take paycuts is next on the agenda—but landing Green on the cheap was a huge coup. He’s already started recruiting Aldridge.
Even if the Spurs wind up missing out on Aldridge, they scored big on the first day of free agency by hanging onto one of their most coveted assets at a more-than-reasonable cost.