San Antonio, that bastion of NBA continuity, isn’t often a major player on the free agent scene. The roster simply hasn’t allowed it for it; between Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, and now Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs have had major salary commitments to solidify a winning core. The maintenance of a contender costs, and no team in the NBA maintains as effectively as San Antonio.
This summer, as should now be obvious, was quite different. The Spurs spent the opening days of free agency wooing All-NBA forward LaMarcus Aldridge, a player deserving of the kind of cap space San Antonio has rarely had available. On Saturday the agreement between the two teams was announced by Aldridge himself on Twitter and then reported in detail: Aldridge would join the Spurs on a four-year max deal worth $80 million.
Forces at work around the league had aligned to make the Spurs’ play for Aldridge possible. In San Antonio, the decision by Leonard and the team to forego an earlier extension was essential. An official agreement would have functionally doubled the amount that Leonard’s salary would have counted against the cap. That San Antonio was also able to agree to a new deal with Danny Green secured another valuable player at an amount, thanks to his lower cap hold, lower than his actual 2015-16 salary.
That Aldridge could be convinced to leave Portland at all, however, might stem back to the injury that changed the Blazers season. Had Wesley Matthews Achilles’ held rather than torn, Portland’s season could have played out quite differently. Their playoff matchup would have likely been different. Their performance in the postseason would undoubtedly have been different. And, given a final stretch of relatively disjointed play, the attitudes in and around the Blazers organization would likely have been different.
It helped, too, that San Antonio could offer Aldridge something that no other realistic free agent destination could: A chance to join a top-tier contender. The market this summer materialized as such that the Spurs were by far the best basketball option available to Aldridge. Portland, Dallas, and Los Angeles were all worth hearing out. The roster and prospects in San Antonio were just too brilliant to ignore, and their cap outlook allowed for the pursuit of Aldridge at the perfect time. After all, if Aldridge’s expiring contract had aligned with the salary cap boon of the NBA’s new TV deal, the Spurs would be just one of the contenders in the running for his services rather than the sole contender in a position to sign him.
Everything came together for the Spurs: The perfectly timed cap holds, Leonard’s willingness to play ball, the ability to unload Tiago Splitter’s salary to Atlanta, the Portland exodus, and the telegraphed willingness of Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili to take considerable paycuts. It took good luck and ideal timing. Yet a franchise as well run as San Antonio can make the most of those breaks, both with the flexibility the team worked hard to preserve and the cachet it organically earned.