This was hardly a roman candle that came out of nowhere on the Fourth of July. It was a carefully managed, brilliantly-executed plan.
Think of all the things the Spurs have been able to accomplish over the past two decades:
— 18 straight trips to the playoffs.
— 16 consecutive seasons of 50-plus wins.
— 5 NBA championships.
Now this might be the slickest trick of them all.
LaMarcus Aldridge jumps from the Trail Blazers to the Spurs.
While so-called glamour franchises in New York and Los Angeles keep floundering in their bids to reclaim relevance, little ol’ San Antonio finds a way to keep barreling down the tracks like a locomotive toward championship No. 6. And maybe 7 and 8.
Just more than 12 months after their last celebratory river parade with an aging roster, the Spurs have made the transition to the next stage of the franchise with a move that was both brash and bold, but also a long time coming.
For even as general manager R.C. Buford and his staff kept juggling a roster built around the aging core of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker to annually compete for championships, they were always looking ahead to this day when the future merged with the present.
“My complete faith and trust in R.C. is never going to change, because of the track record he has,” head coach Gregg Popovich told Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News. “He’s always thinking not just for the next year and the next two years, but the next three years, the next seven years, that type of thing.”
By making all of the necessary moves — trading Tiago Splitter to Atlanta for a handful of beans, letting Aron Baynes go to Detroit, Marco Belinelli to Sacramento — Buford has set up the Spurs not only for next season but perhaps the next decade.
For so many years, the Spurs and their fans have proudly worn the label of a franchise that builds championships rather than buys them. They were the ones that defiantly took down — and ultimately broke up — the Monied Mercenary Miami Heat of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
But the game of pro basketball is a business and the business is about making the most proficient, often the shrewdest, moves to stay on top of the competition.
Of course, the Spurs will be right back among the teams at the head of the Western Conference class in 2015-16 with a front line of Duncan, Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard. With this nifty Texas two-step, the Spurs, who lost in the first round of this year’s playoffs, are suddenly 2-1 oddsmakers favorites to win the West, ahead of champion Golden State and Oklahoma City, and 4-1 to win it all, behind only LeBron and Cleveland.
Let’s not forget that with literally billions of dollars being thrown around in the free agent market in less than a week, Buford locked up Aldridge for four years (player option after third) at $80 million. It’s a number that will look positively pedestrian net summer when the salaries shoot through the clouds with the influx of new TV money. It almost looks that way now when you consider that Orlando will pay Tobias Harris $64 million over the same time frame. Go ahead, compare Aldridge and Harris.
But just as important, with Aldridge at 29 and Duncan at 39, the Spurs will be in the thick of the contending pack for the foreseeable future. That had to be the decision-making difference for Aldridge after he heard pitches from Portland, L.A. Phoenix, Houston and Miami. Whenever the ageless Duncan finally decides to hang up his spurs, Aldridge has a 24-year-old running mate in Leonard, the 2014 Finals MVP, to keep churning ahead with perennial chances to add to the banner collection.
Don’t think that’s a tough trick to pull off without hitting bottom and suffering the bruises and indignity of suddenly finding out how life feels in the draft lottery? Just ask the Lakers and Knicks.
As carefully and strategically as Popovich has managed the minutes of his veterans over the years to keep them fresh, Buford maneuvered and managed the salary cap with the flexibility of tiny gymnast to make this day possible. It was never just a year-to-year reach for one more playoff run, but a decade-long plan to transition to the future. All the while the Spurs were stacking up Larry O’Brien Trophys, they were keeping an eye on this critical summer when 10 contracts were timed to come off the books at the same time.
“We put the team together with that in mind,” Popovich said.
Sometimes the best-laid plans work out perfectly.