As soon as the clock struck midnight on July 1 to signify the beginning of free agency, NBA teams made a flurry of moves, instantly impacting how the rest of the market would shape up.
With 10 free agents, including two-time league MVP Tim Duncan and invaluable sixth man Manu Ginóbili, the San Antonio Spurs knew this would be one of the franchise’s most important off-seasons.
Among those teams to strike quickly, the Spurs locked up 2015 Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard to a maximum five-year, $90 million deal.
This move to re-sign Leonard, who was also the 2014 NBA Finals MVP, was the first domino that set up an eye-opening, historic off-season for San Antonio that highlighted the unselfishness of its players and the strength of its franchise.
Hours after signing Leonard, the Spurs agreed to a four-year, $45 million deal with versatile shooting guard Danny Green. Because Green is an efficient three-point shooter, as well as a good defensive guard, many thought he would get close to $70 million and that it would be hard for the Spurs to keep Green. In the end, he gave up more money to stay in San Antonio.
With two new contracts on the books, the Spurs traded away center Tiago Splitter and his $8.5 million contract to the Atlanta Hawks. This was a move the team made to clear up cap space for the Spurs’ big free-agent target: Portland Trail Blazers power forward Lamarcus Aldridge.
In order to try to land Aldridge, a four-time All-Star, the Spurs lost several key role players. Aron Baynes signed with Detroit, Marco Belinelli left for Sacramento, and Cory Joseph went to Toronto. These were players the Spurs would have liked to keep, but ultimately the team needed the cap room.
Because Aldridge is a Dallas, Texas, native who attended the University of Texas at Austin, the Spurs were a favorite to land him and groom him to take over once 18-year veteran Tim Duncan, who committed to returning to the Spurs on July 2, eventually calls it a career.
About eight teams met with Aldridge, including the Spurs and Lakers twice. During the second meeting he had with Spurs coach Gregg Popovich — which convinced Aldridge to sign with San Antonio — the coach reportedly told Aldridge he’d be the one carry the torch after Duncan was gone and that Popovich would coach the four years left on his contract.
“Anytime you have the chance to learn from the best power forward to play the game, that’s priceless,” Aldridge said at his introductory press conference. “It’s an honor to even be in this organization. The organization is first class, and this is a great opportunity to win and be close to home.”
Two days after Aldridge committed, Ginóbili took to Twitter to say he’d return for his 14th season. “Happy to announce that I'm coming back next season. #gospursgo,” he said.
With Duncan and Ginóbili returning, and point guard Tony Parker still in San Antonio, the Big Three will stick together for at least one more year. Together, Parker, Ginóbili, and Duncan have built a dynasty, bringing five championships to the Alamo City. In the 18 years Duncan has played in San Antonio, the Spurs have not missed the playoffs.
Duncan was there to take over when Hall of Famer David Robinson retired, and that’s the plan now with Aldridge, who along with Leonard and Green will form the next Big Three.
The team wasn’t done, though. Forward David West opted out of $12.5 million in Indiana to instead become a free agent. He signed with the Spurs for a veteran minimum of less than $1.5 million, taking an $11 million pay cut to play for a contender.
The Spurs got three players, Aldridge, Green, and West, to sign for much less than they could have gotten elsewhere, something Duncan and Ginóbili have done for years. The Spurs have shown that winning does matter, and these players have defied the common belief that pro athletes only care about money. These players want to play for a winning team with a chance at a title.
In what was a pivotal time for the Spurs as they enter a new era, they were able to pull off genius moves to once again put themselves in title contention while solidifying their future.
Photo: Eric Gay/AP