Friday, July 9, 2010

Part 1: Executing The Plan

Reigning Black

(Note: The reported Jefferson agreement was -- at best -- premature. The following was posted July, 9 following Ticket 760's report.)

All eyes on the self-proclaimed King as he aired "The Decision," Gregg Popovich, R.C. Buford and Co. awaited the final verdict. The Spurs' front office awaited the biggest and most significant domino to be set into motion, as to reveal the landscape in its wake.

Thanks to Ticket 760 and the Union Leader, we now have an idea as to what this newly found landscape means to the Spurs -- the Spurs have apparently come to agreements with Tiago Splitter, Richard Jefferson and Matt Bonner, which would all-but complete their frontline and lock them into a roster with minimal addition, sans a trade.

Splitter -- a 25-year-old Brazilian bigman -- has long been on both the NBA and Spurs' radar. His draft status became a bit of a running joke, as word of his presence in it goes back to as far as 2004. He was thought to finally declare for the 2006 NBA Draft but with teams reluctant to use a high pick on him for fear of a contract buyout, Splitter would remain with his Spanish team. In 2007, at the age of 22, Splitter became automatically eligible for the NBA Draft. Still under contract and overseas with his Saski Baskonia team -- then sponsored by Tau Ceramica -- the Spurs would select him with the 28th overall pick in the NBA Draft.

Knowing full well Splitter was a year away from joining the team, the Spurs simply capitalized on an opportunity to draft a lottery talent that wouldn't otherwise be available to them. They were competing for championships -- just coming off their fourth -- and the value to be had with the 28th pick was just too great to pass on. Splitter would have another year to season his game in one of the finest leagues outside the NBA -- Spanish ACB -- and would seemingly be available to join the Spurs the following year. But confronted with a severely ill sibling and an economic downturn -- one that presented Splitter with an opportunity to sign a contract worth 8-times the rookie pay-scale the NBA had to offer -- the Spurs would have to wait at least another year. Splitter re-signed with his Spanish League team, Caja Laboral (Tau Ceramica sponsored Saski Baskonia before ceding way to Caja Laboral; like billboards... these things change), on a two-year deal that would keep him overseas through the 2009-2010 NBA season.

With Splitter aboard, the Spurs would finally be able to bolster their front court with some much needed youth, size and talent -- it's safe to say Splitter will be the most talented sidekick Duncan's had since his earlier years with David Robinson. Described by Spurs' General Manager, R.C. Buford, as being a bit in the Andersen Varejao mold, Splitter should be able to help out immediately. How much will simply be determined by how quickly he can transition to the size, speed and rules of the NBA. (L.J. Ellis of took the time to scout Splitter and give fans an idea of what to expect.)

Should the Spurs finally get Splitter to sign on the dotted line this week, their No. 1 offseason priority will have been met. They'll have achieved their best and most realistic goal. But whether the signing of Splitter will deem this offseason a success is anything but a certainty. They'll have had success -- no doubt -- but the extent of which largely depends upon expectation and the final result. For the Spurs and Spurs fans, it might be more appropriate to say: NBA Finals results.

The Spurs are also believed to have come to terms with Richard Jefferson, a player that stunned the team and most of the NBA world by opting out of a final year that would've paid him $15.2 million. Seeking a longer term contract and more guaranteed money, Jefferson looked to take advantage of a market long on cap room and shorter on talent. But with Jefferson coming off a truly sub-par year and his value being lower than at any recent time, he's found himself being confronted with the possibility of settling for a contract nearing the Mid-Level exception.

It's believed the Spurs will pay more than the Mid-Level ($5.765 million) but for how long and just how much more is unknown for the time being. But it would stand to reason that the Spurs might offer him a little more than his current market value, when you consider the amount of money his opt-out saved the team and the fact that they'll be locked into him for likely another 3-4 years -- an unnecessarily kind offer and a little good faith hopefully being enough to bring back a player ready to contribute and not sulk.

Jefferson still isn't an ideal fit but he's as talented a player the Spurs could bring in. And as Eric noted in The (15-million dollar) Situation, there's an opportunity for Jefferson to improve and find a way to become a much more useful component of the Spurs' attack. Whether another year in the system and some personal offseason-coaching from Coach Popovich bears fruit, remains to be seen.

Rounding out the trio of players said to have come to agreement with the Spurs is Matt Bonner. According to the Union Leader, Bonner and the Spurs have agreed to terms on a 4-year deal that would take him through the 2013-2014 season and is expected to exceed the $3.2 million he had been earning annually.

"I'm just very excited. I'm really happy things worked out, and I can go back to San Antonio. I'm really looking forward to the future," Bonner said.

Bonner -- a 4-year, 30-year-old veteran of the Spurs -- had received interest from Chicago, Dallas, Denver and New York after becoming a free-agent July 1, but he's found himself exactly where he wanted to be.

"In the end, if San Antonio was going to make a fair deal and give me a long-term contract, that's what I was looking for at this point of my career. To not have to uproot my family and my living situation and go back where I'm established and where my daughter was born, it's a great feeling."

It's no secret that the Spurs value Bonner, and that they probably value him more than most. He's beloved by the Spurs' staff and players and his skill set has become a priority over the years as a means to space the floor for Duncan, while keeping the paint open enough for Parker and Ginobili's penetrations. The NBA's plus-minus statistic has given credence to this notion -- as Bonner often finds himself with a positive number being recorded -- but a phrase popularized by the great Mark Twain could be argued holds just as much credence: Lies, damned lies, and statistics.

But given Bonner's skill set, there are some numbers that bear acknowledgement. Since Matt Bonner has joined the Spurs he's been among or just outside the top-5 players in PER (Player Efficiency Rating) on the team. And over the last 2 years he's found himself with a PER of 15 during the regular-season , a number that represents an average NBA player. But in the playoffs it's been a different story.

In the 2008-09 playoffs Bonner had a disastrous showing, as the Spurs were ousted by their upstate rival. Bonner's PER would fall from 15 to 3.3 and his shooting was nowhere to be found -- a regular season TS% (True Shooting Percentage) would fall from 61.1 to 31.4 and his eFG% (Effective Field Goal Percentage) would fall from 60.6 to 28.4. It was his first time tasting the playoffs with an entrusted role and it was only one series, but it was a poor enough outing to make one wonder. And as the 2009-10 playoffs rolled around with Bonner again being entrusted a role and place in the rotation, fans were hoping for the best and bracing for the worst. Bonner would indeed improve but, in all honesty, it's not hard to do when the bar's been set as low -- his TS% and eFG% would fall a little more than 2% -- remaining at respectable levels -- but his PER would fall from 14.9 to 8.6.

What PER would lead one to believe is that Matt Bonner is an average NBA basketball player. The majority of his minutes and the biggest sample size comes from the regular season and his 15 rating would deem exactly that: average. So the question isn't if Bonner is a solid player or maybe even the most talented bigman the Spurs could have behind the four bigmen assumed to be on the roster (Duncan, Splitter, Blair and McDyess), it's whether he'll be utilized and depended upon to play a role that views him as an average player and their fifth bigman -- a helpful and needed role to limit the minutes of Duncan and McDyess, while utilizing his skill set to improve spacing and the infamous plus-minus during the regular season.

Should the trio of Splitter, Jefferson and Bonner all ink their deals this week, the Spurs will have 9 players locked into guaranteed salaries next year. Throw in the inevitable signing of their first-round draft pick, James Anderson, and the Spurs are at 10. And depending upon how one reads into the comments of Coach Mike Budenholzer -- when asked about Malik Hairston's absence from this year's Las Vegas Summer League -- the Spurs could very well be at 11.

Garrett Temple and Alonzo Gee both have an opportunity to make the roster, and one almost assuredly will. The team's second-round pick, Ryan Richards, was thought to be a possibility of being signed and sent to the Spurs' D-League affiliate, Austin Toros, but contractual obligations could prevent that from happening. That would leave the roster between 12-14 and the Spurs would be armed with only their Bi-Annual exception and the ability to sign minimum contract players. That leaves 1-3 players that could still be added to the roster but it will depend upon how willing the Spurs are to carry 15 players this year -- which was helped by an increase to the luxury-tax threshold -- and if their two-year window of being a tax-paying team hasn't changed with the good fortune of Jefferson's opt-out.

In Part 2, we'll explore that very possibility. For as much that has changed with the opt-out of Jefferson, has the overall outlook and execution of a plan that was set to unfold over a two-year window as well? Has Peter Holt recouped some of the money he lost, or just come across some money that was meant to be spent and will soon be shortly?

Past comments, actions and the state of Spurs basketball, could reveal the answer.

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