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Is Tony Parker’s $50 million deal a smart move for the aging Spurs?

The Spurs answered one of the season’s simmering questions by signing Tony Parker to a four-year, $50 million contract over the weekend. The deal removes Parker from the 2011 free-agent market and ensures that San Antonio’s core will have two more seasons to chase a title, assuming Tim Duncan does not choose to terminate the final year of his contract and become a free agent after this season.

In this sense, the Spurs have made the clichéd comparisons with the Celtics even easier: Both are built for title contention over the next two seasons, with the future after that uncertain.

The Spurs, though, have given themselves a much higher degree of post-2012 certainty than the Celtics. And that certainty, for now, is built around Parker, Richard Jefferson and the team’s young contributors: George Hill, DeJuan Blair, Tiago Splitter and James Anderson. The Spurs have made the playoffs every season since drafting Duncan, and this core is probably good enough to continue that streak through at least the 2012-13 season.
But is it good enough to keep the NBA’s model franchise in title contention once Duncan is gone? After all, that’s the goal in San Antonio, right? After four championships, there can’t be much interest in winning 48 games and jostling for the No. 7 seed every season.

Let’s start with Parker, who, as Tim Varner at 48 Minutes of Hell noted, is actually taking a pay cut from his $13.5 million salary this season in this new deal; Parker will earn, on average, $12.5 million per season over the life of his extension.

Where does that put Parker in the point guard salary hierarchy?

For now, only five point guards will have a higher average annual salary starting in 2011-12:

1. Deron Williams ($17.1 million)
2. Chris Paul ($17.1 million)
3. Baron Davis ($14.3 million)
4. Chauncey Billups ($14.2 million, though only partially guaranteed)
5. Gilbert Arenas ($20.8 million), who is not really a point guard anymore

But of those players, only Arenas will make more than the $50 million Parker will be paid over the total length of his contract. In other words, the Spurs have made a huge commitment to a speed-based point guard who will be 32 when his new deal expires. The deal also means the Spurs will not have any significant cap space until after the 2012-2013 season, but also that they likely won’t have any lottery picks in that span, either. And lottery picks remain the easiest way to land a young star.

Of course, it’s impossible to evaluate this deal completely until we see what the new collective bargaining agreement looks like. Either way, though, the Spurs can at least feel comfortable that they did not have to blow Parker away with a max-level deal as the Hawks did for Joe Johnson (who, at 29, is nearly a year older than Parker and has played almost the exact same number of career minutes) and the Grizzlies did for Rudy Gay.

Still, will this San Antonio core be good enough in the post-Duncan era to truly contend? And if not, can the Spurs manage to snag the talent necessary to contend without the aid of a lottery pick?

Barring some sort of roster adjustment, the Spurs will not have the cap space necessary to sign a marquee free agent until the summer of 2013, when Manu Ginobili’s contract comes off the books. Even in that 2012-13 season, the first without Duncan’s monster deal, the Spurs will have about $47 million committed to these seven players, according to ShamSports: Parker, Ginobili, Splitter, Blair, Jefferson, Anderson and Matt Bonner. And that’s before you factor in salary for draft picks and Hill’s extension, due after next season.
So, if the cap is anywhere near where it is now ($58 million), the Spurs are stuck without much cap room until after the 2012-2013 season. And by the time they get the cap room necessary to sign a star player, Ginobili may be headed to retirement.

When you look at things this way, it’s hard to see how the Spurs can realistically contend for a title going forward. It makes you wonder if the Spurs should have looked harder for a way to deal Parker for a promising young player and a lottery pick, and it really makes you wonder how much the NBA trade landscape changed when the Knicks dealt their 2012 first-rounder to Houston in last season’s Tracy McGrady trade.

But this is a small-picture way of looking at things. What is an NBA general manager supposed to do? There is rarely a quick-fix solution that solves all an organization’s problems and instantly sets it up for the next five years. All a management team can realistically do is hold on to valuable assets, hope those assets continue to develop and eventually strike gold in the draft or by using those assets in a trade that makes sense.
The Spurs have shown they can find solid players – even stars – outside the lottery.

Grabbing a top-five pick is still the easiest way to rebuild on the fly in the NBA, but smart organizations can stay among the elite by keeping their core together now and nailing one or two key decisions later. That’s the path the Spurs chose by re-signing Parker.

No team is given the gift of guaranteed future title contention. Take a look around the Western Conference. The Lakers are getting older and have zero cap flexibility until after the 2013-14 season at the earliest. The Blazers have a great young nucleus, but what happens if Greg Oden doesn’t turn into a reliable NBA player and LaMarcus Aldridge never takes the leap from “very good player/borderline All-Star” to “dominant big man”?

The Mavericks and Nuggets will face huge roster turnover over the next two seasons, and the Thunder, perhaps the closest thing to a sure-fire future title contender, will soon run out of easy ways to upgrade their roster.

So don’t count out the Spurs just because they appear just short of being a future title contender. As long as the R.C. Buford-Gregg Popovich team is in place, you’d be wise never to count out the Spurs.


1. The Heat turning into a defensive menace

I like the Heat turning into a defensive menace. This was by far the most significant thing that happened in the NBA over the weekend, and it should be frightening to the rest of the league. The Heat suffocated the Magic on Friday in one of the most jarring regular-season performances I can remember. The Magic are machines. Sure, they’re vulnerable when the threes don’t fall or their perimeter players don’t get good looks with the shot clock running down. But 70 points? A mere seven shot attempts at the rim?

Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy lives to avoid mid-range shots, but the Magic attempted 17 shots from between 10 and 15 feet out against Miami. They attempted just 5.6 shots per game from that range last season, the fourth-lowest number in the league. The Magic missed a few open looks, but I’ve never seen Orlando look so desperate in any game in the last three seasons.

As Kevin Arnovitz noted over the weekend, the Heat have committed to becoming a revved-up version of the Michael Jordan-era Bulls on defense in the sense that it will be the perimeter and wing players – not the big men – who shut down teams. I watched about three-dozen of Miami’s defensive possessions against the Nets on Sunday in slow motion, and I can say this: I can’t remember the last time I saw a top NBA team help so aggressively, so regularly. The Heat are committed to sending whatever help is necessary to stop a team’s first option, because they’re confident they can scurry back in time to at least disrupt the second and third options. LeBron James was literally running across two-thirds of the court to help on Brook Lopez, confident that he (or someone else) could get back and bother Travis Outlaw in the corner if the Nets managed to swing the ball there.

It’s hard for casual fans to appreciate defense sometimes. That won’t be the case with the Heat.

2. Peja Stojakovic getting benched

I don’t like Peja Stojakovic getting benched, which happened Saturday in New Orleans’ win in San Antonio. Nothing against Hornets coach Monty Williams, who has a few perimeter scoring options to juggle now that Jerryd Bayless is on the team and Marcus Thornton seems to have recovered from his horrific preseason. It’s just that the DNP-CD was a reminder that we’re coming to end of the line for Stojakovic, one of my all-time favorite shooters to watch.

3. Chauncey Billups’ “Mr. Big Shot” nickname

I don’t like the “Mr. Big Shot” nickname for Chauncey Billups. How long has Billups been trading falsely on a few clutch shots he made in 2004? Let me be clear: Billups is a wonderful player. He’s a stabilizing force who rarely turns the ball over and understood, before a lot of folks did, that taking a lot of three-point shots is much better than taking a lot of long two-point shots. Billups is a very good three-point shooter, which has allowed him to remain an efficient offensive player despite an overall field-goal percentage that hovers around 42.

Billups is 8-of-29 (including 1-of-10 from three-point range) after three games, continuing a slump that started at the FIBA World Championship over the summer, and it’s fair to question whether the Nuggets really need him taking so many pull-up threes. And the “Mr. Big Shot” thing? Billups shot decently in the clutch last season, but has spent most of the last eight seasons chucking up bricks in late-game situations, according to 82games.com.

This is less a Billups problem than it is a leaguewide problem, since teams revert too easily to predictable isolation jump shots late in games. And, to some degree, Billups deserves credit for shouldering the burden of taking those shots for Denver. Not every player is cut out to do it. But Billups is not a uniquely clutch player and never has been.

4. The Charlotte broadcasters referring to Gerald Wallace as “Crash” in the run of play

I like the Charlotte broadcasters referring to Gerald Wallace as “Crash” in the run of play. This is the sort of homerism I like – the homerism of familiarity, not rah-rah cheerleading. “And here’s Crash from 18 feet.” “And there’s Crash with a rebound in traffic.”

{It’s a great nickname, and the Charlotte crew breaks it out in calm tones as part of its regular dialogue, and not by screaming, “That’s why they call him Crash, folks!” when Wallace falls to the floor. Good stuff.

5. The Hawks’ announcers acting shocked and appalled that the referees called fouls on Atlanta players who actually fouled John Wall

I did not like the Hawks’ announcers acting shocked and appalled that the referees called fouls on Atlanta players who actually fouled John Wall. Seriously: If a guy is dribbling the ball at you, and you bump of him off his path, even subtly, that is a foul. And in case you missed it Saturday night, Wall did a lot of that in taking over the game during a 10-minute stretch in the second half. Everyone saw Wall (predictably) falter in his debut against Orlando, but only League Pass junkies saw Wall immediately reveal his true potential in his next game.

Wall drew four two-shot fouls in the last 3:01 of the third quarter Saturday, and by the third foul, the Atlanta crew began raising their voices, hinting that Wall was out of control and wondering what, if anything, the Hawks were allowed to do to impede him.
Here’s a hint: You’re not allowed to foul him. Or, you are, but then he gets to shoot free throws.

6. Rick Carlisle’s military buzz cut

I like Rick Carlisle’s military buzz cut. But didn’t the Dallas coach have a full head of hair, like, last season? If that is what is hiding underneath my hair, I’m never getting a buzz cut. Still, I like that Carlisle went for it.

7. Jay Triano’s comments about going for the free pizza against the Cavs

I like Jay Triano’s comments about going for the free pizza against the Cavs. Fans who attend Raptors games can exchange their tickets for a free slice of pizza if the Raps crack 100 points. And with 10 seconds left in a blowout win over Cleveland, Marcus Banks hit Leandro Barbosa for an alley-oop to give the Raps 101 points. Free pizza!

Cavs coach Byron Scott appeared gruff after the game when asked about the last-second dunk and the pizza promotion. But Triano didn’t hold back in defending his team, according to USA Today:

“You know, how many years did we watch them dance down there with all the hoop and hollering and everything? It’s a different team so it probably wasn’t the right thing to do to score, but our fans come to these games and they’re going to be here to support us for 41 games and we play this team three more times.”

I’m with Triano here, even if this is a bit like picking on the bully when the bully has a broken leg. This isn’t pee-wee hoops or even high school ball. The Cavs are professionals, and it’s their job to play defense for 48 minutes. There’s no such thing as running up the score in the NBA.

8. The New Jersey crowd’s half-hearted booing of LeBron James

I don’t like the New Jersey crowd’s half-hearted booing of LeBron James. Note to fans: If you’re going to do the whole “boo this player every time he touches the ball” thing – and that’s a fun thing to do! – you have to commit to it. You can’t suddenly cheer him after a couple of monster dunks.

9. The Nic Batum bandwagon

I like the Nic Batum bandwagon. Get on while there’s still room. After three games: average of 15 points on 60 percent shooting, including 47 percent from three-point range, seven rebounds, two assists, one steal, one block and lockdown defense against any wing player – or point guard – unfortunate enough to be stuck one-on-one against Batum with the shot clock running down.

10. The Luis Scola All-Star campaign

I like the Luis Scola All-Star campaign. I’m going to take credit for starting it on Twitter over the weekend, though someone, somewhere must have beaten me to it. The Rockets might be 0-3, but have you been watching Scola? Holy cow. He’s averaging 27 points (on 57 percent shooting) and 14 rebounds, and watching him go under, around and through superior athletes in the post is one of the most glorious things in the NBA.

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