Monday, December 1, 2008

News from the End of the Bench

Last season the San Antonio Spurs handed out an inordinate number of 10-day contracts to players who had no hope of playing a meaningful minute for their club. Because of their ownership of the Austin Toros, the Spurs like to use 10-day contracts like extended interviews. They'll bring in a prospect to see how he looks in practice, to better assess his character, and gauge his ability to gel in the locker room. League rules stipulate that 10-day contracts expire after 10 days or 3 games, whichever comes first. Each franchise can award a single player with no more than two 10-day contracts per season; after their 20 days are up, the club either has to part ways or tender a partially-guaranteed deal.

The Spurs were the first to the 10-day punch this season by calling up last year's D-League Rookie of the Year, Blake Ahearn, from the Dakota Wizards. Graydon covered the story here. That was back on November 16, which means that Ahearn, who has just been assigned by the Spurs to the Toros, received a pair of 10 day contracts prior to Thanksgiving. Ahearn, then, has now received a more substantial deal from San Antonio. If 10-day contracts are interviews in San Antonio, Ahearn won the job.

Some Spurs fans may be questioning the wisdom of signing Ahearn--but not because Ahearn is a poor player. From what I can garner, Ahearn is an NBA point guard, although he'll spend most of his time at the end of the bench. The confusion is why the Spurs have signed Ahearn when they already have 4.5 points on roster (Parker, Hill, Mason, Vaughn, sometimes Ginobili)? Meanwhile, the Spurs continue to age at the wing and are thin up front. If they're grooming players for the future, why not at a position of poverty rather than one of plenty? It's a good question.

After giving this some thought, I believe the Spurs have made a smart move here, even if it's not immediately obvious. Let me explain.

Jacque Vaughn is on a expiring contract. If the Spurs were to swing an in-season trade, his deal, although small, is likely to be dealt. At any rate, the Spurs will not re-sign Vaughn in the offseason, especially with the advent of Roger Mason and George Hill. So, in theory, Ahearn is being groomed as Vaughn's replacement.

If you're smart you're asking, "why would the Spurs go through so much trouble to groom a player for their future inactive list?" The answer makes sense when placed in the light of two other salient considerations.

First, the Spurs want to be in a good position in 2010. Right now, their cap number for that year is at 35 million. This is great, although it's a number that accounts for only 4 players (Duncan, Parker, Hill, Mahinmi). The Spurs will have Ginobili's Bird Rights and a tough decision on the non-Bird status of George Mason. They have money to spend, but they're in a hard spot. They want to allow room for a big free agent signing but they still need to fill out the roster. The best way for them to do this is through the Toros.

In other words, if the Spurs can develop 3 0r 4 deep bench players--players who nonetheless belong in the NBA--through the Toros, they'll be able to fill out their 2010 roster with affordable players, on partial-guarantees, and will not have significantly cut into their 2010 nest egg while doing so. Keep in mind, the Toros run the same offensive and defensive sets as the Spurs, which means that any players developed there will be in a great position to succeed once they join the parent club. Donnie Walsh is not the only GM prepping for 2010 with '08 roster moves.

Related to this is the question of how Ahearn's signing fits with the 2009 free agent season. The Spurs cap situation will restrict them to exception money, and their 2010 ambitions will, more or less, restrict them to 1 year contracts of veteran players. In all likelihood, multi-year deals will only go to non-guaranteed minimums. In others words, training camp invites, rookies and D-League finds such as Ahearn. With Vaughn's near certain departure, the Spurs are now in a position to fill their 2009 3rd point hole with a quality player that will be knowledgeable of their system.

If they sign him, and a couple players like him, to a multi-year deals, the Spurs are able to honestly pitch a quality nucleus of Parker, Duncan, Hill, Mahinmi, (Ginobili?), and a supporting cast of carefully-groomed, knowledgeable role players who have been brought up to keep the elite pedigree in tact. Given their championship history, storied front office success, and lots of zeros at the bottom of a contract, it's an offer that will demand serious attention from most free agents.

Of course, the Ahearn signing affects the Torors as well. They'll be very good this season, one of the best two or three in the NBDL, because the Spurs are so pro-active in setting their roster with parent club hopefuls. The Toros currently have at least 4 players on their roster that could be sitting on a big-league bench: Ian Mahinmi (assignment), Blake Ahearn (assignment), Malik Hairston (2008 Spurs draft pick), and Marcus Williams (played in NBA last season, 2007 Spurs draft pick).

The Dakota Wizards can't be happy with this development. In essence, the Toros just poached the Wizards best player through their powerful big league intermediary, whose long tentacles rise up from San Antonio and reach into every D-League city. And it might not stop with Ahearn.

The Spurs will continue to operate in this manner so long as they have roster spots available and there are quality players to call up. The Spurs seem committed to Ahearn, which means you keep a bag packed if you're name is Anthony Tolliver or Jacque Vaughn. Vaughn, as mentioned early, is the Spurs best candidate to be traded (his minimum deal means the Spurs could move him for nothing in return) or waived. Anthony Tolliver, on the other hand, is not playing terribly well and is on a non-guaranteed deal. My guess is that at least one, perhaps both, of those players will not finish the season in San Antonio. At the very least, it's to San Antonio's advantage to keep the last roster spot in rotation on a long series of 10-day contracts.

This guess is bolstered by the promising early season play of Austin Toro Malik Hairston. Hairston was the last cut from the Spurs training camp roster, and his preseason defensive play had many Spurs fans hoping he'd land in San Antonio. There is still time for that, but Hairston is definitely on the radar of any NBA team looking to fill out their bench with a swing. On Saturday, Hairston went for 33, 7 and 6.

The problem the Spurs face with Hairston is not whether or not he is an NBA player--he likely is. The problem is whether or not he fits long term. Put simply, the Spurs will not have any minutes for him at shooting guard, and he is probably more of a 2-3 than a 3-2. Could he play NBA minutes at small forward, where the combination of Finley, Bowen and Udoka must eventually give way to youth? Hairston is only 6'6'', but sturdy-framed. There is no way of knowing, but I suspect the Spurs have some sort of wink-wink right of contract agreement with Hairston's agent. In other words, if another NBA team reaches out to him with a 10-day contract, the Spurs will have to decide whether to end the Anthony Tolliver experiment and match the offer of Hairston's suitor.

Meanwhile, Ian Mahinmi continue to rehab slowly in Austin, with the operative word being "slowly." He was held out of Saturday's game, presumably because it was a back to back. The early returns suggest that he is still several weeks away from returning to San Antonio. Nevertheless, I'll stand by my prediction of December 14.

Update: Subsequent to my original draft, a friend kindly pointed out that 10-Day contracts do not begin until January 5, a simple CBA rule that should have registered with me. Prior to January 5, players such as Blake Ahearn are simply given non-guaranteed deals that pay on a game-to-game basis. In principal, this changes nothing except that fact that the Spurs are not constrained by time/game limits. I would consider Blake Ahearn's current stint with Austin an "extended interview" with the benefit of additional time. In other words, by jumping on Ahearn prior to January 5, the Spurs simply provide themselves a longer window for evaluation. Nevertheless, readers should be aware that the second paragraph of this post is inaccurate.