Although the final public analysis of any NBA roster move is usually distilled to a few lines of explanation, every single decision that an NBA front office makes is a complicated one. Salary, fit, production, potential, age, redundancy, personality, character, experience, flexibility — all of these factors — and more — come into play, and it’s up to general managers around the league to make sense of lengthy lists of criteria in the name of making the best moves possible.
San Antonio Spurs general manager R.C. Buford has been “making the best moves possible” for over a decade. San Antonio’s enduring success isn’t merely a product of lucking out with Tim Duncan; it’s taken careful, deliberate work to build competitive teams worthy of San Antonio’s transcendent star, and further, more difficult work to keep the Spurs near the top of the Western Conference as Duncan has begun transitioning from star to nebula.
Buford had once hoped that Oklahoma State product James Anderson would be a useful part of that transition as a dynamic wing scorer, and he used the Spurs’ highest draft pick of the Duncan Era to select Anderson with the 20th overall pick in the 2010 draft. But Anderson’s projected rise seemed to fizzle out early; Anderson struggled to even make it onto the court in his rookie season, and couldn’t offer much on-court justification for the influx of playing time he saw earlier this year. All of that played into a decision that, on first glance, may seem a bit hasty: The Spurs have opted to decline their third-year option on Anderson, despite the fact that the once-promising scorer would only cost San Antonio $1.5 million to retain for the 2012-2013 season.
There are plenty of reasons why releasing Anderson actually makes some sense for the Spurs, despite his minimal price tag. But the most persuasive of which — and the factor that stands out amongst all others that Buford was forced to consider — is the emergence of third-year forward Danny Green. Buck Harvey of the San Antonio Express-News walks us through the logic:
So why not hold onto Anderson and see what’s there? Sure, Anderson wasn’t making shots, and he looked at times as if the game was too fast for him. But he was scheduled to earn only $1.5 million next year. Given the promise the Spurs had originally seen in him, and given that he hasn’t had much time to show that yet, didn’t it make sense to wait?
Those are the thoughts that made the Spurs hesitate…Still, the Spurs couldn’t get past what they had — too many wings. But it wasn’t Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard, Richard Jefferson or Gary Neal who changed the roster dynamics. It was Green.
If he had not emerged, those on staff say, they would have picked up Anderson’s option without thinking.
There are no guarantees the pecking order stays this way. Green could falter as the rest of the season progresses, and Anderson could rise. Wednesday night showed why the latter is still possible. The Spurs told Anderson they were not picking up his option just before the game against Atlanta, and he responded without sulking. They wonder if he will be better for this, as Green was after Cleveland cut him. Maybe it’s what Anderson needed to hear.
…But the Spurs aren’t betting on that. They are betting on a more complete player who they don’t have to wait on, and someone who will also be a free agent this summer. Green.
It’s a roster spot. It’s a guaranteed contract. It’s Danny Green, and Gary Neal, and Kawhi Leonard. But most of all, it’s a move that the Spurs have the luxury of actually thinking about; it could certainly be argued that that San Antonio is giving up on Anderson a bit too early by declining his third-year option, but the Spurs have put themselves in a position to evaluate Anderson’s future more fully thanks to their finds in the NBA’s bargain bin. Neal and Green truly came out of nowhere, and while both deserve praise for their ability to capitalize on a valuable opportunity with the Spurs, Buford and Gregg Popovich have earned their reputation by helping discarded role players in their vein consistently find their way up through San Antonio’s woodwork.
They just haven’t quite made it work with Anderson, and maybe never will. A declined option doesn’t necessarily mark the end of Anderson’s time in San Antonio, but considering the statement of the move and the dynamics that caused it, the Spurs seem to have the luxury of moving on.