SAN ANTONIO — The Spurs had another quiet trade deadline, despite needing to move on from LaMarcus Aldridge and having an opportunity to flip other veterans on expiring contracts for anything they could get instead of losing them for nothing.
While technically true, that line of criticism ignores how business has been done for decades in San Antonio, and failed to predict the surprising signing of Gorgui Dieng, who should play a backup center role the way the Spurs had hoped LaMarcus Aldridge would offensively, but with superior defense that elevates the team.
Aldridge and the Spurs agreed to a buyout shortly after they couldn't find a favorable deal at the deadline. The 35-year-old big man signed with the Brooklyn Nets, prompting tears about how the game was rigged from the same people who said mere months ago it would never work with Harden joining KD and Kyrie, and only one ball to put through the hoop over and over.
As Spurs fans know, non-Spurs fans don't watch a lot of Spurs games. Aldridge has name recognition after a very long, very successful career, but the seven-time All Star will never be that version of himself again, unless he finds the Fountain of Youth and mainlines it into his lower extremities. He can still produce, but not at that level.
LaMarcus is a great addition to the "All this to stop LeBron" style memes, like one of the former bodybuilders turned actors turned maybe governors on a poster for the next Expendables movie. He'll give you the part of his game that'll never go away, just don't expect him to push a train car down the tracks like he's 25.
Aldridge didn't leave the Spurs because he didn't see the team going anywhere and wanted to go to a contender. San Antonio spent a year growing away from LaMarcus Aldridge, and though he tried to grow with them, he wasn't fast enough for their future.
Read more about that here if you have the time, but here's the TL;DR: Aldridge shot more threes and posted up less, but he's pushing 36 and lost several steps defensively. He lost his starting job to Jakob Poeltl, tried coming off the bench, then he and the Spurs mutually agreed to part ways.
After the success with the faster style in the bubble, many questioned if he could keep up with the pace of the offense. He did his best on that part and deserves credit for it, but the defense was too big a problem to ignore, bringing down a group with too much potential on that end.
Buyouts are obviously not a great look for a front office, especially for big dollar amounts. It means that you've signed a player to a contract that became functionally untradeable.
In 2017, the Spurs extended Aldridge's contract through 2020-21, three more years at $72 million total. Signing an aging big man to a long-term legacy contract is a risk, and almost never a good one. San Antonio gave Pau Gasol a three-year deal for $48 million in the summer of 2017, and that was after he had turned 36.
Gasol shot more threes, but his legs quickly stopped putting his body where it belonged in a timely manner and he became unplayable defensively. It doesn't matter how many career points you have, or how many titles, or if you're bound to be in the Hall of Fame. That day comes for every player, and it's especially pronounced for big men.
The key is to not owe the guy money when that happens. San Antonio bought Gasol out less than halfway through the deal, he played three games in Milwaukee, and that was it for his NBA career.
It's an avoidable mistake the Spurs made twice that year, one they've hopefully learned from since. Still, it doesn't make sense that some fans cry about buyouts like they have to pay for them themselves. The ownership group is not passing a hat around asking for donations, they'll recoup their losses as best they can and move on.
Aldridge was owed $24 million total for the season, and San Antonio was able to reduce that by $7.25 million.
The Spurs didn't technically do nothing at the deadline. They traded a former G League All Star and international journeyman who never played a game in the NBA for an injured journeyman lottery pick and cash. Golden State moved Marquese Chriss to get out of the luxury tax, giving San Antonio back over a million dollars and a chance to rehab a former college teammate of Dejounte Murray, who still has potential.
They wound up cutting him to make room for a new acquisition, but Chriss will still have an opportunity to finish his rehab with the team. Murray said he hopes he finds a stable home in the NBA, and that could still be San Antonio in the future, but Chriss was never going to impact this year.
Poeltl has been a rock-steady starting center for the Spurs, but the cost of that promotion was losing him from a fantastic bench unit. Drew Eubanks brings great effort, but realistically should be the third center in a solid NBA rotation as an undersized center who only spaces the floor in desperate emergencies.
San Antonio's biggest unaddressed need after the trade deadline was backup center, the position vacated by Aldridge who never really wanted it in the first place.
Some wanted the team to go after Magic big men Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon, who went to the Bulls and Nuggets respectively for considerable, future-heavy returns. Others wanted John Collins, who remains in Atlanta on his expiring deal.
San Antonio parted with no picks and no players at the deadline. They traded no veterans for no picks, and immediately fans who had hoped the team would get something in return for Aldridge or Gay criticized the team's "we like the group we have" approach.
There are two sides to the buyout market, though.
Early reports came out Sunday that they would sign just the guy they needed, and Monday morning the team confirmed they'd bring in Gorgui Dieng.
The 31-year-old big who spent most of his career in Minnesota has averaged 7.8 points, 6.1 rebounds, 1 block and 0.8 steals per game in his seven-year NBA career.
This past season as a reserve in Memphis he hit 48% from deep, where he attempted nearly half of his shots. He weighs in around 250 pounds, stands at 6'10" and has a freakish 7'4" wingspan that helps him switch and disrupt plays defensively.
Bought out by Memphis as they prioritized the development of Brandon Clarke and Xavier Tillman, Dieng reportedly drew interest from the Nets, Heat, Sixers, Clippers, Suns, Knicks and Raptors.
If the question is whether or not the Spurs got better with Dieng, the answer is obviously yes as Aldridge was gone anyway. If the question is whether or not the Spurs are better off with Dieng instead of Aldridge, it's less obvious, but still yes.
Dieng was sought after for a reason. His contract was probably too much as this last year of the deal was worth over $17 million. He gave Memphis back just $700,000 of that in the buyout according to Bobby Marks, who said that Dieng was an upgrade for the Spurs over Aldridge.
"I don't think the people in Brooklyn want to hear this, but I would've taken Gorgui Dieng over LaMarcus Aldridge, and I think I would've taken Gorgui Dieng in LA over Andre Drummond. I think he's the perfect role player as far as what teams are looking for, and I think the Spurs actually upgraded with Dieng compared to Aldridge. We'll see how it plays out here, but that's my personal opinion on it."
Marks said that San Antonio signed him to a million-dollar deal using part of their mid-level exception.
In three games against the Spurs this year, Dieng averaged 13 points, 5.7 rebounds, 1.7 blocks, and 0.7 steals while hitting 14-20 from the floor and 6-8 from deep. In those games, he showed exactly what makes him such a good complimentary piece, especially when that unblockable trebuchet shot hits the bottom reliably.
Coach Popovich said that Dieng was an active player who shoots well for his size, and gives them a bit more depth. He noted that he's always played well against the Spurs, and said he'll see how long it takes to get him playing with the team.
Dieng has gotten in the face of both Devin Booker and Kevin Durant, but he had other reasons for coming to San Antonio instead of all those other teams.
He'll fit in nicely with this group of players, who drive and move and pick and roll and share. He explained that he signed here and not the other places because he likes the way the Spurs play, and feels comfortable here.
"They've got a good system, the ball don't stop, the ball moves around, they play together, it's a together team and they have a Hall of Fame coach," Dieng said. "I'm defensive minded, I can shoot threes... I'm here to serve the team. Whatever the coach wants me to do to help his basketball team, I'm willing to do it."
He said he wasn't sold by the Spurs on minutes, and that minutes would come if he plays well and contributes at a high level, which he's confident he can do.
Someone will inevitably ask, "So you're telling me the Spurs are better off with a career backup than a seven-time All Star with over 21,000 total points in his career?"
In this particular situation the answer is yes, and by a good bit.
In Dieng, San Antonio has found the perfect big man to round out their rotation for the rest of the year. He can anchor the defense and spread the floor for the bench unit. He can come in late in the fourth if Poeltl is in foul trouble, or in trouble at the foul line. He plays with an edge, won't back down from anyone, and brings a veteran presence without too many miles on his legs.
He can be a key contributor on a Spurs team that continues to improve, not in dramatic leaps, but in quiet, measured steps forward.