Recently, the Spurs signed Rudy Gay to add yet another former star as a bench player. The Spurs thinking is pretty simple…The former star wants a shot at a title and is willing to give up shots and minutes for that chance. This deal happens a lot and results may vary. Famously, the 1985-86 Celtics brought in Bill Walton and he fit in beautifully and helped power the team to a title. Less famously, the 1985-86 Lakers acquired Maurice Lucas and, while his numbers were decent, there are legions of stories of how management thought he was not worth the hassle.
It seems that the Spurs have been in this market for such vets more than any other team over the last two decades. This is in part because the Spurs have been really good that whole time and, therefore, would be in the position to sign older stars on the cheap. But the Spurs also have long been known to have a strong culture of winning that appeals to vets more than most good teams.
With respect to Gay specifically, this isn’t a terrible gamble. He is cheap and can still score. But there is quite a bit of downside too. Many (notably Kevin Pelton), have noted that Gay is coming off of an Achilles tear and the bounce back record from such injuries has been quite mixed. Also, Gay’s best asset, shot creation is not really a huge need or natural fit for the Spurs’ motion offense.
More interesting to me, is to check the record Spurs’ veteran grab bags over the years. In that vein, we took a look at all the former stars that came to the Spurs since 2000 to see how each instance turned out. Some of these players were deeper into their declines than Gay is but we’ll look at any player that was once really good and was only recently in decline. We won’t count vets the Spurs acquired who were never perceived to be stars (like Steve Kerr, Danny Ferry, or Robert Horry) or players who were stars but were far removed from their star years before coming to the Spurs (like Terry Porter, Kevin Willis, or Antonio McDyess). With that said, here is the list:
-Steve Smith, 2001-2003: Smith was 32 when the Spurs got him from Portland for Derek Anderson (who was younger and forced a sign-and-trade to Portland). Smith’s knees were pretty shot at that point but he took the starting shooting guard slot in 2001-02, where he was able to hit open jumpers (in fact he led the NBA in threes at .472%). Smitty did have real problems defending or getting to the line. Worse, he did terribly against the Lakers in the playoffs (Kobe held him to .300% shooting in a 4-1 drubbing). By 2002-03, Smith was clearly a bit player off the bench, as his mobility was severely limited and he even struggled to hit threes (.331%). He hung around long enough to win a title with 2002-03 team but barely played that year. After leaving San Antonio, Smith bounced around at the end of a few benches for a few years.
-Glenn Robinson, 2004-05: The Spurs signing of Big Dog seems very similar to the Gay situation. Robinson was a scoring star small forward on the downside and had played mostly with bad teams. Robinson was on Philly in 2004-05 and was 32 and was only two years removed from a 20 ppg season. He sat out most of 2004-05 with injuries before being traded and cut. The Spurs grabbed him for the final nine games of the season and he scored 10 ppg in 17 mpg off the bench. Robinson’s per was solid at 17.2 and his usage stayed at his career average. Robinson’s playing time fell to 8.7 mpg in the playoffs andhbe was not good in that span (.356 FG%, 11.7 PER). The Spurs did not play him at all in the Conference Finals and he only had 14 minutes of garbage time in the Finals when the Spurs beat the Pistons. Robinson retired after the Finals.
-Michael Finley, 2005-10: Finley had been amnestied by the Mavs after the 2004-05 season. The Mavs loved him as a featured scorer but had given him such an absurdly large contract that he hamstrung their cap space. Finley was 32 in 2005-06 but still had played a ton for Dallas the prior season. His playing time fell from 36.8 mpg with the Mavs to a bench player with 26.5 mpg on the Spurs. Finley lasted over four seasons in San Antonio as a role player. He was certainly solid enough but wasn’t a star (11.0 PER and -0.8 BPM). To his credit, Finley did have a very nice run during the 2006-07 Spurs title run, so he earned some keep in the one title season the Spurs had while he was around. Finley was waived near the end of the 2009-10 and signed with the Celtics for one last shot at a title (they lost to the Lakers in the Finals) before retiring.
-Nick Van Exel, 2005-06: Van Exel came to the Spurs at 34. He had still been playing major minutes the season before but played only 15 mpg in his one season in San Antonio. Unlike Terry Porter from years before, Van Exel did not play well in the backup point guard role (11.0 PER, -2.8 BPM). Things were even worse in the playoffs, where Van Exel shot 7-32 (.219%) in only 11 mpg. He retired after the season.
-Damon Stoudamire, 2007-08: Stoudamire was also 34 and had been starting for the Grizzlies but was waived late in the season with Memphis going nowhere. Damon was not playing great (11.8 PER) at the time he was waived. Stoudamire was basically in the exact same spot as Van Exel in 2005-06 but he played even worse than Nick the Quick. In 31 games with the Spurs, Stoudamire had a ridiculously bad 4.6 PER and shot .301 from the field (43-143 shooting and only eight free throw attempts). The Spurs wisely kept Stoudamire on the pine for most of the playoffs (35 minutes in seven games) and he retired after the season. Nor did he get a ring because the Spurs couldn’t beat the Lakers in the Conference Finals.
-Richard Jefferson, 2009-12: RJ was never considered a huge star but he definitely had reputation as a very good player and was coming off of a 19.6 ppg for the Bucks when the Spurs signed him. The Spurs brought him in at age-29 to replace Bruce Bowen and hoped that getting a more offensively inclined small forward would get them past their competition. This seemed like a perfect fit but Jefferson struggled offensively for his two plus seasons. RJ’s PER hovered around 12 as a Spur and his usage plummeted from 24.6 with Milwaukee to 18.3. He was even worse in the playoffs those two seasons and the Spurs dumped him near the end of the 2011-12 season for Stephen Jackson (who himself had no value) and a draft pick.
-Pau Gasol, 2016- : Gasol took a deal to sort of replace the retired Tim Duncan last season. Pau’s minutes dropped but his rate stats were great (including his defense). The Spurs got waxed by the Warriors (thanks to poorly timed injuries and the Warriors’ general awesomeness) but Gasol was really good and, by far, the best of the late-model stars the Spurs have tried over the years. He is a free agent now but should still be good for someone next year.
-Not quite stars: The reacquisition of Stephen Jackson in 2012 and the more recent signings of Kevin Martin (2015-16) and David Lee (2016-17) are close to qualifying for the survey. The reason they aren’t considered quite there is because they had at least a season of non-featured scorer roles before coming to the Spurs. In any event, Jackson was bad in his return to the Spurs and annoyed Gregg Popovich enough to be cut in mid-2012-13 (a fact that still ticks off Jackson).
Martin had been a high scorer in 2014-15 (20.0 ppg) but had already fallen to a reserve role in 2015-16 for the Wolves (10.6 ppg). When he came to the Spurs, Martin played 15 mpg but shot poorly and also barely played in the playoffs. Like Big Dog, he retired after the season.
Lee had been a reserve for a couple of years before he came to the Spurs. In any event, Lee was very good for the Spurs last year too. He is another pretty good value free agent.
Looking at the older stars in total, we can see that the Spurs have had very few successes in the older former star market and quite a few failures. The most likely outcome, based on past history, is that Gay is just another decent reserve who used to be famous (a la Finley or Jefferson). This isn’t a bad thing but certainly not a difference maker.