Although I haven't seen any official reports indicating the Spurs did not pick up the third year option of James Anderson's rookie contract, it's safe to assume that's indeed the case since the deadline to do so passed yesterday at midnight. As a result of the decision, Anderson will be an unrestricted free agent this summer.
The Spurs could have kept Anderson around for another season for approximately $1.57 million. By not doing so, the franchise dropped the first significant hint that this forthcoming offseason could be rather interesting. As Bruno pointed out in the Think Tank, due in large part to Tim Duncan's contract coming off the books, the Spurs could open up enough salary cap space to sign a free agent to a max contract. However, in such a scenario, Duncan would either have to retire or sign with another team for San Antonio to open up that much space.
A more likely scenario is the front office will offer Duncan a below market value contract with the incentive being that the team will have enough salary cap space to sign a significant free agent. For example, if the Spurs can sell Duncan on the idea of taking a $5 million deal, they could have more than $11 million to offer a free agent.
If you remember correctly, David Robinson's final contract with the Spurs was for $20 million over two years. If Duncan signs a similar deal, that would still give the Spurs the ability to open up enough space to outbid other teams who are only equipped with the mid-level exception.
It makes little sense to not pick up Anderson's option unless the Spurs are valuing every potential dollar they can save against next year's salary cap. $1.57 million is simply not much money at all -- it's less than $700K more than the minimum salary. For example, it's not much more money than the Spurs will pay to keep Malcolm Thomas around for the duration of this season.
If you go back to the beginning of last year, it looked like a 100% lock that the Spurs would pickup the option on Anderson. In the first six games of Anderson's rookie season, he was averaging seven points in 17.7 minutes per game, while draining 10-of-20 three-point attempts. Not only was he hitting his shots, he was playing well defensively and simply looked like a natural basketball player. Though a role player at the time, the fit was seamless and he flashed quite a bit of potential.
Unfortunately, after feeling pain in his right foot, an MRI showed a stress fracture in his fifth metatarsal. Anderson had surgery to insert a pin to help stabilize the bone. A couple months later, he was back on the court -- but he hasn't been the same since.
Shooting went from Anderson's biggest strength to his most glaring weakness. Last season, he hit just 8-of-26 three-pointers (30.8%) after his return. This year, he's even worse, having hit only 6-of-28 three-pointers (21.4%). For a player who hit 38% of his three-pointers in college and 50% of his three-pointers in the NBA, it's been a stunning drop.
At first, I attributed Anderson's drop in shooting accuracy to a small sample size exacerbated by an inconsistent role. But after researching the history of players who suffered similar injuries, I now think it's his injury that has sidetracked his shooting.
Travis Outlaw, Roddy Beaubois and Brandon Jennings all recently suffered similar injuries and underwent similar surgeries. Outlaw went from being one of the best bench forwards in the NBA to being literally the worst player in the NBA -- mostly due to a lost shooting touch. In his two years prior to his injury, Outlaw shot 39.6% and 37.8% on three-pointers, respectively. Last year, he shot 30.2% on threes. This season, the 27-year-old is shooting 14.3% from deep.
Beaubois might have seen his stock drop even further. After his rookie season, the Mavericks went on record as saying they wouldn't trade him for anyone outside of the two best players in the NBA. That year, he shot 40.9% on three-pointers. But after his foot injury, he shot 30.1% on threes in his sophomore season. Currently, Beaubois has gone from a player the Mavs built their marketing campaign around to a guy with an uncertain future in the league.
Jennings suffered his fifth metatarsal injury last season. Prior to his injury, he was shooting 36.7% on three-pointers (and he shot 37.4% the previous season). After getting the surgery and returning to action, Jennings was just 51-175 on three-pointers -- or just 29.1%.
Going further back in history, George Lynch had the same procedure prior to the 2001-02 season. He was coming off a season in which he shot 44.5% from the field and made 15 three-pointers. But after returning to action, Lynch shot just 36.9% from the field and made just one three-pointer in 45 games.
Bill Walton's career was derailed by a fifth metatarsal injury. Yao Ming injured his fifth metatarsal in 2006. Previously, Yao had only missed two games in his first three seasons in the NBA. After the injury, he was never healthy again.
And let's not forget David Robinson. The injury that forced him to miss the entire 1996-97 season? A broken fifth metatarsal. And while Robinson was still a great player after returning to action, he never did reclaim all of his previous athleticism (thankfully, he had athleticism to burn).
In researching fifth metatarsal injuries, the main reason why this injury is so damning is because the foot never regains complete mobility or stability. In fact, I read a study that shows that up to 40% of athletes will require further surgery after the initial procedure. Of the players I listed, Beaubois, Walton and Yao needed multiple surgeries.
Another player, Damion James for the Nets, injured his fifth metatarsal last season and underwent surgery. This year, he experienced more pain in his foot and tests showed he needed a second surgery and is now out for the season. (By the way, he too saw a drop in performance following the injury. The second-year forward shot 44.7% as a rookie but only 37.1% from the field this year.)
Could the Spurs have decided to not pick up Anderson because they don't think he'll fully recover? It's possible -- and the above examples show their skepticism may be valid. Even worse for Anderson is the fact that he suffered a fifth metatarsal injury to his left foot when he was in high school. I couldn't find an example of a player who had a successful career after injuring their fifth metatarsals in both feet.
That said, despite those valid injury concerns, I can't say that I agree with San Antonio's decision. Even though he's in the middle of his second season in the NBA, he's never had a full training camp (he had a hamstring injury last year) and has never had the opportunity to play in summer league. With as small as his third year salary would have been, I believe the right move was to allow him to play in summer league, put him through a full training camp and then decide his future.
During the lockout, Anderson was getting rave reviews everywhere he was working out. Jared Dudley of the Suns specifically named Anderson and called him a "great young prospect". In the abbreviated training camp after the lockout, Tony Parker said that Anderson was the most impressive young player in the practices. During preseason, though he was missing most of his shots, he showed quite a bit of skill.
While it's true that I don't know the full specifics of Anderson's foot injuries, and while it may be prudent for the Spurs to keep money off the books heading into a potentially busy offseason, this decision is questionable at best. Not that long ago, Anderson was considered a potential steal in the draft. Add in a very good start to his career and some rave reviews by fellow players -- and I just don't agree with cutting bait so soon.
Even if we just consider the injury angle, fifth metatarsal injuries may be career-altering in most cases, but they aren't usually career-ending. Jennings, for example, is now playing better than ever. Lynch was able to regain his previous form. Robinson, as we know, didn't let the injury derail his career. And though most athletes who've had the injury complain of pain in their foot even after the surgery, a few studies I read indicated that the pain tends to go away in 12 to 18 months. It's been less than 15 months since Anderson's surgery.
During the reign of Gregg Popovich and RC Buford, the Spurs have been amazing when it comes to the draft. It's been perhaps the best stretch of drafting prowess in the history of the game. But their one glaring weakness has been giving up on prospects too soon. Anderson was picked with the 20th overall selection, and though historically less than half of players picked in that area of the draft end up sticking in the league, I believe Pop and RC should have trusted more in their own ability to draft well. Keeping the book open on Anderson would have been a low-risk move with a potential sizable reward. Closing the book prematurely, in my view at least, is a much larger risk.