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Monday, June 16, 2014

Spurs' Teamwork Overwhelms Heat's Star-Centered Approach

The San Antonio Spurs swept LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers in James' first NBA Finals appearance, they nearly dethroned James' defending champion Miami Heat in the 2013 NBA Finals and then in the 2014 NBA Finals they completely dismantled a star-studded Heat team that was trying to win a third straight championship. The 2013-14 San Antonio Spurs are a remarkable team. They set an NBA single-season playoff record with 12 victories by at least 15 points and they won the championship despite the fact that none of their key players is in the prime of his career, which is unusual if not unprecedented. The Spurs have the greatest power forward of all-time (Tim Duncan), a perennial All-Star point guard (Tony Parker), one of the league's top sixth men/third options (Manu Ginobili) and a young, versatile star in the making who has enormous untapped potential (Kawhi Leonard)--but Duncan, Parker and Ginobili are all past their primes, while Leonard may still be two or three years away from his prime.

Parker is generally referred to as the Spurs' best player and Leonard won the 2014 NBA Finals MVP but I think that Duncan is not only the Spurs' best player but that a good case could be made that he should have won the 2014 NBA Finals MVP (I felt the same way after the 2007 NBA Finals); Duncan provides a significant low post presence for the Spurs at both ends of the court, making the game much easier for his teammates. Duncan no longer posts gaudy individual statistics, so "stat gurus" and conventional-thinking media members alike fail to appreciate his contributions, but he is the one common denominator for all five of San Antonio's championships (along with Coach Gregg Popovich) and that is not a coincidence.

Much is made in some quarters about how "stat gurus" have reshaped the NBA landscape by supposedly unearthing the value of three point shooting but it does not take "advanced basketball statistics" to realize that a .333 three point shooter produces as many points as a .500 two point shooter if they both attempt the same number of shots. Jacking up three pointers from all angles because three pointers are "efficient" does not win championships; if that strategy worked, then Mike D'Antoni's Phoenix Suns would have been a dynasty and the Houston Rockets would have already won at least one title in the Daryl Morey era. The reality is that three point shooting can be a good ingredient in a championship recipe if that recipe also includes paint attacks (by posting up and/or driving) on offense, good floor balance and tenacious defense. If one or more of your key players shoots a lot of three pointers while also acting like playing defense leads to a terminal illness then your team will not win a championship, no matter how "efficient" your team looks on paper. 

The Spurs routed the Heat with pinpoint passing, excellent defense and tremendous discipline; borrowing a phrase used by chess champion Susan Polgar, the Spurs accepted their devastating 2013 NBA Finals loss with grace and they won the 2014 NBA Finals with dignity. The Spurs are a joy to watch for any basketball purist.

In contrast to the Spurs' balance, the Heat have four future Hall of Famers (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Ray Allen), two of whom are in their primes (James and Bosh) and two of whom are filling reduced roles that they should be more than capable of handling at the current stages of their respective careers. The numbers say that James was very productive during the 2014 NBA Finals and that he did all he could reasonably be expected to do--but the eye test says that he rarely dominated and that he often was not the best player on the court. James' talent is unquestionable and his mental game has grown by leaps and bounds but there is something missing when he faces the highest level of competition. His teams are now 2-3 in the NBA Finals, a record that does not compare favorably with the ABA/NBA Finals records of most Pantheon-level players:

Bill Russell: 11-1
Michael Jordan: 6-0
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: 6-4
Magic Johnson: 5-4
Julius Erving: 3-3
Larry Bird: 3-2
Wilt Chamberlain: 2-4
Jerry West: 1-8
Oscar Robertson: 1-1
Elgin Baylor: 0-7

Erving and Bird each suffered two Finals losses to teams that featured Abdul-Jabbar and Johnson. Jordan went 1-0 against Johnson sans Abdul-Jabbar in Johnson's final full season. Russell defeated the West-Baylor duo four times and once he defeated a Chamberlain-West-Baylor trio. Also worth mentioning are the career NBA Finals records of Kobe Bryant (5-2), Tim Duncan (5-1) and Shaquille O'Neal (4-2), the three most dominant players of the post Michael Jordan era other than James. This additional context shows that Russell's Boston Celtics repeatedly frustrated Chamberlain, West, Robertson and Baylor--but most players who can make a reasonable case for being the greatest player of their era (if not of all-time) won at least three championships and did not have a losing record in the Finals.

James is a great player; he is the best player in the NBA, the 2014 regular season MVP vote notwithstanding. He may set the record for most regular season MVPs and he still has an opportunity to win more championships. However, as things stand right now he is not a more dominant champion than several of his great predecessors--and the argument that those great predecessors had more help can be countered by pointing out that they also faced teams that had multiple future Hall of Famers in their primes. James leading the Heat to four straight NBA Finals appearances and two championships is a laudable accomplishment--but a slightly past his prime Kobe Bryant led the Lakers to three straight NBA Finals appearances and back to back championships with a supporting cast that was not as deep or as talented as James' Heat. James is not as terrible as his harshest critics suggest--but if he were as great as his biggest fans believe then he would have done more in his prime with two Hall of Fame sidekicks than an aging Bryant did while playing alongside Pau Gasol (who was 0-12 in the playoffs before teaming up with Bryant), Lamar Odom (who never made the All-Star team, never mind being a future Hall of Famer), Andrew Bynum (who put up Luc Longleyesque numbers during the Lakers' three straight trips to the Finals) and the ghost of Ron Artest.

Wade's career has followed an interesting arc; his productivity has steadily declined since 2009, when he averaged a career-high 30.2 ppg and won his only scoring title. Wade has not made the All-NBA First Team since 2010, when he was 28. Wade used to be a good defender but this season he made James Harden look like a defensive stopper; not only did players routinely blow by Wade but Wade often did not make the slightest effort to recover and in open court situations he trotted back on defense as if he were lugging two pianos on his back. The Heat rested Wade liberally during the regular season to keep his body fresh for the playoffs and there is no indication that something is wrong with Wade physically; it just seems like he no longer plays as hard as one would expect an elite player to play.

Size matters in the NBA and having a complete skill set matters, particularly for an undersized players as he ages. Wade has always only had one plan of attack: bull toward the hoop, overpower any defenders in his path and either finish at the hoop or hope to be bailed out by a foul call in his favor. He never developed a reliable jump shot and he has shot better than .800 from the free throw line just once in his 11 year career. Wade has not aged well because his game is not nearly as well-rounded or adaptable as Jordan's or Bryant's; Jordan and Bryant both had the necessary height and skill set to compensate for declining athleticism.

Yet, even a declining and/or disinterested Wade would still be the number one offensive option if he played for the Spurs; the Spurs did not beat the Heat because of superior talent (though superior depth was a factor to some extent) but rather the Spurs beat the Heat because they maximized the abilities of their stars while making the Heat's stars feel uncomfortable. Duncan has diversified his offensive game, Parker has added a jump shot to his arsenal and former All-Star Ginobili has learned how to make the most of limited minutes/field goal attempts--but Wade is still trying to do the same things that he did in his prime, with much less success.

Bosh may be the most misunderstood future Hall of Famer in the NBA. He is a versatile and intelligent player who receives senseless criticism because of his willingness to take a back seat to James and Wade. Bosh averaged 24.0 ppg and 10.8 rpg in his final season with the Toronto Raptors before joining the Heat, so he clearly possesses elite level talent and the ability to be a number one option for a playoff team--but he understands that for Miami to be successful he must accept being the third option offensively and he must be willing to function as an undersized center defensively so that the Heat can run most teams off of the court with their athleticism and defensive pressure.

The Spurs' championship window supposedly slammed shut many years ago but if they had just been able to close out game six or game seven of the 2013 NBA Finals they would now be the reigning two-time defending champions. It will be interesting to see if the Spurs are able to keep their aging nucleus together but even if some of their older players retire they may still be a viable contender if Leonard emerges as an All-Star/All-NBA caliber performer. Meanwhile, the much younger Heat nucleus may be broken up or may decide to break itself up; if all of the rhetoric that the "Big Three" spouted three years ago about sacrificing money to win championships is true then those players would no doubt accept pay cuts so that the team can bolster its depth--but Wade has publicly stated his unwillingness to do this, so James may therefore decide that the time has come to team up with a sidekick who is younger and/or has a more diversified game than Wade.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:43 AM