Wow. What a series. Not exactly exciting, per se, but it was amazing nonetheless. Just watching the well-oiled machine from San Antonio dominate in every way possible was stupendous to watch. Series like this one show that when Duncan, Parker, Manu, and Pop all finally retire, the Spurs will keep on rolling on as they always do.
So, if you recall, before the Finals (well actually it was during them, but whatever), I wrote a piece talking about what was at stake for each important player in these Finals (if you didn’t, check it out at https://sushionsports.wordpress.com/2014/06/09/what-these-finals-mean/). Well, now that the Finals are over, let’s take a look back and a look forward for what these Finals have meant. Let’s start with the Finals MVP.
The Finals MVP, obviously, had a very good series. The question is whether or not this series shows that he can become the next Spurs superstar, following in the steps of George Gervin, David Robinson, and Tim Duncan.
He’s a good player, sure, but he’s not an elite scorer. He’s a very good defender, hassling LeBron all series, but does that make him fit to lead the Spurs into the future?
The accepted requirement for a superstar is to be an elite scorer and the crunch time guy for his team. Leonard doesn’t exactly fit those requirements. He’s not an elite scorer (although he’s capable of scoring more than twenty points a game) and he doesn’t have the ball in his hands at the ends of close games. However, I don’t think it matters all that much.
The Spurs ecosystem is such that all five players on the floor are supposed to pass up good shots for better ones and that anyone can score at any given moment, so the individual scoring numbers for Spurs are generally suppressed. Leonard doesn’t need to score 25 points a night for San Antonio to be considered a superstar, because that’s not what’s needed of him by his team. Along those same lines, as I said earlier, because the Spurs always look for the best shot no matter what, even in crunch time, Leonard can’t get every crunch time play run for him. Leonard can’t be a superstar by those traditional requirements because, again, that’s not what San Antonio asks him to do.
All Leonard needs to be able to do to be considered a superstar by the standards of the Spurs is to take over when it counts, like Tim Duncan. Duncan always knew (and knows) when, to win the game on any given night, that he needed to, let’s say, score twenty points and grab ten rebounds. This was an important quality of Duncan’s, as it allowed him to really turn it on in big games and to lead his team to victory.
As shown by these Finals, it’s pretty clear that Leonard knows how to take over in important games and that he has the capability to lead the Spurs into the future and to assume Duncan’s mantle as the face of the franchise.
Duncan, already the best power forward ever, is now pushed up even higher up the list of the greatest players. By my estimate, he’s pushed past Bird (only won three titles, had a loaded team, didn’t last as long as he could have due to injuries) and Magic (was the second banana to Kareem for much of his career) and is even with Bill Russell for the third best player ever, behind Kareem and MJ. In fact, I think Duncan is better than Russell because while Russell won eleven titles in thirteen years to Duncan’s five, Russell played in a much weaker era with better teammates than Duncan.
There are a few notable similarities between Duncan and Russell: Duncan is a great teammate and is very unselfish. Russell was like that too. Duncan always shows up for big games. Again, just like Russell. Duncan even shares the same reticence and privacy that Russell had half a century ago.
Almost as important, Duncan now clearly asserts his dominance as the best post-Jordan superstar. The runners-up, in order, are LeBron, Kobe, Wade, and Shaq.
Shaq won four titles and was dominant whenever he wanted, but about a third of his career was while MJ was still around, so he’s technically not a true post-Jordan superstar. Also, he failed to become what he could have been had he tried and worked harder, so he was unable to get the maximum amount of points that he could have earned.
Wade won a title by himself, and won two titles and two runner-ups in the Finals in a subservient role to LeBron. As he only played at a high level for a few years before breaking down due to injuries, it’s tough to give him full credit.
Kobe won five titles but three were in a secondary role to Shaq’s. His teams also haven’t had success when he was the only star on his team and his team has won 45 or fewer games multiple times, so he loses points there.
If LeBron had won this year, he’d top this list, but even so, because of his runner-up finish this year, he still moves past Kobe to spot number two. He could have been even better and more dominant, but he never really stopped messing around and started really working on his game until after the 2011 Finals loss to Dallas. He’s accrued as many honors as you can get as an individual player and has had three runner-ups in the Finals and two championships, all as an alpha dog, so it’s impossible to put him lower than second on this list.
Duncan now has five championships, along with a resume so long that the Spanish-speaking announcers during the World Cup wouldn’t be able to say the whole list in just one breath. Those accolades are what make him the best post-Jordan player.
Another way that Duncan broke new ground is in adaptability. At the start of his career, Duncan and the Spurs relied on post-ups and slowing the game down. After the rule changes midway through the decade, they changed course to become a player and team that are essentially 3-and-D, along with great ball movement and selflessness. This transformation was impressive and it just adds to the legend of Tim Duncan. Whenever he decides to retire, the league will sorely miss him.
The Spurs Way (and International Players):
Speaking of adaptability and selflessness, the Spurs Way has proven its’ use throughout the series and the entire season. We’ve already discussed the stylistic and strategic changes that the Spurs have made, but let’s talk about a few other components of the Spurs Way.
- Only high character guys. They haven’t had a bad character guy since Stephen Jackson, way back in 2003. Since then, they haven’t risked any locker room cancers and instead have focused only on players that can contribute to a healthy locker room.
- Passing and unselfishness. All you need to know about the Spurs’ offense is that when announcers say that so-and-so made the “extra pass”, members of the Spurs just hear “the right pass”.
- International players. An astounding NINE of San Antonio’s players are not from the United States (compared to zero on Miami). There must be something about international players that the Spurs have discovered that makes them inherently… better, I suppose, (although I was thinking about “different, but in a good way”) that the Spurs now use to their advantage. Something that I find to be, perhaps, indicative of the gap between international and American-born players, is what happened in Game 1 of the Finals, the infamous Cramps Game. American players like LeBron were felled and couldn’t function properly, while players like Tony Parker and Tim Duncan were used to the brutal conditions. Parker said that it “felt like [I was in] Europe… We never have AC in Europe, so it didn’t bother me at all” while Duncan said that he hadn’t played in conditions like this since he “left the Islands” where he was born. Be it that international players are tougher, more skilled, or anything else, they, and the Spurs Way, brought the title back to San Antonio, a pretty powerful endorsement of them.
The Spurs Into the Future:
The Spurs are in good shape for the future. Of the San Antonio Big Three, Parker remains in his late prime, while Duncan and Ginobili, while clearly past their prime, remain good players and will be able to play for as long as they want. They have the future leader of the franchise, Leonard (as we talked about earlier), and a number of good players alongside him. They have around ten million dollars in cap space this summer and they can manufacture good players out of thin air. As long as R.C. Buford, Gregg Popovich, and Tim Duncan all help run the team in some capacity, the Spurs will be in good shape.
How can you blame LeBron? Here’s a chart that showed the Heat’s EWA, or Estimated Wins Added by Heat players during the Finals (courtesy of ESPN Stats and Information:
LeBron had nearly two, Bosh had about a half, and the rest of the Heat dragged LeBron down. The chart pretty much says that LeBron was dominant and incredible, Bosh was decent, and that the rest of the Heat were garbage, pulling LeBron down with them.
No matter how good LeBron might be, he can’t win one on five against the Spurs. LeBron was guarded by Kawhi Leonard, (who defended LeBron perfectly) but since the Spurs didn’t have to pay much attention to anyone on the floor other than Bosh, they could help onto LeBron to make it much harder for him to score. And, because there weren’t any scoring threats on the floor other than him, (apart from Bosh) he couldn’t rack up assists and get his teammates easy points when the Spurs helped off of them to guard him instead.
This wasn’t 2011 against the Mavericks all over again. In that series, LeBron forgot that he was LeBron and that he is unstoppable when he decides to be, and did nothing for minutes at a time, losing him a title and a lot of respect from the world. In these Finals, LeBron did everything that he possibly could. This time, LeBron didn’t lose the Finals; the Heat did.
And that’s really what these Finals should be about: Miami didn’t lose the Finals as much as San Antonio won them. Miami didn’t choke away a victory as much as San Antonio went out and got it. San Antonio outclassed Miami in every way, and rather than blaming LeBron for the shortcomings of his teammates or talking about how Miami sucks, we should all be applauding the Spurs for the marvelous tutorial on how to play the sport of basketball. That’s the story that people should take away from these Finals. It’s possible that we will never see the level of offense that the Spurs exhibited during this series ever again, so why squander it by blaming LeBron for something that isn’t is fault? Honestly, I think that we should all just take a moment and appreciate the rarity and history of what we were lucky enough to see.
The 2015 Heat:
Outside of three early termination options (from Bosh, LeBron and Wade) and a player option (from Udonis Haslem) (the difference between EWOs and POs is that the former is ending the deal a year early while the latter extends the deal an additional year), Miami only has just over four million dollars on their cap for 2014-2015 (from Birdman, Norris Cole, and Justin Hamilton). This gives them the freedom to improve. However, it may not be easy as that. Just to bring back their three stars, unless they take a massive pay cut, will be somewhere around 50-60 million dollars combined. Wade alone, when he picks up his player option, will be around a 20 million dollar cap hit. It’s almost impossible to be able to perform enough cap gymnastics to get around that.
Remember, this is a team that got solidly beat in the Finals. Just keeping their players (who are, keep in mind, all getting older) won’t be enough. They need to add a number of supporting pieces, but they don’t have the cap space to do it. Next year, even if they bring back LeBron and Bosh, they’ll be an older and shallower team, even weaker than they were this year. The Heat are in bad shape for the immediate future (or at least as bad as you can be when you just were the runner-up in the Finals) and it’s going to be interesting how they manage to deal with their bleak outlook for 2015 and beyond.
The Decision 2.0.:
How does this series affect LeBron’s decision? As we mentioned earlier, this series, it was LeBron (with some Bosh) against the Spurs. His teammates (again, excluding Bosh) were useless. Miami’s options to upgrade the team are almost nonexistent. Wade will accept his player options for the next two years because it’s a lot more money than he would get on the open market. Why would LeBron want to stay in Miami when he has to carry the team by himself, accept less money, and only be a championship contender because the Eastern Conference is complete garbage?
I’ve been advocating all along for LeBron to go to the Clippers (you can check out a few of my prior articles for the reasons why). An interesting direction that LeBron leaving Miami for the Clips might push the league towards is a league of superstars, rather than a league with individual teams. Instead of cheering for the Heat or the Thunder, fans will cheer for LeBron or KD, independent of the team they play for.
The NBA would never allow that to happen because it would push way too much power to the players, which could lead to an intriguing scenario: the players leaving the NBA and forming their own league, to officially take control of the basketball league away from the NBA. Here’s an article about that very concept from about two years ago, during the lockout: http://grantland.com/features/we-need-renegade-basketball-league/. It’s co-written by my favorite writer, Bill Simmons, and it’s certainly worth a read.
The ideas that the article proposes are fascinating and it wouldn’t be a stretch of the imagination to see this possibly happening. If the players took over and made it a players’ league, the NBA couldn’t do anything to stop them, the players would make more money with fewer restrictions, and we’d all get to finally stop seeing stars force their way to one team or another, because a star would own and run his own team. There’s no downside for anyone other than the owners of NBA teams, and if it ends up happening, that’d be one of the coolest things in the history of sports.
Speaking of cool things in sports, go turn on your TV and watch the World Cup. It’s been great so far and it’s worthwhile to watch. An article recapping the first slate of games for each team should be up, at the latest, within 24 hours, so if you haven’t watched the World Cup so far but want to get into it, you should check that out along with the last article I posted, previewing the World Cup.
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