Lost in the NBA Finals hoopla of arena air-conditioners and muscle cramps is the appreciation for the significance of the matchup itself – a showdown of attrition between two basketball extremes.
In one corner, the San Antonio Spurs have perfected a team game that is making basketball purists salivate. In the other, an otherwise mediocre Miami Heat team is riding the best player in world to a third consecutive championship.
Whether basketball is ultimately a team sport with individual roles or whether it is an individual sport within a team is a debate that is never far off the radar. Rarely, though, does this dispute get settled on basketball’s largest stage - the NBA Finals.
The critique leveled against the NBA has always been one of lack of team play. Then again, no successful superstar throughout NBA history has been able to win on his own. Hall-of-Famers were always playing alongside other Hall-of-Famers, often in multiples. Magic had Kareem and Worthy; Bird had McHale and Parish – even Jordan had Pippen.
Nevertheless, these respective teammates had defined positions. Jordan handled the scoring and the clutch shooting while Pippen handled the rebounding, passing and defending. On the Bulls, each greatly excelled in their own individual role. Through commercial mechanisms, such as Nike ads or SportsCenter reels, individual hero characters in the NBA were further promoted and enhanced. As basketball became one of the most popular sports in the world, the U.S. players, especially, primarily aspired to personal accolades. Team play was tangential.
Clearly, employing one of the best individual players in the world does typically bring about winning results, assuming, as any Knicks fan will tell you, that the player is multi-dimensional. The NBA has never seen a player with as many dimensions as LeBron James – certainly, no one who has actually justified “hero ball.” He is the prime manifestation of a generation of players with unprecedented individual skills.
James’s individual feats are unassailable, even by team metrics. With James onboard, the Heat was immediately catapulted to four Finals appearances in as many seasons. The team is the defending back-to-back champion with James hoisting the MVP and Finals MVP trophies in both seasons. In those seasons, however, James’s superstar teammates helped carry the load. This year, whether due to declining skills, questionable durability or mere fatigue, the Heat was essentially carried by James alone, reducing the remainder of the team to role playing.
While James’s contribution has remained consistent, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, the team’s other stars, have regressed. This season, they have collectively played less, scored less, rebounded less and adopted a matador-style defense. This Heat regular season was its worst since the trio joined forces, winning only 66% of their games. The Wade/Bosh combination has fared even worse in the 2014 playoffs. James’s individual effort now makes or breaks the team.
Nowhere did this become more evident than in Game 1 of the Finals.
Leading 86-79, the Heat controlled the game with 9:38 remaining when James came down with muscle cramps in both legs that effectively sidelined him for the remainder of the game. The Spurs immediately went on a 15-4 run on their way to a 110-95 blowout victory. Tellingly, the post-game focus was not on Heat players’ inability to fill the void, but rather on James’s incapacity to play through pain.
The result was discernibly different in Game 2. James scored 35 of the team’s 98 points and collected 10 of their 38 total rebounds. He personally scored 14 points in the third quarter – including eight straight to erase a Heat deficit – leading to their eventual two-point win. It has become apparent that unless James carries the team singlehandedly, it will not win another Finals game. A Game 3 loss further confirmed it. The Heat has become the prototypical team for productive individuality.
The makeup of the San Antonio Spurs is at the opposite end of the spectrum.
Stereotypically, foreign-nationals are perceived as superior team players. With the exception of Dirk Nowitzki, international players do not become individual stars in the NBA. Whether they are less skilled or better coached than their American counterparts, foreign players are typically more adept at moving the ball, being in the right position and carrying an average load within the team structure. As most teams draft or sign players with the best possible individual skills, arguably no NBA team has tapped into the full potential of foreign players – until the Spurs.
Even without Tim Duncan, born in the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Spurs’ 15-man roster has another eight foreign-born players. Six international players are featured in the team’s nine-man rotation. The only American players receiving steady playing time on this team are Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. The Spurs have been purposefully so constructed by coach Gregg Popovich, a surefire basketball purist.
As a military man, Popovich lacks tolerance for banality – as his interviews can attest. At the Air Force Academy, Popovich majored in Soviet studies and has a level of fluency in Russian and Serbian. He also starred on the basketball team where, in his senior year, he was the school’s team captain and leading scorer. Upon graduation, Popovich commenced his military service but remained active on military basketball teams that played in Europe in the 1970s. It was there that he realized the undiscovered frontier that was the foreign player.
In 1988, when Popovich got his first NBA job as a Spurs’ assistant coach, he was determined to explore this untapped resource. At that time, few scouts were assigned to the European game and hardly any coaches paid attention. There was a stigma associated with a foreign player. They were frail – physically and mentally – they couldn’t score off the dribble, they were slow, they didn’t play defense. Off the court, they wouldn’t learn English, couldn’t socialize, and distracted from team chemistry.
Popovich didn’t buy it. To him, they were still an undervalued asset that was not properly utilized. To some extent, he was vindicated. Today, most teams scout players worldwide. The NBA currently employs a record 92 players from 39 countries. But these internationals still play on U.S.-player dominated teams where they have restricted roles in limited minutes. Popovich has expanded on his theory that foreign players are more coachable, more hard-working and make better decisions on the court. Rather than playing a foreign player sparingly, why not have a roster full of such players?
As with James, it is difficult to argue with Popovich’s success. In his 18th season, he is the longest tenured head coach in the NBA. Popovich has won four championships and, save for his first season, has never missed the playoffs or had a losing record. This season, however, has been special. With a roster that, on paper, seems inferior to multiple NBA teams, the Spurs won the second most games in franchise history, earning their second-straight trip to the Finals. All the while, the team is impervious to traditional indicators of athletic success, such as youth, speed and individual skill.
The Spurs’ core in Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are 38, 32 and 36, respectively. 32-year-old Boris Diaw and other rotation castoffs in Patty Mills, Marco Belinelli and Thiago Splitter can scarcely be characterized as speedy. None of these players are skilled enough to break down a defense, be double-teamed or singlehandedly take over a game in any way. No one would argue that Parker, the team’s sole All Star, is on James’s level of play. Still, what the Spurs lack in individuality they make up in collectivity. Whether the team game is ingrained by foreign culture or whether used as a strategy to hide individual deficiencies – the players are eager to pass and move.
Compelled by Popovich, the Spurs have developed a flowing team-style motion offense where players rarely dominate the ball, shoot mostly open, well-positioned shots and make pinpoint passes leading to easy baskets. The Spurs are a Top-3 team in total assists and assist-to-turnover ratio. They are the second-best shooting team in the NBA overall while being the best three-point shooting team. The Spurs exude depth and balance through their bench, the best in the NBA.
In Game 1 of the NBA Finals, the Spurs had a gaudy 30 assists, twice as many as the Heat, while shooting 59% from the floor – including a remarkable 52% beyond the three-point line. Even in a Game 2 loss, where the team shot considerably worse inside the arc, the Spurs still racked up 26 assists. Although, the Heat prevailed, it needed an exceptional individual game from James to do so. When James was only able to put up 14 shots in Game 3 and the Spurs regained their shooting and passing accuracy, the Spurs were once again victorious.
However we would like to see the game carried on esthetically – the best style must be the one that leads to wins. What makes the 2014 version of the NBA Finals so interesting is the extreme juxtaposition of the opponents, where one team relies exclusively on the league’s best individual player while the other leans on the depth of its entire rotation. At the conclusion of this series, we may never again see such a highly competitive matchup resolving the game’s greatest philosophical quandary.
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