Breaking Down Each NBA Conference Finalist's Winning Philosophy
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No winning formula is the same in the 2013 NBA playoffs.
The success of the four conference finalists has nothing to do with payroll, nor does it follow a specific method of acquiring players.
Each franchise's ideology is different.
It's big spending versus proficient drafting and a protected dynasty battling a puzzle pieced together.
The defensive styles or offensive schemes may be similar, but the ways these teams have found success each follow a different philosophical model.
Miami Heat: Superstars for Hire
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In the summer of 2010, the Miami Heat purchased a dynasty.
There's nothing wrong with that. The greatest player of a generation hit the market, and Pat Riley and the Miami Heat created a landing pad plush with surrounding talent.
LeBron James joined Dwyane Wade, fellow free agent Chris Bosh and a collection of veteran talent that opted to take less money to play alongside the trio that demanded "not one," but many, many titles.
It's working out.
After an NBA Finals appearance in Year 1 and James' first championship last season, the beginning of the Heat's dynasty looks to continue this season.
Per an ESPN report from July 10, 2010, both James and Bosh were brought in as sign-and-trades on six-year deals at $110.1 million. Wade signed for six years too, taking a discount at $107.5 million.
With each run, the Heat collect the proper talent through free agency—such as Ray Allen or Chris Andersen—to support Miami's title hopes under the Big Three.
Of the four conference finalists this season, the Heat are the only team with a payroll in the top 10. At $83.78 million this season, the Heat have the fourth-highest payroll in the NBA.
Other than Wade, only Norris Cole (No. 28 overall in 2011) and rarely used forward Jarvis Varnado (second-rounder in 2010) are current Heat players drafted by the franchise.
To continue their philosophy of paying superstars, the Heat may have to get creative again in the summer of 2014 when all three superstars have early-termination options to become free agents.
Memphis Grizzlies: Trade Machine
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The smaller market of the Memphis Grizzlies, currently ranked 25th in payroll following the Rudy Gay trade, isn't a landing spot for free agents.
A three-season span from 2006-07 to 2008-09 included back-to-back 22-win seasons followed by a 24-win season. Things were bad in Memphis.
In 2007, the Grizzlies drafted Mike Conley Jr. when the team dropped against favored odds and into the fourth spot in the lottery, a fall that saved them from picking Greg Oden but also took away Kevin Durant. The following year, the team traded Kevin Love's draft rights for O.J. Mayo.
But rather than waiting on luck through the draft, Memphis began to force the issue.
Making the right decisions on trades has led the Grizzlies to the Western Conference finals for the first time in the franchise's history.
The team began its rebuild in 2008 by letting go of Pau Gasol to the Los Angeles Lakers, a trade that yielded Marc Gasol's draft rights.
“We couldn’t sit back and say over the course of Pau’s contract that we could get him LeBron, or Chris Paul or Paul Pierce,” Memphis general manager Chris Wallace told Jonathan Abrams of the New York Times. “We weren’t going anywhere as a franchise, and the town was totally apathetic about our team and we had to try something.”
It continued in 2009 when the other half the Grizzlies' interior was acquired when the team traded Quentin Richardson to the Los Angeles Clippers in exchange for Zach Randolph.
An additional piece was added in the summer of 2010 when the Boston Celtics didn't offer a three-year deal to Tony Allen, but Memphis did.
Most recently, on Jan. 30, Memphis sent away Gay to the Toronto Raptors in a three-team trade that brought back Tayshaun Prince, little-used Austin Daye and roughly $12 million.
Ed Arnold of the Memphis Business Blog wrote:
After the trade, Gasol and Randolph still make the lion’s share of salary, but the balance of payroll becomes more evenly distributed. Total cost of payroll after the trade is $62,294,877.
Now, the Grizzlies are four wins away from the NBA Finals by making the right trades and signing the right players, and the franchise has flexibility moving forward.
Indiana Pacers: Drafting with a Plan
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The balanced, defensively emphasized roster of the Indiana Pacers was built through the draft.
Give Larry Bird credit for his genius ideology.
As the Pacers' president of basketball operations, he directed decision-making from 2003 up until a day prior to last season's draft. He didn't just get lucky by collecting talent, though. Bird drafted with a plan to group defensive-minded players with character.
Though he is injured through this postseason, the current roster began by drafting Danny Granger with the 17th overall pick in 2005.
Skipping ahead years later, the Pacers then traded former center Jermaine O'Neal in 2008, which brought the rights to the No. 17 pick, 7'2" center Roy Hibbert, who was originally drafted by the Raptors.
Though Tyler Hansbrough went too early at No. 13 in 2009, even he adds to the identity of high-character players with team-oriented work ethic.
The drafting of Paul George with the No. 10 pick in 2010 has produced an All-Star and another all-around player that leads with his defense. That same draft, the second-round pick of Lance Stephenson seemed to escape the character path, but Stephenson is now showing strides of maturity and is the team's X-factor.
Even George Hill was brought in via a draft-day trade when the Pacers sent Kawhi Leonard's draft rights to San Antonio to acquire the starting point guard.
After creating a core through the draft, the Pacers added David West through 2011 free agency and Gerald Green through 2012 free agency. Indiana has flexibility to re-sign talent or chase new talent, as the franchise ranks 22nd in payroll.
For Indiana, drafting players with defensive tendencies created the foundation of the team that now faces the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference.
And it's all thanks to Bird's plan.
San Antonio Spurs: A Dynasty Maintained
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The San Antonio Spurs' dynasty has outlasted the rest of the NBA.
The Spurs won their first title in 1999, and again in 2003, 2005 and 2007.
Fourteen years later, the Spurs are back in the Western Conference finals.
How did they do it?
Well, maintaining a dynasty is about more than just retaining the trio of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, all of whom were drafted by the franchise.
San Antonio created a system under Gregg Popovich that is constantly tinkered with and given new talent to match the needs of the current recipe. The Spurs do it at a fair price too, ranking No. 12 in payroll.
The philosophy of the Spurs has been a testament to perseverance with their core. The Spurs have continued to add talent through the draft, free agency and trades that never shifted their base of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili.
When the team has made decisions, they seem to fit perfectly within the framework of San Antonio's needs.
At the forefront of strong trading is Kawhi Leonard, who was received on draft day in exchange for point guard George Hill. Parker just turned 31 years old in May, and it became clear that the need for Leonard at the wing was greater than a backup point guard. Because of it, the Spurs became longer and more athletic.
The team finds undervalued talents where other franchises do not. Ginobili was taken No. 57 overall in the 1999 draft and Parker was taken with the 28th pick in 2001.
The list continues with Cory Joseph (29th, 2011) and Nando De Colo (53rd, 2009). The team drafted Tiago Splitter in 2007 and waited for him until 2010, when he finally left his professional contract in Brazil.
Danny Green, who was a defensive stopper against Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors, is a three-point threat and a pivotal member of the Spurs. He is another castoff who was let go by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2010 and now remains under contract with the Spurs to be paid a total of $7.76 million for the next two years.
Matt Bonner was traded before the 2006 draft in a minor deal, and free agents Gary Neal and Boris Diaw were quietly signed for modest dollars.
San Antonio maintains its dynasty by never overreacting and always making minor adjustments to a product that's been proven for more than a decade.