San Antonio Spurs, Not Miami Heat, Are Now Favorites to Win 2014 NBA Title

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San Antonio Spurs, Not Miami Heat, Are Now Favorites to Win 2014 NBA Title
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The Miami Heat are two-time defending NBA champions.

In LeBron James, they have the best basketball player on terra firma performing at the top of his game.

Dwyane Wade is a sure-fire Hall of Famer, the best guard in the Eastern Conference and arguably the most accomplished No. 2 in the sport.

Chris Bosh is Chris Bosh. The supporting cast is littered with grizzled veterans who, on any given night, have demonstrated the ability to move the needle Miami’s way. And Erik Spoelstra is one of the five or so savviest coaches in the sport.

There’s still a lot to like in Miami.

But at the moment, the Heat are not favorites. That mantle now belongs to the San Antonio Spurs, who, through the sheer tidal force of their play, have clearly established themselves—at this particular moment—as the no doubt, argument over, seriously, don’t even try to argue about this best team in the NBA.

And it’s really not that close.

The Spurs have simply shellacked their competition in these playoffs. After a 62-win regular season (the best in the NBA) built on a point differential of 7.7 (again, the best in the NBA), San Antonio has somehow managed to play even better.

Against competition that combined to win 65.9 percent of its regular-season games, the Spurs have shot 50 percent from the floor, nailed 39.8 percent from the three-point line and outscored their shell-shocked opponents by 9.5 a night. That point differential would be the best in the playoffs since 2001.

The manner in which the Spurs are making the finest basketball teams in the NBA look like rank amateurs is just as impressive as the outcomes themselves. In the most Spursian of ways, everyone on this team is making meaningful contributions.

According to Basketball-Reference, every single member of the playoff rotation, save Tony Parker, is posting a win-shares-per-48-minutes average above .1—the league average. And Parker, at .086, is just a few classic Tony Parker games away from joining his teammates.

Six Spurs—so half their rotation—are posting a WS/48 of better than .15 so far in the playoffs. That’s 50 percent better than league average. For a point of comparison, Dwyane Wade posted a .149 this season. Five Spurs are at .18 or better.

Everyone is getting in on the action—largely by design. The Spurs pass the ball better than anyone in the NBA, according to a study by the Harvard Sports Analytics Collective (h/t Grantland’s Kirk Goldsberry).

San Antonio makes a lot of its hay from a particularly effective play called “The Hammer.” Grantland’s Brett Koremenos broke it down thus last season (h/t, again, to Goldsberry):

The Spurs’ Hammer action, in which a ball handler drives toward the baseline on one side of the floor in order to make a pass to a shooter floating toward the opposite corner with the help of a back screen, is a classic example of San Antonio sleight of hand.

The Spurs run sequences like this to flat perfection—leading to wide-open looks and things like, as Goldsberry mentioned, Danny Green’s 7-of-10 outburst from three Wednesday night.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Danny Green, here burying a triple over the league's MVP, was 7-of-10 from three-point land on Wednesday night.

This kind of sharing of responsibility—all for one, one for all—is an ethos as well as a tactic for San Antonio. Green himself, speaking with ESPN’s J.A. Adande, summed it up beautifully after Game 2:

It's about everybody. We're a family here. Brotherhood, whatever you want to call it. Fraternity. We've been together for a couple of years, I've grown very fond of a lot of my teammates, and we've grown close together, close friendships. I know how much it means to them, how competitive they are. As much as I want to win a ring, I know they want it, too.

And while San Antonio seems like it's managed better than ever—not a single Spur logged more than 30 minutes a night this season, which seems critical to their hyper-energetic May play; nice work, Pop—this is more or less the same team that fell to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2012 Western Conference Finals and the Heat last year in the championship round.

Yahoo’s Kelly Dwyer meditated on this remarkable fact after San Antonio’s Game 2 destruction of Kevin Durant and Co.:

That is what's so astonishing and admirable about this team, because as much as things have changed (the addition of [Kawhi] Leonard, who played just under 16 minutes in the blowout; the ascension of Green, Tiago Splitter), this truly is the same cast of characters in both 2006 (the big three) and 2012 (Boris Diaw, Patty Mills), working with a coach who thinks on his feet. Tony Parker (22 points in 28 minutes) doesn't appear to have lost a step, Manu Ginobili (facilitating as usual, 11 points and four assists in 22 minutes) still looks like he's in his prime every other game, and while Tim Duncan has slowed, he'll find other ways.

The Heat, meanwhile, simply look ordinary next to this bunch. Which isn’t a terrible indictment. At the moment, everyone does.

Where the Spurs get contributions from each component of the rotation, Miami is much more top-heavy—leaning hard on LeBron and, to a lesser extent, Wade and Bosh.

Where the Spurs are perfectly rested, the Heat are clearly exhausted. After all those extra games these last few years, LeBron played 37.7 minutes a night in the regular season and is logging over 40 so far in the playoffs. And this is a guy who admitted he was worn out in January.

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Of course, the fact that the Spurs are the better basketball team right now, and the favorite to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy next month, doesn’t count out Miami—or the Indiana Pacers or even the Thunder.

The Heat still have James, the NBA’s supreme predator. With a competitor like that around, anything—really, anything—is possible.

And the NBA playoffs, while having less variability than those of other North American professional sports, can still produce some pretty kooky outcomes. Injuries happen. Stars fade. New heroes emerge.

The 2013 Finals are instructive here. According to Inpredictable, before Ray Allen’s unbelievable three-point shot in Game 6, the Heat had 66-1 odds of winning the game and staying alive in the series.

Yes, 66-1. San Antonio is the favorite, sure, but the Heat have overcome longer odds than this.

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