Contrast breeds conflict, and it's always more exciting to act like opposing teams are symbols of separate ideologies, doing battle for much more than a trophy. We imagine that if the Spurs win a ring, it'll be a triumph for team basketball. And if Miami succeeds, we'll view it as the legitimization of one transcendent star's career.
Polarization simplifies things. Exaggerating differences makes it easier to choose sides, to engage in the bizarre fantasy that the team we root for somehow defines what we believe and communicates our value systems.
Plus, you know, it's more fun.
But the Heat and Spurs really aren't so different. In fact, they've got a whole lot in common where it counts.
You never put them away. I think they always believe and it's the same with us. You can't, you won't put us away because we're always going to believe. That's why this is a perfect, different animal kind of series. They're the other team like us. They don't lose much and when they do they come back and be better in the next game. So we've got to come out and do the same thing.
It's not just success and a refusal to accept defeat that links these two teams. Looking deeper, there are actually a couple of profound foundational similarities.
Both the Spurs and Heat operate with clearly established pecking orders, top-down setups that keep everyone in line and eliminate potential power struggles long before they start.
LeBron James sits atop Miami's hierarchy, and it was Wade's willingness to take a back seat that allowed him to sit on the throne unchallenged. Everyone falls in line beneath the two-time MVP, with Chris Bosh and Wade operating as second and third in command.
Role players and veterans fill out the rest of the ranks, and Mario Chalmers, forever the Heat's scapegoat, sits at the bottom. Everyone knows what's expected, and no one tries to shake up the ordered approach that has resulted in so much success over the past few years.
Tim Duncan is San Antonio's top dog, and he's earned his spot through nearly two decades of quiet dominance. Tony Parker may be the key figure in the Spurs offense and Manu Ginobili embodies the team's competitive fire most strongly, but it's Duncan who everyone looks to for leadership.
And while Timmy won't talk about his insatiable desire to win like James sometimes does, he gets the same respect from his teammates. That, in turn, keeps everyone on the roster in line.
Timothy Varner of 48 Minutes of Hell describes Duncan's quieter, but similarly effective brand of leadership:
This doesn’t mean that Tim Duncan is any less concerned about winning — four championships and an all-time great win percentage (regardless of sport). But his path to the winner’s circle is different. No halftime rah-rah, motivational spiels, or primal chest-thumping.Â He’s never intimated that some unquenchable desire to win resides deep within his soul. Winning does not flow from who Tim Duncan is, it flows from what he does.
As a corollary to the shared concept of a hierarchy, both Miami and San Antonio have head coaches who've succeeded in the difficult task of earning an entire NBA roster's unequivocal trust. Or, as the phenomenon is more commonly referenced, they've earned a complete buy-in.
Erik Spoelstra's achievement in this regard is markedly more impressive than Gregg Popovich's. That's no knock on Pop, but Spoelstra is younger, came up unheralded through the coaching ranks and isn't the same kind of naturally authoritative presence the military-trained Spurs coach is.
Plus, Spoelstra had to deal with a pieced-together roster loaded with otherworldly talent and outsized egos. Toss in the pressure of managing expectations after the Big Three formed up, and the fact that Coach Spo, as James calls him, won the faith of his team is even more remarkable.
And Spoelstra has tested the limits of his team's loyalty by implementing bold new strategies, the most notable of which was the team's switch to small ball two years ago. It was an unconventional move many players in other situations would have resisted.
But the Heat got on board right away, and the results have spoken for themselves.
In addition, Spoelstra has convinced a collection of superstars to commit to a style of defense that is exceptionally taxing. Miami has made four straight Finals largely on the strength of its aggressive, scrambling defense. And though there have been plenty of notable lapses in effort over the years, we've never once heard a Heat player question the system.
Popovich's Spurs have a similarly unshakable faith in their coach's direction.
We've heard San Antonio players and staff talk constantly about moving the ball in these Finals, and that's a direct line from the school of Pop. The Spurs famously give up good shots in favor of great ones, and the vilest sin in San Antonio's sacred offensive text is slowing down the beautiful ball movement that leads to so many terrific looks.
We will now read a selection from The Book of Popovich, if you'll all please turn to chapter six, verse 19 in your Coach Pop edition of the Spurs Gospel:
He who forsakes his own offense for the betterment of his brother's shall know true happiness, though no praise shall issue from the mouth of our leader, for he is a demanding master who expects such unselfishness always, forever and ever. Go, Spurs, go.
Pop has also morphed the Spurs over time—from a grind-it-out horror show of grisly defensive efficiency to the high-octane assault we know today. No matter the style, he's earned a complete buy-in from his players.
So although Spoelstra and Popovich exist in different circumstances and approach their jobs in dissimilar fashion, they both own the total trust of their players.
We're Not So Different, You and I
Built vs. bought.
Substance vs. style.
Grit vs. glitz.
We love these binary ways of thinking, and admittedly, it's not a total stretch to apply them to the Spurs and Heat. But the truth is, these two teams are more alike than they are different—strange as it sounds.
Sure, the surfaces appear distinct, but the foundations in Miami and San Antonio rest on identical pillars of team ball, trust and the singular focus of winning championship rings. And in making those concepts the core of their respective organizations, the Heat and Spurs share something else in common: They've both figured out what really matters in constructing a winning team.
Talent certainly helps, but a high-functioning system led by a star and presided over by a brilliant coach makes success practically unavoidable. Egos disappear, roles are happily filled and wins just pile up by the truckload.
So as these two strangely similar clubs continue to do battle in their Finals rematch, expect them to anticipate one another's adjustments. And don't be surprised when seemingly devastating losses are followed up with bounce-back victories.
As Wade said, resiliency is one of their common traits.
More than anything, though, expect teams around the league to continue their efforts to mimic what the Heat and Spurs have done. There aren't many clones of Duncan or James out there, but the premium on ball movement and hierarchical roster construction are already catching on.
The NBA is a copycat league if it's anything, so eventually we'll see a few more clubs succeeding for the same reasons as Miami and San Antonio. Until then, let's all just agree to appreciate the Heat and Spurs as much for their similarities as their differences.