Depth drubs star power more than the NBA's makeup suggests.
Superteams—actual, work in progresses or outright phonies—crop up like hipsters at a "How To Love and Hate Things Ironically" convention. Big markets and star-packed factions would have you believe that's the way to win—by riding big names. Everything and everyone else is ancillary, an accessory of little importance.
Indeed, the Miami Heat won two consecutive titles this way, counting on LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade to get it done. They relied on others—like Ray Allen—to take pay cuts, and they depended on those role players only if they had to.
The 2013-14 San Antonio Spurs busted this modern-day myth with a five-game, ego-crushing destruction of the three-peat-seeking Heat, the most super of superteams. Their entire 2014 NBA Finals run—from the first round on—went against contemporary thinking.
Stars didn't carry the Spurs to their fourth title of the Big Three era and fifth in franchise history. The Spurs carried the Spurs. Their collective was more indomitable, more powerful than any one, two or three individuals opposing teams put in their way.
Call the NBA Finals what they were: a beatdown.
This series wasn't even remotely close. We can indulge the "What if James didn't get cramps in Game 1 and the Heat won?" arguments, but even if the Spurs held a 3-2 series lead at the moment, it wouldn't have changed anything.
They were always going to win this series. Their system was far superior to the Heat's and way too much for them to handle. More importantly they were much too deep for Miami to tunnel their way underneath and subsequently upend.
Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tiago Splitter, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Patty Mills and Boris Diaw all played pivotal roles in the Spurs' championship run. Eight guys to Miami's three or four.
Six Spurs players scored in double figures at least twice to the Heat's five. Duncan and Parker were the only two Spurs to score in double figures all five games, matching Miami's James and Dwyane Wade, who eclipsed 10 points in each of the five contests as well.
No player on San Antonio averaged more than 18 points a game. Instead, the Spurs had five players average at least 10 points for the series, and six register at least nine.
There's literally too much to recollect about their Finals push. That's how many players left an imprint on this series.
Soon after the final buzzer had sounded and the championship celebration had begun, Leonard was named Finals MVP. It was expected yet surprising. There really wasn't any forecasting who would win the award.
It could have been Parker for his steady dose of dribble penetration, resiliency and timely offensive explosions. Or Duncan for continuing to register double-doubles and solid marks. Or Ginobili for jump-starting the offense on many occasions while also torching Miami's defense from downtown.
It could have been Diaw for his immaculate defense and matchless playmaking. Or Mills for being one of the most lethal, hot-shooting backup point guards the Finals have ever seen. Or, like it wound up being, it could have been Leonard, for his feisty defense and magical offensive performance in the latter three games.
System basketball has that effect—San Antonio's system, at least. At the end of everything, it's impossible to delineate between the most valuable and least valuable players, because such designations don't exist.
From top to bottom, the Spurs are governed by the belief that securing the right players is more important than housing the best player.
Here's Grantland's Zach Lowe with more:
They just kept refining their game and adding the right pieces. Playing the Heat so often over the past two years got the Spurs comfortable against Miami’s unusual trapping defense. They dotted the playbook with a couple of Miami-specific tweaks — a subtle change in the placement of one shooter, or using the pick-and-roll more to attack a specific weakness in the Heat’s scheme.
But by this point in 2014, after all these years, the Spurs were really just playing like themselves. “For us, this series was not about them,” Diaw said of Miami after the clincher. “We did a bit of scouting, but at the end of the day, we’re playing the same defense we played all year. We’re playing the same offense we played all year — just move the ball, be unselfish, and play for your teammates.”
Hard work. Structure. Execution. Synergy.
All of that was there, in San Antonio, through Game 5, carrying and guiding the Spurs past the shallow Goliath they fell to one year ago.
When Superteams Go Super Bad
None of this is an end-all, be-all indictment of the Heat's blueprint.
They are flawed, like they showed this year. But they've also won two championships and made four consecutive Finals appearances placing emphasis on superstar presences over role-player contributions.
Done right, though, depth is more valuable. The Spurs basically showed us last year when they were seconds away from a championship. And they more than showed us this year by outclassing the Heat in every way imaginable.
Take a look at the numbers from start to finish:
|2014 NBA Finals: Depth vs. Star Power|
|Team||PPG||FG%||3P%||REB||AST||STL||BLK||Off. Rtg.||Def. Rtg.|
The Heat couldn't touch the Spurs with a 20-foot pole.
There was never enough of anything for them—never enough rebounding, passing, scoring or defending. They weren't even a three-man circus. They were a one-man show, as the Miami Herald's Greg Cote made sure to remind us:
But that is what he was again Sunday night and in this Finals, a superstar alone, lacking help. On TV Jeff Van Gundy was saying of the Heat, “Where are they going to find enough offense!” – because it was LeBron or bust.
Somewhere along the line James’ two-time defending champions morphed into the Miami Cavaliers, a problem that will chase the Heat now into this crucial offseason, when all of Miami’s Big 3 players will be eligible to become free agents and leave if they choose.
Relying on the productivity of two or three—or even four—stars won't always get you past depth. The Heat barely scraped by last season, when they had James dominating, Bosh coming up with key rebounds and Allen burying clutch treys.
Place the burden on one player, and forget about it. The Heat had nowhere to turn in Games 4 and 5. They couldn't overcome Wade going 7-of-25 in those latter two contests, or Bosh going 11-of-25 while jacking up a few too many three-pointers.
They couldn't combat a lack of ball movement and clock-sapping offensive sets that would often conclude with low-percentage shots. They couldn't rise above dazed and confused defensive possessions, where they were forced to guard and rotate against pass after pass, screen after screen, with the ball rarely touching the floor.
"That's team basketball and that's how team basketball should be played," James said afterward, via USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt. "It's selfless. Guys move, cut, pass, you've got a shot, you take it. But it's all for the team and it's never about the individual. That's the brand of basketball, and that's how team basketball should be played."
It's that brand of basketball the Heat were unfit to play and, ultimately, unable to contend with.
There may never be another 2013-14 Spurs team.
We won't know until we watch the 2014-15 Spurs.
This is a team, a family, unlike any other in the NBA. Roles are only looked at for what they are—as something the Spurs need.
On-court pecking orders aren't of significance in San Antonio. Everyone on the team, no matter how much experience they have or how many accolades they've earned, functions under the same guise. They all want to win.
Replicating this is practically impossible. Somehow, the Spurs manage to do it year after year, prioritizing depth over egos and star-studded credentials. There isn't another NBA team capable of mimicking their culture player for player, character for character.
Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN.com was kind enough to explain why:
But very, very few institutions actually function like the Spurs because it’s insanely hard to get dozens of people to buy into the same vision. Those that do, such as the Spurs, are the true, honest-to-goodness nonconformists. All that well-timed stuff they run and the fundamentals and pounding the rock and never getting too high or too low and coming back unfazed after losing a lead 5.2 seconds from a banner and reclamation projects such as Boris Diaw and rodeo road trips that build character and Pop’s wizardry and knowing which mid-first-round pick would grow into the Wing-You-Need-In-Today’s-NBA and last-possession plays that actually resemble real basketball sets and almost never making bonehead personnel decisions and generally treating everyone in the office like an adult and having incredible command of the NBA’s bargain bin -- none of that is normal.
Trust isn't something that can be bought, yet the Spurs have it and continue to find and build it in excess. Depth is their greatest weapon as a result.
"It was always in the back of my mind," Duncan said of last year's Finals defeat after Game 5.
Perhaps that feeling will always linger for Duncan and the Spurs. The thought of depth falling to star power when it should have prevailed is too surreal to forget. But Duncan and the Spurs will always have this title. They will always have the memory of Game 5 and what it meant.
Most of the league's superstar-obsessed squads were watching from home Sunday night. The Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers and Houston Rockets were long removed from the championship picture.
Only one powerhouse—in the most literal sense of the word—remained in the Heat. They bowed to a much greater power.
*Stats via NBA.com unless otherwise noted.