In no particular order, they’re better shooters, they move the ball more often and more effectively, their offensive balance is far superior, they have more linguistic diversity.
But of these edges, perhaps none was more glaring than the factor that undergirded each of them: the head coach.
Erik Spoelstra is no Gregg Popovich. That much was abundantly clear.
Of course, this isn’t really a dig at the smart, capable Spoelstra. Rick Carlisle can't match Pop either. Nor can Doc Rivers, Jeff Hornacek, Terry Stotts, Frank Vogel or Tom Thibodeau. At the moment, Popovich is peerless. There’s simply no one like him.
"I hear people so many times [say] that [Tim Duncan is] the best power forward to ever play,'" Larry Brown told USA Today's Sam Amick before the Finals began. "But I don't hear people say enough that [Popovich] is maybe the best coach to ever coach."
The 2013-14 San Antonio Spurs were his masterpiece of overachievement. An old roster comprised mostly of castoffs and has-beens won an NBA-best 62 games, ran roughshod through a brutal Western Conference for its second straight Finals berth, then blew the doors off the twice-defending champs four times in five games to take the title.
It was his fifth ring.
No one gets more from less than the 65-year-old. It’s possible that no one ever has.
So it wasn't surprising that Spoelstra paled in comparison over these last two weeks. However, Popovich’s greatness shouldn’t diminish our regard for the younger coach’s competence. Despite the Finals outcome, Spoelstra did a sound job of preparing the Heat for the championship round.
First, some throat-clearing: NBA coaching is a difficult thing to evaluate. Pundits and commentators mostly fixate on what’s above the surface—in-game adjustments, lineup changes, rotations, play calls—because it’s what we can see.
Because of this, the sorts of coaches who are singled out for the most generous praise are tacticians—the Rick Carlisles of the world, the guys who draw up the prettiest inbounds passes.
This is well and good, but it isn’t everything. It’s possible it isn’t even most things.
A lot of coaching, the most consequential parts of it, happens in the shadows. The core of the discipline is about instilling good habits in players—shot selection, defensive intensity—and fostering an environment where these good habits can flourish.
It’s about creating a culture of success.
It’s also about playing a long game.
The NBA’s regular season is a busy and erratic one—there’s lots of travel and little consistency in the schedule. To get a team through this six-month crucible and into the playoffs healthy and ready to excel requires a skill set that’s wholly separate from the mastery of X's and O's that usually gets our attention.
It’s important to bear this in mind when considering Spoelstra’s influence on the 2014 Finals.
While the consequences manifested themselves during the games, the coach’s most important chess moves were made months in advance. And while his record was checkered, on balance, Spoelstra had a strong season.
Consider his handling of Dwyane Wade.
The coach—and the organization that supports him—was wise to handle Miami’s No. 2 with such care during the regular season. The 32-year-old, with knees that are slowly betraying him and his productivity on the ebb, was held to 54 games in 2013-14. Then, slowly and intelligently, he shifted into high gear as the regular season closed.
The plan worked initially. Wade had a strong series in Round 1 against the Charlotte Bobcats and saw his scoring average and field-goal percentage increase in each of the next two successive rounds.
Though Wade struggled against the Spurs—especially defensively, as noted by SBNation's Eddie Maisonet—it’s not clear that this is any fault of Spoelstra’s. He and the organization went to lengths to put the veteran in a position to succeed in the Finals. That he didn’t isn’t necessarily an indictment of the plan or its execution.
Curiously, something like the opposite happened with LeBron. Spoelstra’s process seemed wrongheaded, but the result was just fine.
Miami allowed its MVP to log major minutes during the regular season. This seemed unwise at the time, given that James—already burdened by significant two-way responsibilities—had played nearly a full season of extra games in the previous three years between postseason and international play.
James had a dominant postseason, though. According to Basketball-Reference.com, he posted a higher player efficiency rating and win shares per 48 minutes during the playoffs than he did in the regular season.
While USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt feels the Heat were "thoroughly outplayed and out-schemed" during the Finals, it appears the coach's hands were tied. Much of the trouble, according to Zillgitt himself, stemmed from Spoesltra's handling of Miami's rotations.
But with that roster, what more could he do?
Ray Allen and Shane Battier had taken steps backward. Chris Andersen was slowed by a bruised thigh. Mario Chalmers had collapsed. Rashard Lewis was a nonentity. Norris Cole was Norris Cole.
It seems unlikely that rejiggering minute allocation would have done much to galvanize a roster this flawed—especially against an opponent playing at San Antonio's level.
In the final analysis, Spoesltra is mostly blameless.
The Heat were, to belabor a point that will be belabored at length in the coming weeks and months, felled by two things in their failed quest for a three-peat: a lack of depth and a Big Three that, outside of James, doesn't look quite as substantial as it once did.
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