Almost immediately after the Spurs celebrated the conclusion of their ethereal basketball symphony I found myself between flights in Philly – a three hour layover of infinite possibilities. I searched frantically for uninterrupted charging stations to calm my insatiable device hunger. When the juice finally started flowing, I decided to write the
most passive aggressive knock on LeBron James definitive eulogy for the “Big 3” era of pro basketball. I shelved it long enough for the Cavs to sign Kyrie to the Pepsi MAX, LeBron to make peace with NEOhio, and the KLove #WojBomb to detonate. So now what?
Well, Howard Bryant wrote a similar piece in ESPN The Magazine (although he arrived at a much different conclusion) and I have not the fortitude to polish a hot mess while reconciling the central claim with the current situation.
But I’m skeptical about the Cavs dedication to patience. And what the Spurs did was instructive to every team in the NBA. So I’m going to prune and pick from the autosaved “Document 1” that’s been open for months on my laptop and briefly describe what the Cavs should learn from all this.
The NBA has always had superstars, with Wilt Chamberlain becoming the game’s first mega-star. But for decades the superstars were born out of championships. The mantra today is that championships are born out of superstars. The inception of this idea belongs mostly to Michael Jeffrey Jordan, the game’s greatest player. No man changed the NBA more than Jordan. It was thought that no NBA team could (should) win a championship with a scoring champion leading the way.
In the modern era, only one player has won a championship in the same season he had a usage over 33%. MJ. 4x pic.twitter.com/lq8JN5PRNY
— Thomas Pestak (@tompestak) July 4, 2014
This was made evident by Jordan’s insanely high usage during the late 80s, when Larry Bird dubbed him “God playing basketball”. It was also thought that no NBA team could snatch the most coveted prize without a dominant Center. But Michael Jordan transcended historical data and conventional wisdom, and with a little luck, a pitch-perfect supporting cast (after they had been slowly molded like clay), and two 3-peats, the NBA landscape forever changed. After most pundits (errantly) placed Kobe Bryant on top of the NBA food chain, the story of this game has been of the trials and tribulations of transcendent Jordan look-alikes, their “Pippen-types”, or “second bananas”, and eventually, the thought that you need “not one, not two….” But THREE players, a trifecta of transcendent stars in order to win at the highest level. The Pistons, in 2004, were the greatest aberration of the modern NBA (small samples sizes and all that), and something that most assuredly would never be replicated in the era of Superteams born of superstar collusion. And so the game’s brightest star, a Finals MVP, a perennial All-Star and a Hall of Fame coach turned GM took everything they knew to be true about the modern NBA, harnessed it, and won 2 championships. They abandoned the organic process of team-building, of drafting diamonds in the rough, of sharing as equally in defeat as in victory. They abandoned the grind in order that they might just win. And they won.
It may have led to their pre-mature breakup. As Brian Windhorst recently mentioned in a podcast with Bill Simmons,
“I really think the seeds of their long-term undoing, happened the day after the first Decision. The day after the first Decision, the Heat traded six draft picks…They basically gave away all those mechanisms to develop players. To be honest with you, they got rushed because they wanted to do that party. They wanted to do that party and they had to have the guys signed to do it.”
Feels a bit crazy to critique the moves the Cavs have made since David Griffin took over, but no one can characterize what has transpired as patience. Nate’s covered this extensively (and with excellence I might add) as the token grump. Whether dumping Tyler Zeller and Sergey Karasev in a frantic cap-clearing move matters remains to be seen. Whether dealing Wiggins (out of fear that Chicago or Golden State might snatch up Love) for Love comes back to haunt the Cavs remains to be seen. Critiquing these moves is typical Monday Morning Quarterbacking, but when the euphoria subsides, the Cavs need to get re-acquainted with patience. LeBron James functioning as co-owner of the Cavs renders this difficult.
If there is one player on the Spurs that most embodies the difference between the Spurs and the rest of the league, it is Boris Diaw. It wasn’t long ago that Diaw was at the end of the bench on one of the worst teams in NBA history – ironically enough – Jordan’s Bobcats. This past week Diaw carved up the Heat’s defense in just about every way possible. He’d shoot with space, drive past over-aggressive close-outs, make a nifty interior pass after pump faking a big out of position, run around the perimeter to hand off the ball to a swirling teammate heading in the opposite direction. He could box out bigs, play passable defense on wings, and at the offensive end he’d punish the former for being too slow, and the latter for being too small. Sounds like a superstar no? Until you realize we’re talking about Boris Diaw, “man boobs” just a few ellipses around the sun ago. But what makes Diaw so special is that he’s not harnessing his individual skills to beat his defender, or to stop the man he’s checking. He’s playing perfectly within the Spurs framework and yet he’s playing like more than a role player, even though he is a role player. He’s not cemented in the corner waiting for a kick out. He’s not afraid of the moment. Because with the Spurs, there’s no moment. There’s just the team and the optimization of a shared goal. It completely infects everything the Spurs do, and not only on the court. Off the court, Tim Duncan, 5-time NBA champion and one of the greatest players in the history of the game, said no more than a week ago that he was able to do what he’s doing right now because Pop had created a role for him that he was comfortable with while managing his minutes. The franchise player, on one of the greatest teams ever, declared himself a mere role player achieving success because of his coach’s brilliance. Why? To optimize Spurs basketball. This is why the Spurs defy father time and win without a LeBron or a Kobe – their dedication to the optimization of basketball requires their individual intelligence, individual skill sets, individual dynamicism and craftiness, and they convert it into collective dominance. And their lack of elite athleticism, lack of a trio of superstars, their lack of transcendent isolation scorers, it simply removes the distraction for sub-optimal basketball. Age and athleticism should be their liabilities, especially against two of the most athletic teams of all-time in the Thunder and now the Heat, and yet they are dropping 120+ points a night.
I think the key takeaways are that the Cavs need to be patient enough to allow players to grow into roles under David Blatt. This Cavalier era must not be a countdown to LeBron’s next decision. There can be no “Championship or bust” mentality. Blatt can’t be on the hot seat if the Cavs are struggling in December. I’m relieved that LeBron digs Dion’s game, because otherwise I fear the Cavs would move him before allowing Dion the chance to be a fundamental cog in a well-oiled machine. The other takeaway is the Cavs MUST MANAGE MINUTES. Obviously LeBron’s are the most important ones, but Anderson Varejao’s must be handled with the utmost conservatism. Everyone’s going to be in a hurry to figure this thing out and the reality is that the Cavs absolutely must not burn out in the regular season with injuries and fatigue. Let Patty Mills be your guide. It doesn’t do your team any good to have bench players injected into playoff battles with no confidence because they never see the light of day in the regular season. The Cavs should exhaust their bench, spread the grind around, and work on having multiple lineups to throw at opposing teams. The Spurs won the regular season with no player logging more than 30 minutes a game. They won the playoffs with no player logging more than 33. There is no reason to ride Kyrie, Love, and Varejao to exhaustion, increasing the probability of injury. And if LeBron is truly planning on retiring a Cavalier, he could play for another decade. They should be thinking about a 10-year minutes plan for LeBron right now.
The Spurs offense is analogous to Mariano Rivera’s cut-fastball. It is close to perfect, almost unstoppable, and doesn’t require some herculean effort to summon. It is the culmination of years of dedication and habit-forming. Playoff basketball is often described as a half-court grind-fest because the participants come to know each other, figure out how to stop each other, and the resultant affair is a possession game where the highest percentage shots just might be those difficult attempts that the game’s greats have made look commonplace. But for the Spurs in these playoffs there was no grinding, no possession battles, no stagnation or isolation. There was only the pursuit of the next advantage, the next leverage point with which to methodically bury their opponents in a barrage of open-looks. With each substitution against the Heat, the feeling was that the Spurs were just picking the right tool for the job. And the Heat looked like the little brother playing Tecmo Bowl while his older brother spied on his play calling. The mantra that John Hollinger accentuated, that the team with the best starting lineup was most primed for a deep playoff run, was abandoned. The Spurs bench was as effective as its starters because the team doesn’t have a pecking order, and they’ve never emphasized anything more than optimizing basketball. Manu Ginobili, whose per-36 minute averages look an awful lot like Kobe’s, has never had a problem coming off the bench. Tony Parker learned a long time ago that there was a time and place for his individual wizardry with the ball, particularly on his legendary below-the-rim finishes. But he’s grown into a Spur. He has a role, and he executes it perfectly.
There is so much the Cavs have to learn from the Spurs. For LeBron, the icon of the region, the franchise, the NBA, he needs to be coach-able like The Big Fundamental. He needs to buy into the system or the Cavs will never be more than the sum of their parts.
Kyrie Irving should remind us of young Tony Parker. Sure, Kyrie’s a much better outside shooter, but young Tony was similarly a wizard off-the-dribble and finishing in traffic. Parker has grown as a player and has learned to run the offense, using breakdowns to generate higher percentage shots for the team. Kyrie’s got the best handles in the game, now he needs to harness them to create advantages for others.
Dion Waiters? Bro. Just be like M..anu. Seriously. Forget about starting. Manu’s embraced his bench role and with four championships and over 100 million dollars in the bank I’d say it’s worked out for him. Follow his lead!
And to all the Cavs GMs and wanna-be GMs, recall that Gregg Popovich, the most respected man in basketball, allowed his favorite player, George Hill, to be traded for an intriguing rookie prospect with big hands, elite athleticism, and tenacious D. Smart move by the Spurs management, and good on Popovich for allowing his organization to do its job.
LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter, and Paul Pierce were all born into this NBA, the one invested in their stardom. The brutality that Michael Jordan suffered at the hands of the Bad Boy Pistons is merely a history lesson now. (and the game is better off)
Jordan showed the world that dynasties need not require a dominant big. As Tim Duncan (or so the story went), Kevin Garnett, and Shaq ceded control to the wings and became role-players, the last vestiges of a bygone era seemed to be retiring on our watch. Times have changed. Andrea Bargnani was a number 1 overall pick. The current crop of traditional big men have failed to move the needle in recent years (whether due to injuries or not). The need for floor spacing bigs that would keep the lane unclogged for the incredible (not to mention untouchable) driving wings is paramount. The transformation seemed almost complete – a league run completely by stars that shine with the ball in their hands. But maybe, just maybe, the all-transcendent, max-contract, brand-building wing – the Jordan lookalike – is actually in danger of being retired. Or at least the idea that to win a championship you need that type of player, plus a Pippen lookalike, and a sprinkling of spot up shooters…maybe that idea is in danger of being retired.
It’s a tough sell. Are the ’11 Mavericks and ’14 Spurs the harbingers of a new era? The Heat did win two out of the last four titles. And I’ll no longer pretend they were just a mash-up of transcendent talent fortunate enough to emerge from that wacky lockout season and to be the benefactors of a weak conference and an epic Spurs collapse in 2013. (Just reminding everyone those are both true). They bought into Spoelstra’s system and in some ways maximized their team by curbing Bosh and Wade. But there is a distinct difference between the genesis and the resource allocation of the recent Heat and the Champion Spurs. The good news? If I’m wrong, if the Spurs are an aberration, then rest assured – the Cavs will be top heavy, but they will be REALLY heavy. LeBron, Irving, (maybe) Kevin Love, Varejao, and much more youth in Waiters, Thompson, and SuperDova than the Heatles amassed – that’s a huge collection of talent. And if I’m right? The Cavs just hired David Blatt, a coach that made his mark by molding his roster into more than the sum of their parts. Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but by all accounts he’s Popovich-like. (Google’ll tell ya)
Oh, and overnight the Cavs added the best passing SF in the history of the NBA. If Kevin Love joins the party they will have the best passing SF, PF, and one of the best passing C (Varejao) in the entire league. If anyone has the roster with the skillsets to mimic the relentlessly unselfish, high-efficiency attack of the Spurs, it will be this Cavs roster. I leave you with my closing thoughts on the Spurs. A bit dramatic in retrospect, but that team put me under a spell.
The San Antonio Spurs, not the Miami Heat, are shifting the NBA paradigm, and it will happen more dramatically now. Starting next season you will notice teams dramatically managing minutes and beefing up benches – relying on more than 7 guys to carry the load. You will see significantly less tanking I believe, as fans are going to stop being placated by the pipe dream that their franchise could land the next LeBron or the next Durant. Teams are going to realize that the Spurs perfected basketball with a group of players that, as RC Buford so eloquently stated “got over themselves.” Much like teams in all sports already shy away from guys with off the court issues with the law or drugs or otherwise, franchises are going to say the hell with being held hostage by transcendent Jordan lookalikes leveraging all their power to maximize their brand. They are going to watch the perfectly predictable failure of the Knicks and the Lakers and make sure to think twice before trading the farm for Melo or tying up half the cap for Kobe!!1 Teams are going to ask themselves how Boris Diaw is so devastatingly effective, and they are going to put a premium on big men that can pass. And more than anything, teams are going to recognize that not only is having a superstar not required to win a championship, it’s not required to entertain the fan base! Has anyone seen anything as beautiful, riveting, and pure as what the Spurs just gave us? For far too long we’ve reinforced the narrative that it’s a stars league and no one wants to watch the “boring Spurs”. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy at this point, fueled mostly by the narratives that come to overwhelm the actual gameplay. The Spurs needed no manufactured story to delight us, and we should all voraciously hope they are back next year for an encore – because there’s nothing more entertaining right now that Spurs basketball.
How the Spurs won is just as important as them winning. It’s going to be impossible to ignore this team, this outcome. Impossible to chalk it up to sample size. They defeated both finals favorites, the Thunder and the Heat, dispatching the MVP and the former MVP in succession. Dispatching the hyper-athletic teams doling out max contracts.
Maybe you don’t need superstars to win a championship. Maybe you become a superteam when you master basketball and the accolades follow. Maybe you draft for fit 9 times out of 10 and “best player available” 1 time out of 10, because draftees are simply young boys with the tools to play basketball, not professional basketball players. Maybe that’s the inception the Spurs just completed.