Jun 21, 2013 1:58 PM EDT
I knew I had to have better teammates, in order to win the ultimate. I had to surround myself with guys that not only had the resume, but behind the scenes worked on their game each and every day. That’s what a lot of people don’t see. We coach ourselves. We police ourselves. -- LeBron James
In many ways, defeating the San Antonio Spurs completed a journey for LeBron. In the 2007 Finals, his first appearance on the NBA’s biggest stage, San Antonio exposed his lack of a jumper in a business-like sweep. Seven years later, he had an answer when they went under screens. In Game 7 of the NBA Finals, the player tagged with a reputation for coming up short in big games had 37 points, 12 rebounds and four assists. It was the ultimate validation for everything LeBron has done in the last three years.
Three years ago, Pat Riley essentially handed him the keys to the franchise. LeBron has the type of power that Michael Jordan wish he had in Chicago: he's been allowed to pick-and-choose his supporting cast. Almost every player in Miami’s Game 7 rotation came through free agency. LeBron is why Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Udonis Haslem, Mike Miller, Ray Allen and Shane Battier were all willing to take less money to play on South Beach.
One of the most common criticisms of the Heat is that they “bought” their championships. The real story, though, is who exactly is doing the buying. In San Antonio, the players are cogs in an organization. In Miami, the players are the organization. As LeBron said, we coach ourselves. We police ourselves. They’re a worker-controlled factory, employee-owned and operated. To paraphrase Karl Marx, the players have seized control of the means of production.
Over the last two weeks, they went punch-for-punch with the best in the business. San Antonio has a championship-level organization with 15+ years of experience in finding and developing young talent. Miami has LeBron’s cell phone. Neither strategy is necessarily better than the other. The 2013 NBA Finals was basketball at about the highest level it can be played. From top-to-bottom, the Heat proved to be every bit the equal of the model organization.
The grand experiment on South Beach is over. It worked. In three seasons, the Big Three won two NBA titles and three conference titles. Their victory over the Spurs moved their record in playoff series to 11-1. They’ve won 74 percent of their regular season games. With all three in the starting line-up, their playoff record is 39-14. Many will ultimately judge them by the standard they set for themselves at the Welcome Party, but they are incredibly successful by the standards of an NBA organization.
That shouldn’t really be a surprise. As complex as basketball can be, it’s still just ten guys in tank-tops throwing a ball through a cylinder raised ten feet in the air. R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich are great, but there aren’t any big secrets to what they do. It’s nothing LeBron can’t figure out from having played the game his entire life. A great basketball mind is a great basketball mind, no matter if it’s a 29-year old from Akron or a 64-year-old graduate of the Air Force Academy.
LeBron is an employee with management potential. There hasn’t been a player-coach since Lenny Wilkens and there probably never will be again, but if anyone could pull it off, it’s LeBron. Next season, Jason Kidd will lean on X-and-O’s assistant coaches while he handles the big picture element of NBA coaching -- rotations, game management and relationships with the players. If LeBron retired tomorrow, it’s hard to imagine a team not being willing to give him a similar deal.
In 2014, every team with cap space will be dreaming of ways to lure him from Miami. Many fans cringe at free agency because of the disadvantage it gives to small-market franchises, but that doesn’t have to be the case. If the money is relatively equal, of course LeBron would rather play with two future Hall of Famers on South Beach. The money, though, doesn’t have to be. How did Mickey Arison convince Riley to come to Miami in 1995? He offered him equity in the team. He made him a partner.
How much is winning a championship worth to an NBA franchise? According to Forbes, before LeBron signed with the Heat in 2010, the franchise was worth $364 million. As of January 2013, it was worth $625 million. That’s how much money is actually flowing into the business of professional basketball. That’s the money the players never touch. If a franchise offered LeBron a 25 percent ownership stake to play for them, he would at least have to think about it, regardless of the market.
Of course, that can never happen. Thanks to some borderline illegal negotiating tactics, the owners capped the maximum player salary at $20 million. Professional sports are more glamorous than most industries, but the basic economic superstructure is the same. The players supply the labor, the owners supply the capital and both sides try to capture as much of the revenue as possible. The forces of capital, needless to say, would rather keep labor as powerless as possible.
One year after “The Decision”, the owners tried to strangle Miami’s fledgling dynasty in the crib when they locked out the players. Their initial demands, including a hard salary cap, would have forced the Big Three to be broken up immediately. Instead, they settled for a luxury tax system that would strangle big-spending teams over a longer window. Many think the Big Three will have to be split apart in 2014, the first year they can all exercise their player options.
As long as LeBron can choose his teammates, there are no limits to how many titles he can win. Who wouldn’t want to play with the best player in the world and live on South Beach? For LeBron, it will come down to money or control. The more money he takes in salary, the less control he will have over his supporting cast. Imagine the team he could put around himself if he took the league minimum in 2014. He could make all of the money back in endorsements. There are games beyond the one on the court.
No matter what happens going forward, LeBron has proven that star players can control their own destiny. It’s something Chris Paul and Dwight Howard will have to think about this summer. Soon enough, Kevin Love and LaMarcus Aldridge too. Maybe one day, Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle and Jabari Parker will have a Welcome Party of their own. In three weeks, LeBron will be holding a camp for the best high-school and college players in the country. Or, as the Spurs call it, scouting.
Jun 19, 2013 1:33 PM EDT
There are a hundred fascinating storylines coming out of Game 6 of the NBA Finals, one of the greatest games in NBA history. The final sequence of regulation, when the Miami Heat came back from a five-point deficit in the final 22 seconds, will be remembered forever. Just as important, however, was the three-minute stretch at the start of the fourth quarter, when the Heat went on a 12-5 run that set up the the nail-biting finale. In a series this competitive, the game can swing that quickly.
Before that run, things looked pretty bleak for Miami. After getting out to an early lead in the first half, they were pretty convincingly outplayed by the San Antonio Spurs over the next 16 minutes. They were down 75-65 at the end of the third, as LeBron James and Dwyane Wade were completely flustered by the Spurs collapsing defense. With their season on the line, Erik Spoelstra played the last card in his deck, a lineup he had kept in mothballs since Game 2.
He moved Wade and Chris Bosh to the bench, leaving four role players around LeBron. It was the Platonic ideal of a 4-out offense: what the Heat lacked in starpower, they made up in shooting. Their best shooters -- Ray Allen, Mike Miller and Mario Chalmers -- were spread out along the three-point line. Chris “Birdman” Andersen, after not playing in Games 4 or 5, was back to his normal role as the backup center, adding more length, athleticism and finishing ability next to LeBron.
Gregg Popovich, meanwhile, was trying to buy a few minutes with his second unit. In the five minutes Tim Duncan sat in the first half, San Antonio was -6. He was having a throwback game on both sides of the ball, but at the age of 37, there was no way he could go the entire second half without a rest. Joining him on the bench was Tony Parker, who had played the entire third quarter. Without his two best players, Pop was hoping to play Miami to a draw for as long as possible.
The value of spacing for the Heat offense was apparent immediately. On the first play, LeBron drew the switch on Tiago Splitter, drawing the Spurs defense and kicking the ball to Mario Chalmers in the corner. The extreme confidence Chalmers plays with often gets him in trouble, but there’s few players you would rather have taking 3’s in a close game. As he’s done his whole career, he answered the bell when he got an open shot in the fourth quarter.
Without Parker or Duncan on the floor, San Antonio wound up with Boris Diaw isolated on Mike Miller in the high post. Diaw, who didn’t play in Game 4, has been a revelation in the last two games, frustrating LeBron defensively and serving as a secondary playmaker on offense. At 6’8 235, his size and feel for the game allows him to create passing lanes most can’t even see. Isolation offense has never been his strong point, however, as he threw up an awkward hook that didn’t have much of a chance.
On the other end of the floor, Diaw gave LeBron as much a cushion as possible. LeBron backed the ball all the way out to the halfcourt line, giving himself a running start to attack Diaw and Tiago Splitter on the pick-and-roll. Splitter is a solid two-way 7’0 who could start for a lot of NBA teams, but he doesn’t have the footspeed or anticipation to contain LeBron coming off screens. LeBron needed two steps to blow by him and get an easy shot off the glass.
As the only big man on the floor, Splitter began the Spurs' offense by screening for Manu Ginobili. Rather than giving up dribble penetration, Miami has been trapping the pick-and-roll all series, leaving the Spurs big men to make plays behind them. Splitter, who started most of the season, has seen his playing time cut in the Finals, precisely because he struggles to finish over the aggressive Heat defense. He was ready this time, rolling to the rim, corralling a wild Ginobili pass and beating Chalmers with a lefty hook.
The next time down, in another sequence that will be remembered for a long time, Miller found himself open after losing his shoe. At 26, he averaged 18 points, five rebounds and four assists a game. Injuries turned him into a bit player as his career progressed, but the Big Three made him their first big free agent target in 2011. For the second straight year, he’s been resurrected in the Finals, where he’s shot 79 percent from three. Shoeless or not, there was little doubt when LeBron found him for an open look from deep.
The Spurs responded as they always do, running a pick-and-roll at the top of the key. This time it was Danny Green, their unlikely hero through the first five games, with Splitter. Once again, the Heat sold out on the dribbler, leaving Splitter open behind them. Three years ago, he was the MVP of the ACB, the second-best league in the world. In his eight minutes in Game 6, the Spurs were -13. At the highest level of the game, every weakness is exposed. Neither coach went more than eight-deep on Tuesday.
Splitter’s second basket was a minor miracle in itself, a spinning hook shot off the glass. Pop, recognizing found money when he saw it, sent Duncan to the scorer’s table. That left Splitter protecting the rim for one more possession, where he stayed with Birdman while Chalmers and LeBron ran a pick-and-roll. He was two steps late on his rotation, giving LeBron a free run at the rim. That sent the Miami crowd into a frenzy, with a monstrous dunk cutting the lead to four.
Ginobili drew a shooting foul the next time down, allowing Duncan to check back in. He made an immediate impact, choking off a drive from LeBron and forcing Chalmers to take an impossible fadeaway. Unfortunately for San Antonio, no one got a body on LeBron on the airball. He soared for a putback slam, losing his headband in the process. The legend of the headband may grow with time, but the real story was the spacing LeBron had in those 3 minutes, when the Heat whittled a 10-point lead down to one possession.
While there was a lifetime’s worth of dramatic plays from there, that sequence was the turning point that saved the season and possibly the entire grand experiment on South Beach. It was Peak LeBron, as a spread floor and ineffective rim protector allowed him to dominate the action. He got into the lane at will, with the other four players serving as hyper-efficient release valves. In a similar stretch in Game 2, the same lineup blew San Antonio off the floor, going on a 19-2 run in four minutes.
Headed into Game 7, Pop will have to figure out an adjustment for it. Spoelstra, meanwhile, will have to think long and hard about getting LeBron more minutes without Wade on the floor, which creates the space he needs to take over. It may have unimaginably high historical stakes, but Game 7 is still just a basketball game that will be decided one possession at a time. On Thursday, every minute will be precious and every player who steps on the floor will help decide the outcome.
Jun 08, 2013 1:52 PM EDT
The last time the San Antonio Spurs reached The NBA Finals, Kawhi Leonard was a high school sophomore in California. Tiago Splitter was a 22-year-old playing in Europe. Danny Green was a sophomore at North Carolina averaging five points a game and backing up Reyshawn Terry. Gary Neal was finishing his college career on a Towson team with a below-.500 record in CAA play.
For all the talk of their age and experience, the Spurs are the younger team in the NBA Finals. They have five players on their roster older than 30. The Heat have 10.
Over the last six years, San Antonio rebuilt their roster around their Big 3. Matt Bonner is the only role player left from 2007. With the exception of Boris Diaw, every player in their rotation on Thursday was acquired either through the draft or the free agency bargain bin. The Spurs' ability to find and develop young players is the envy of the NBA, but there aren’t any secrets to what they are doing. R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich find diamonds in the rough because they always look through the rough!
The Spurs' front office has an eye for talent, but that isn’t what separates them from their peers. They place far more value on the draft than most contending teams. They don’t sell their picks and they almost never use them in trades. When they draft a player, they make sure he gets enough playing time to show what he can do. It’s asset management 101. Over the last six years, the Spurs have had their fair share of misses in the draft. The difference is they took enough swings to make up for it.
Much of their reputation for drafting comes from the heists of Tony Parker (30) and Manu Ginobili (57) at the turn of the millennium. There weren’t many NBA teams actively looking for players overseas back then. Three months before Parker slipped to the end of the first round, he had 20 points and seven assists in the Hoop Summit. Thirteen years later, Dennis Schroeder may have played his way into the lottery with an 18 point, 6 assist showing at the Hoop Summit. The basketball world is smaller than it once was.
Splitter, the No. 27 pick in 2007, may have been the Spurs last steal from the international ranks. Because of a hefty contract with his European team, he didn’t come over until 2010. Most front offices have neither the patience nor the job security for that. The same year, the Suns sold the No. 24 pick (Rudy Fernandez) for $3 million, far less than the excess value San Antonio received from Splitter’s rookie-scale contract. It’s that type of penny-wise, pound-foolish thinking that has the Suns where they are.
In 2008, the Spurs took George Hill at No. 26. Finding a starting-caliber player at the end of the first round is impressive, but 2008 was one of the deepest drafts in recent memory. Everyone was finding good players. Ryan Anderson, Courtney Lee, Kosta Koufos, Serge Ibaka and Nic Batum were the five picks before Hill. When the Spurs took him, Darrell Arthur, Nikola Pekovic, Mario Chalmers, Omer Asik, DeAndre Jordan and Goran Dragic were all on the board.
The 2009 draft was one of the rare years San Antonio traded their first-round pick, using it to acquire Kurt Thomas at the deadline. Many teams without a first-round pick mail in the draft, but the Spurs pounced when DeJuan Blair fell all the way to No. 37. Blair was widely heralded as one of the draft’s biggest steals, but he’s fallen out of the Spurs rotation, for good reason. It’s hard to make deep runs in the playoffs with a 6’7, 260 center who doesn’t play defense.
With the No. 20 pick in 2010, the Spurs may have flat-out missed on James Anderson. In three seasons in San Antonio, the former Big 12 Player of the Year played in only 87 games and was largely unproductive in his time on the floor. While Houston picked him off the scrap heap this season, it’s unclear whether he will stick in the NBA. Anderson has some talent, but he is a shooting guard who has shot 39 percent from the field and 33 percent from three as a professional.
The common theme isn’t Buford running rings around the rest of the NBA. It’s Pop developing young players and being willing to live through their mistakes. In Hill’s rookie season, he averaged five points a game on 40 percent shooting. How many coaches would have demanded a reliable back-up point guard at the trade deadline? Blair looked like a steal because Pop fed him minutes early in his career in spite of his defensive liabilities. Anderson had plenty of chances in San Antonio before he was let go.
Even in the middle of a playoff race, Pop was able to keep an eye on the future. His patience with Hill was rewarded in 2011, when Buford turned him into Kawhi Leonard, the type of high-upside first round pick most contending teams never get. Rather than signing a veteran behind Parker, the Spurs developed a young player, knowing he could be flipped for more assets at a later date. They’re trying to do it again with Cory Joseph, who is coming on in his second season.
As a small-market team, the Spurs can’t afford to overlook the draft. However, leaning on veteran free agents is a short-sighted policy for any team, regardless of market size. Older players are more expensive, more prone to injury and are guaranteed to get worse every season. With the stringent new luxury tax penalties in the CBA, splurging on older role players can cripple a franchise. It makes far more sense to put cheap young players with upside around established stars.
After all, a contending team like San Antonio is the perfect place for a young player to establish himself in the NBA. Instead of being asked to do much, they can grow into a role in a rotation while learning the ropes from a veteran locker room. There isn’t much Duncan and Ginobili can teach a 35-year-old, but what 22-year-old wouldn’t benefit from watching them practice every day? Where would Norris Cole be today if Minnesota had not dealt him to Miami?
If the Heat want to have a run as long as the Spurs, they need more young players like Cole. They traded out of the No. 27 pick this year, but they would have been better off using it. While Arnett Moultrie (27) and Perry Jones III (28) didn’t play much as rookies, both would have been intriguing long-term assets for Miami. Any athletic big man with finishing ability can look good next to LeBron James. As San Antonio has shown, the key to contending with stars in their 30’s is having players in their 20’s around them.
Mar 25, 2013
The early returns are impressive, but Fred Hoiberg's free-flowing and wide-open style of play is what has really caught the eyes of NBA GM’s. He could become the Chip Kelly of college hoops, unless the NBA grabs him before he has the chance to finish the job at Iowa State.
Feb 25, 2013
Not much has gone right for either the Lakers or Mavericks this season, but both remain worth watching, if only for the presence of Dirk Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant. Both players will hopefully continue adapting to playing at a near-MVP level in their thirties for many more seasons.
Feb 22, 2013
Everything goes back to the Nets' fateful decision to acquire Deron Williams in 2011. Right now, in 2013, would you rather have Williams, Joe Johnson, Gerald Wallace, Brook Lopez and no cap room, or Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, Damian Lillard, Lopez and room for a max player?
Jan 31, 2013
Win-win trades that also make sense financially will become even more rare in the NBA's post-lockout era. Here are trades for the Lakers, Mavericks, Hawks, Blazers, Celtics, Nuggets and Spurs that make sense for all parties.
Jan 21, 2013
James Harden may be the best shooting guard in the NBA within the next two seasons, but as Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant's careers have shown, he’ll still need a lot of help to make the Rockets a legitimate championship contender.
Dec 14, 2012
The Heat began slowly in the fall of 2010 when their supporting cast was substandard. The Lakers now find themselves in a similar situation, compounded by injuries to several of their stars. Mitch Kupchak must upgrade the personnel for the Lakers to meet their lofty expectations.
Dec 11, 2012
It may seem like the Nets and Dodgers are operating irrationally, but you can’t evaluate their expenses without first considering their revenues. There’s a flood of money coming into professional sports; the other owners can only stem the tide for so long before soaring franchise values eventually wash them away.
Aug 22, 2012
This is the part of the offseason in which general managers fill out the very end of their roster. Would a name player at the very end of their career really make more sense than someone like Terrence Williams, DeAndre Liggins or Sundiata Gaines?
Aug 13, 2012
More impressive than even his stats was LeBron James command of the game. While his teammates restricted their game and played more as specialists, LeBron expanded his. Whatever Team USA needed -- scoring, playmaking, rebounding, perimeter or interior defense -- he provided.
Jul 25, 2012
It makes no sense for a team that has Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James and Kevin Durant to give a 34-year old Kobe Bryant the green light to shoot the ball at will. The same is true for an NBA team with Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Steve Nash.
Jul 23, 2012
If you consider his pedigree, Josh Selby's co-MVP performance this summer could be a sign that a once highly-touted phenom is back on track. Selby has established himself as an NBA talent, and he has the chance to carve out a career as a dynamic combo guard off the bench.
Jul 15, 2012
Neither the Thunder or Grizzlies have had the flexibility to make any major moves this offseason, but both should be significantly improved by a talented young role player coming off a year-long injury.
Jul 12, 2012
Minnesota had multiple chances to assemble an “Oklahoma City North” team around Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio, but now that Love is headed into his fifth NBA season, their window to get another Top-5 pick is closed.
Jul 05, 2012
If Miami and Oklahoma City are going to stage a rematch of the 2012 NBA Finals, they’re going to have to go through the Lakers, Clippers, Nets and Knicks to do it.
Jul 04, 2012
Deron Williams has been overlooked throughout his career, but winning a title without Dwight Howard appears impossible.
Jul 01, 2012
In a league getting smaller by the year, Detroit has the chance to buck convention by building an elite team around two Twin Towers in Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond.
Jun 27, 2012
Perry Jones, a soft-spoken and unselfish player, didn’t dominate that many collegiate games; therefore, the reasoning goes, he’s too “soft” to be an effective NBA contributor. As a result, a player with top of the lottery talent has slipped into the middle of the 1st round in many projected drafts.
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