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Checking Pat Riley's Counting On NBA Dynasties

Pat Riley addressed the media on Thursday calling for perspective and to "get a grip" following the Miami Heat's loss in the NBA Finals. The Heat won two of the past three NBA championships and were in the Finals in each of their four seasons since the arrival of LeBron James and Chris Bosh.

Riley called for perspective in evaluating what constitutes a dynasty, referencing the records of great teams of the past such as the Los Angeles Lakers (1980s, 1990s-2010), Boston Celtics (1980s), Chicago Bulls (1980s-1990s) and San Antonio Spurs (1990s-present).

The Lakers of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won in 1980 before being eliminated in the first round in 1981, followed by another win in 1982. The Lakers then lost in the Finals in 1983 and 1984, but won in 1985. The Lakers went on to lose in the Western Conference Finals in 1986 to the Houston Rockets and then won their two last championships with that team in 1987 and 1988. Even though they wouldn't win another title, they returned to the Finals in 1989 and 1991.

(LAL: 5-for-12)

The Celtics of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish lost in the Eastern Conference Finals in 1980 before winning the championship in 1981. They wouldn't return to the Finals again until 1984 in which they won it for a second time. The 1985 season ended in a loss to the Lakers and then they won their third and final championship against the Rockets in 1986. They would never return to the Finals after 1987 as the Pistons and Bulls gained control of the Eastern Conference.

(BOS: 3-for-13)

Michael Jordan and the Bulls lost to the Pistons in three straight seasons between 1988 and 1990 before breaking through for their first of three straight titles in 1991. Jordan was in retirement for the 1994 season and were eliminated by the Orlando Magic in 1995 when he came back in the middle of the season.

(CHI: 6-for-11)

The Shaquille O'Neal-Kobe Bryant partnership had a difficult beginning and end with the threepeat between 2000 and 2002 in the middle. The Lakers lost in the Western Conference Semifinals in 1997 and 1999 with the Conference Finals coming in 1998. The Lakers lost in the Western Conference Semifinals in 2003 and then the Finals in 2004 before trading away O'Neal in 2004 to the Heat.

(LAL: 3-for-8)

The era for the Spurs is the longest of the group with their title contention beginning in Tim Duncan's 97-98 rookie season and culminating with the 2014 championship. The Spurs lost one Finals in 2013, but won their other appearances in 1999, 2003, 2005 and 2007. San Antonio were eliminated in the Western Conference Finals three times, five losses in the Semifinals and three in the first round.

(SAS: 5-for-17)

- This post was sponsored by Chrysler.

Spurs Win Championship On System Over Sentimentality

In the end, the 2014 NBA Finals wasn’t about LeBron James vs. Tim Duncan or either team’s Big Three. The Miami Heat had more star-power than the San Antonio Spurs, but they couldn’t match their depth. While the Spurs stars are well into their second decade in the league, they had the younger and more athletic roster. That became obvious over the course of the series, as the Spurs zipped the ball around the court and blew the Heat off the floor.

Miami, running on fumes in their fourth consecutive Finals, was lugging around a lot of older and unproductive players. After not playing him for chunks of the season, they had no choice but to insert Rashard Lewis (34) into the starting lineup in the playoffs. They had no other answers on their bench, which was filled with beloved veterans - Shane Battier (35), Udonis Haslem (33) and James Jones (33) - who could not compete at the highest level of the game.

The vast majority of the Heat’s role players are at the tail end of their careers. Their two best bench players - Ray Allen (38) and Chris “Birdman” Anderson (35) - were pushed to the limits in this series playing at 20-25 minutes a night. Allen may retire at the end of the season and Birdman doesn’t have the spring in his legs for a bigger role. With Mario Chalmers mired in a slump over the last few weeks, Norris Cole was Miami’s only role player on the right side of 30.

The Spurs supporting cast, in contrast, were in their prime. With the exception of the Big Three, Matt Bonner was the only holdover from their previous championship teams and he was on the fringes of the rotation. Kawhi Leonard (22) and Danny Green (26) played huge roles on both sides of the ball and they got valuable minutes from Tiago Splitter (29), Patty Mills (25) and Marco Belinelli (27). Boris Diaw (31) was their only key role player on the wrong side of 30.

Throughout the series, the Spurs just looked like the fresher team. Their ball movement was a thing of beauty, moving seamlessly over multiple pick-and-rolls on both sides of the court and stretching the Heat defense to the breaking point. Even when Erik Spoelstra was able to manipulate the rotations to have his Big Three in the game against the San Antonio second unit, it didn’t really matter. The Spurs offense and defense were better than the sum of its parts.

The key was a simple idea - a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Everyone in the San Antonio rotation was a threat to score and everyone could defend their position. The Spurs had athletic shooters at four of the five positions - only their centers (Duncan and Splitter) couldn’t stretch the floor. When Gregg Popovich staggered their minutes in Game 3, it took their offense to another level. It was too much shooting, too much ball-handling and too much passing.

That’s no coincidence, as San Antonio is one of the only organizations in the NBA that functions as a true meritocracy. The best players play and no one is guaranteed anything. If Duncan, Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili aren’t producing, Popovich has no problem pulling them off the floor. The Spurs don’t do things on tenure - that’s why the only players on their roster in their mid 30’s are future Hall of Famers. Everyone else just kind of aged out.

San Antonio is no different than Wal-Mart or any other 21st century multinational corporation, vigorously scouring the globe for the cheapest and most productive talent. How many other NBA franchises would have unearthed Gary Neal and Aron Baynes? Neither was a particularly notable college player, but the Spurs kept their eyes on them and signed them to bargain contracts when they were in their prime, with no regard for their lack of “NBA experience”.

What the Spurs understand is there are 450 roster spots in the NBA and thousands of professional basketball players in the world. Like in tennis, the distribution of basketball talent is pyramidal - the difference between #1 and #25 is a lot higher than between #300 and #600. Players peak in their late 20’s, even if they aren’t drafted out of college. There's a whole world of talent out there; unless a guy is really good, there’s no reason to keep him around past his prime.

A lot has written about San Antonio’s “no asshole” policy, but they don’t keep players around because they are “good guys” either. In the Western Conference Finals, they beat a Oklahoma City Thunder team that gave Derek Fisher (39) 32 minutes in a close-out game. Popovich wouldn’t have played a 6’1 shooting guard who shot 31% from the field in the playoffs - he wouldn’t have kept him on his roster. He doesn’t play favorites or bend the rules for “his guys”. Ask Stephen Jackson.

That was the flaw in Miami’s approach this season. Unlike San Antonio, they weren’t able to remove emotion when it came to making roster decisions. Given their pace-and-space style, was Mike Miller really the guy who needed to be a luxury tax casualty and not Udonis Haslem? When the Heat talk about loyalty with guys like Haslem and Battier, they sound like a mom-and-pop shop getting their legs cut out from under them by corporations that maximize labor efficiency.

The Spurs look out for their guys, but they don’t give big money to role players in their 30’s and they treat every spot on their roster with care. They play total basketball - they are solid at all five positions on both sides of the ball for 48 minutes. Their championship in 2014 is a victory of team over individual and system over sentimentality. No one man is bigger than the game - not Derek Fisher, not Shane Battier and Udonis Haslem, not even Tim Duncan and LeBron James.

Rashard Lewis Must Produce To Keep Heat From Elimination

While Boris Diaw has been vital for the success in the San Antonio Spurs' offense to run so flawlessly, Rashard Lewis has been the mirror to that for the Miami Heat offense. Several years ago, both players were on the cusp of being out of the league, yet here we are in late June of the 2014 season, and both are very much relevant. 

As mentioned here back in March, the loss of Mike Miller’s productivity has left the Heat role players with inconsistent play throughout the season. Outside of the Big Three, there has not been a reliable fourth option that has been able to knock down the three and provide an adequate defensive presence. Enter Ray Allen’s former Seattle running mate, Rashard Lewis.

After Chris Anderson was unable to suit up in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals against Indiana, Lewis was thrust into the starting lineup at the four, and immediately provided the offensive spark and proper floor spacing that quickly bounced the Pacers.

“Rashard has been huge for us ever since he’s been inserted into our starting lineup, from the Indiana series.” LeBron James said. “He’s been in this position before. He’s been to the Finals with the Orlando Magic. He’s been in huge playoff games, and his experience and ability to knock down shots helps us out a lot. It spreads the floor for us, and every time he catches the ball, we tell him just to shoot it. Don’t think about nothing else besides shooting the ball, and we live with his results.”

Since then, Lewis has played in 25 plus minutes and scored in double digits, five of the six games—minus Game 4 of the Finals. He converted 18 of 39 three-point attempts (46 percent) during that span, and has been the cohesive piece that has kept the Heat afloat. 

As a team, the Heat are plus six on offense (per 100 possessions) and allow nine points less, when Lewis is on the floor. Over the past two weeks, Lewis leads his team in positive net rating.

Let’s not forget that Lewis’ tenure with the Heat has not always been this great. This is his second year with the Heat. He only played in 55 regular season games and averaged 14.4 minutes last season. In the playoffs last season that number dropped to 4.3 minutes, as he mostly watched from the sidelines. During the regular season of this year, Lewis merely averaged 16.2 minutes in 60 games. 

“You always want to stay mentally prepared,” Lewis says. “I knew, especially with Mike Miller not being here anymore, I knew we would have to go to someone on the bench who would need to step their game up and go win ball games. On any night, it can be someone different – it can be Shane Battier, James Jones, Toney Douglas or myself. I think we all know that, and all stay prepared and ready.”

With how great of a lift Lewis has provided for his team, the Heat still find themselves in a 3-1 deficit to the Spurs. Game 4 was where the wheels came off for Lewis, as he was an afterthought, playing in only 15 minutes and missing both three-point attempts he took. Lewis must knock down perimeter shots and react faster on defensive switches, if the Heat are to extend this series. 

As everyone knows, the Heat success is dependent on LeBron getting to the rim and either attacking the rim or kicking it out to open shooters. James can only do so much, and it is up for the role players to knock down open looks. With Lewis’ emergence, Shane Battier and James Jones have been bumped from the rotation and the Heat success is contingent on Lewis continuing to knock down open shots.

All the blame and praise LeBron gets is either unfairly misconstrued or largely embellished. Michael Jordan could not win titles without the proper steady support from the likes of Kerr, Paxson, and Rodman. Kobe and Shaq could not have won three straight titles without the help of Fisher, Fox, and Horry. The same applies to the Heat in this instance.

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