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.