It's easy to poke fun at the Miami Heat for falling apart in this year's NBA Finals, but the real story is the perseverance and continued dominance of the San Antonio Spurs, the royal family of professional basketball with five titles in 16 years.
As tempting as it is to turn this into a Miami Heat bashfest replete with jokes about menstrual cramps, LeBron James’ hairline and Dwyane Wade’s stonewashed capris, we should be celebrating the sovereignty of the San Antonio Spurs, NBA champions for the fifth time in the last 16 years.
This isn’t about the perceived decline of Miami’s “Big 3” or James cramping up in Game 1 of the Finals and spending the closing minutes on the bench while San Antonio rallied for what seemed like an improbable win. It’s about the Spurs showing incredible resolve after losing their homecourt advantage by shooting the lights out in a dominant Game 3 victory in Miami and then coming back two nights later when everyone assumed the two-time defending champs would respond and doing the exact same thing to put a stranglehold on the series.
None of the Spurs’ five titles over the past 16 years occurred in back-to-back seasons, unlike Miami, which won the last two before losing this year, or the Lakers, who won three in a row between 2000 and 2002 and then captured back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010, but San Antonio has outlasted every real and would-be dynasty during that stretch by outsmarting everyone on and off the court.
Those who’ve followed the Boston Celtics’ plight during the offseason as they debate whether or not to trade the sixth overall pick in this year’s draft or keep it and rebuild the hard way suggest the lottery is too much of a crapshoot. You can’t rebuild through the draft in the NBA. Trade your picks and try to rekindle the Kevin Garnett-Ray Allen-Paul Pierce magic of 2008.
The Spurs would disagree. Because they’ve been so good for so long, they haven’t drafted higher than 28th overall during their current stretch of dominance, but they’ve utilized the foreign market to their advantage and made the most of their mid- to late-round picks. Two years into the Duncan-Robinson era, they drafted Ginobili, an Argentinian shooting guard with pro experience in both his homeland and in Italy, in the second round with the 57th overall pick. Two years after that, with Robinson beginning to decline in his mid-30s, the Spurs selected French point guard Tony Parker with the 28th overall pick. Alongside Duncan, they formed San Antonio’s “Big 3” and have won four titles together in 12 years. Parker and Duncan are shoo-ins for the Hall. Ginobili might find his way there, too, not only as a four-time champion, but also a two-time All-Star, a Sixth Man of the Year award winner and a former Olympic medalist, undoubtedly as important to the Spurs’ success as Duncan and Parker.
In an era where players are afforded more rights than ever through opt-out clauses and max contracts that push teams to the brink of salary-cap purgatory, Duncan, Parker and Ginobili have left money on the table to remain in San Antonio and sustain a dynasty unilaterally considered the league’s model franchise. The team has also rolled the dice with long-term deals that have turned out to be cap-friendly, specifically the six-year deal they gave Ginobili in 2004 and the six-year extension they gave Parker after his third season. Two years ago, Duncan cut his own salary in half to provide San Antonio with much-needed cap relief.
Miami duplicated San Antonio’s success on the court by adding James and Chris Bosh in 2011 and have since earned four consecutive trips to the Finals with two titles, but the Heat’s “Big 3,” which also includes Wade, all make the maximum amount allowable – or at least close to it – under the league’s collective bargaining agreement, leaving the team no financial flexibility to add complementary players. After paying Bosh, Wade and James this year, the Heat only had $1.8 million to spend before reaching their limit.
Some mocked the idea of the Heat forming a “super team” when they acquired Bosh and James, but it’s similar in principle to what San Antonio built more than a decade ago. The difference is the Spurs did it the hard way with a little bit of luck both on and off the court and a lot of foresight in the draft. The Celtics actually had the best odds of earning the No. 1 pick in the ’97 draft lottery, but the Spurs somehow won the Duncan sweepstakes following a fluky season in which they lost Robinson and Sean Elliott to injury. They continued to build their “Big 3” through the draft and then locked up their premier players with long-term deals long before they burst into stardom with the possibility of demanding even more on the open market.
While it’s similar to what Miami tried to do, it’s actually the anti-thesis to the Heat’s free-agent spending spree four years ago. This is the kind of novel we should all embrace. It’s a tale of loyalty, patience and perseverance in an era of seven-figure salaries and players puddle-jumping from city to city. It’s the real story of 2014, not all the sideshow gossip about who did what or who didn’t show up to play. Give the Spurs their due. They’ve earned this storybook ending.
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