Let’s start off this NBA Finals preview by dismissing the fallacy that this series will feature in the San Antonio Spurs and the Miami Heat two vastly different teams.
The San Antonio Spurs, yes, were built through the draft. And the Miami Heat, beyond doubt, were constructed because Pat Riley landed one of the most impressive free-agency coups in sports history.
But the idea that tonight’s Game 1 will kick off an old-school versus new-school, high-stakes culture clash misses the deeper meaning that connects both teams. At their cores the Heat and Spurs are remarkably similar.
Start with each of the team’s Big Threes. The pertinent fact behind both the LeBron-Wade-Bosh and Duncan-Parker-Ginobili groupings isn’t that one came together through free agency and the other connected through the more organic process of building a team through the draft. What really binds them at all is that they play together in the first place.
The Heat were able to turn their Big Three into the dominant force in the Eastern Conference because each of those guys took less money than they could have gotten elsewhere. LeBron James took less. Dwyane Wade took less. Chris Bosh took less. Whatever your view of what this does or doesn’t say about them, LeBron in particular, there is no denying that they put winning ahead of money. That’s laudable, and rare.
But the Spurs have been equally set on putting excellence – and their team, their pursuit of collective glory, those four-and-counting titles – over their salaries and all the ego tied up in gotten or lost dollar signs. Manu Ginobili, the least important player in the Spurs’ Big Three, will make more than $14 million this season. Tim Duncan, perhaps a top-10 all-time player, agreed to stay in San Antonio even though he’ll make just about $10 million this season and, if he were to return, $10 million next season as well. And Tony Parker, their point guard and one of the league’s best players, locked himself in for $12.5 million this season and the two to follow.
The only reason the Heat and Spurs are here at all is because they have three stars with a unique willingness to take less to try and together become more.
Which brings us to the other important and shared characteristics connecting the Spurs’ dynasty and the Heat’s attempt to start one: A culture of excellence so impressive, well-run and attractive that each got those stars to take less money in the first place.
In San Antonio, it has been a more quiet and less-celebrated sacrifice pushed by an appropriately private Gregg Popovich. He and general manager R.C. Buford’s no-nonsense approach to winning and putting together teams that put the collective ahead of the individual has helped define much of the league’s past 14 years. A star like Tim Duncan has only helped make that easier, from his own quiet leadership to his willingness to cede this team to Parker.
The Heat are a mirror image in that respect. Riley, too, has crafted a culture of excellence based on the idea of selflessness, brotherhood and teammates bonding in a league (Lakers, Knicks, etc …) where the opposite often fells uber-talented teams. Riley, like the Spurs, has instituted a culture where defense is a requirement and ball movement more than a theory. LeBron has grown into a better player and man in that culture, a fact that’s certainly been helped by Wade, who, like Duncan, also ceded his team to a younger colleague.
In fact, the Heat’s struggles two years ago made them more like the Spurs, not less. It brought the team closer together. It reinforced a culture of defense, of trusting each other and – this one’s a Gregg Popovich special – tuning out the rest of the world through a combination of superiority, by-the-book clichés and good old-fashioned contempt. The Heat practice saying nothing under a blazing media spotlight, the Spurs in the relative anonymity of San Antonio, but both deflect the same way.
The Spurs, too, have become more like Miami as their own evolution has played out. Under Parker’s leadership, they are more fun to watch, they play at a faster pace than in the David Robinson-Tim Duncan years, they let young guys like Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green get out and run, and they too can break off some spectacular plays when the moment demands it. They can actually be a lot of fun to watch, their reputation for being boring notwithstanding.
The Spurs and Heat got here in absolutely different ways. One seeks titles for one of the most interesting, desirable, hip towns on earth. The other for a place that’s, well, not so much. One draws huge ratings, the other talk of a dearth of eyeballs. One is thought of as boring, the other so exciting it almost seems they’re more of a soap-opera cast than a basketball team.
But the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs represent everything that matters when it comes to NBA success: Supremely talented players who took less money to be together, team chemistry, strong organizations from top to bottom, a burning desire to be great, and the fact you either buy in or you play somewhere else.
Culture war? Hardly. Spurs versus Heat is actually a battle between two teams so similar in their approach to excellence it’ll be thrilling to watch who actually wins this series – and whether dysfunctional messes like the Lakers and Knicks pay extra close attention.