Sunday, June 22, 2014

My Tribute to the Most Awesome San Antonio Spurs Team Ever

Growing up as a Lakers fan, I don’t like the San Antonio Spurs to win championships.  But I haven’t really hated the Spurs either.  I might have done at some point.  They were, after all, the ones who dethroned the Lakers’ dynasty back in 2003 and brought about my first heartbreak as a Laker fan.  Ever since the Spurs beat the Lakers back in ’03, I have rooted against them during the 2003, 2005, and 2008 (back when I didn’t disliked LeBron yet) NBA Finals.  (It was only these past two Finals I rooted for them, for they were against the Heat.)        

But as an NBA fan, I can’t help but respect this team as they have sustained playoff presence (while my Lakers missed the playoffs twice already during my time as a fan) with their unique disciplined style of basketball.    You have to appreciate the fact that even though the NBA is a league of superstars, the Spurs have always been known as a “star-less,” teamwork-heavy basketball club – and wins!  Sure, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker have been stars at some point, but I what I mean about “star-less” is that the team doesn’t conform to the standard of what a usual NBA team would do: rely on one or two stars that can “carry” the team and then build a roster around them.   Thanks to the brilliant guidance of Coach Gregg Popovich, the Spurs, through the years, have always designed their team to be a basketball machinery composed of different efficient parts with respective functions.  It means the Spurs’ players might not excel individually but they can thrive in the role set for them by the Spurs’ team context.  And since the Spurs’ front office – under the leadership of GM R.C. Buford – has always been successful in seeking out and acquiring players that can do well in the Spurs’ system, this distinctive team identity is maintained through the years. 

Again, I didn’t want the Spurs or the Heat to win the championship.  Either of them winning would have a “discounting effect” on the Lakers’ championship glory.  Spurs winning 5 championships would tie them up with the Lakers in the present era.  Heat winning threepeat would replicate the Lakers’ own threepeat earlier in the 2000’s.  They would rival the Lakers as the “winniest” in the modern NBA.  But since it’s the Heat – ugh – I reluctantly rooted for the Spurs at first. 

Eventually, I began to genuinely cheered for the Spurs.  They were fun and quite refreshing.  This team was typecast as boring for their strict adherence to the fundamentals and Coach Pop’s abhorrence for showboating in his team.   But in this Finals, they were anything but boring. The gorgeous ball movements and crisp offense were beautiful to watch.  It was a wonderful, shining display of team play.  

The team didn’t rely on “star” power to win.  In fact, this season’s Spurs is definitely the most “star-less” of all Spurs teams through the years.  Duncan is a sure Hall of Famer, but he’s already past his prime; this season, he has never made into the All-NBA Teams (he missed getting a spot in three of the last four seasons) nor the All-Star Team.  And though Parker made the All-Star Team and is part of the All-NBA Second Team, you will never mistake him for Chris Paul or Rajon Rondo.  The Spurs has no real superstar.

Even Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard is not a superstar.  Yes, he deserved that MVP and he has the potential to be a superstar.  But him – merely a “potential” at this point and not really an individual stand-out – winning the Finals MVP, and not Duncan or Parker, simply enforced the concept that this team don’t rely on a single individual to win.   Sure, Leonard provided the most impact for the Spurs in the Finals, but Duncan, Parker, Ginobili, and Diaw played notably well, too – the San Antonio Spurs played great overall.  This was just the same case in last year’s Finals, wherein Danny Green’s three-point shooting gave him a good chance to win the Finals MVP if the Spurs had won.  The Spurs have no superstar, just awesome teamwork. 

Hence, this is arguably the greatest Spurs team yet.  Why?  Because with their lack of real superstars and still being able to dominate the regular season and win the championship, it can easily be argued that this season’s Spurs team is where the Spurs system has been at its best performance.       

This 2013-2014 Spurs San Antonio is definitely the most impressive and most successful display of balanced, pure team basketball in recent memory.  

How can we tell?  First, let's take a look at the Spurs' top 9 players, i.e. the 9 guys we prominently see in the rotation. 

First, the regular season stats… 
Points per game:
1.) Tony Parker – 16.7 ppg
2.) Tim Duncan – 15.1 ppg
3.) Kawhi Leonard – 12.8 ppg
4.) Manu Ginonili – 12.3 ppg
5.) Marco Belinelli – 11.4 ppg
6.) Patrick Mills – 10.2 ppg
7.) Boris Diaw – 9.1 ppg
8.) Danny Green – 9.1 ppg
9.) Tiago Splitter – 8.2 ppg
Minutes per game:
1.) Tony Parker – 29.4 mpg
2.) Tim Duncan – 29.2 mpg
3.) Kawhi Leonard – 29.1 mpg
4.) Marco Belinelli – 25.2 mpg
5.) Boris Diaw – 25.0 mpg
6.) Danny Green – 24.3 mpg
7.) Manu Ginobili – 22.8 mpg
8.) Tiago Splitter – 21.5 mpg
9.) Patrick Mills – 18.9 mpg
Those are telling stats. Six players are scoring in double figures, but none near 20 (moreover, the two tied for 7th - Diaw and Green - are nearly averaging double figures as well!).  Also, no Spur is averaging more than 30 minutes a game (I think this is first time to happen in NBA history that no single individual in the team has averaged 30 mpg), but the Spurs' top 9 are all playing in double figure minutes per game.  The result of this balanced distribution of points and minutes: the Spurs got the best record in the league and the players are not so strained going into the playoffs.   (The balanced scoring and minute distribution is what my Lakers have actually done in their early games during the season.  It was awesome.  But poor coaching and heavy injury casualties prevented it from being sustained throughout the season.  Bummer.) 

There are some changes, though, in the playoffs stats…
Points per game:
1.) Tony Parker – 17.4
2.) Tim Duncan – 16.3
3.) Kawhi Leonard – 14.3
4.) Manu Ginobili – 14.3
5.) Danny Green – 9.3
6.) Boris Diaw – 9.2
7.) Tiago Splitter – 7.5
8.) Patrick Mills – 7.3
9.) Marco Belinelli – 5.4
Minutes per game:
1.) Tim Duncan – 32.7 
2.) Kawhi Leonard – 32
3.) Tony Parker – 31.3
4.) Boris Diaw – 26.3    
5.) Manu Ginobili – 25.5            
6.) Danny Green – 23 
7.) Tiago Splitter – 22.4
8.) Marco Belinelli – 15.5           
9.) Patrick Mills – 15.3    
There are differences between the regular season’s stats and playoffs’ stats.  But they’re understandable.  There are drops on the points and minutes of its bottom-tier players for, in the playoffs, the team’s top-tier players are more utilized.  Still, the essential application is basically the same:  the scoring and minutes were evenly-distributed and not dominated by one or two individuals.  (In fact, the Spurs “best” scorer, Tony Parker, averaged just 17.4 ppg in the post season – the lowest average of a team’s leading scorer in the post season since the 1954-55 season.)    

Of course, the story is more complicated than just ppg and mpg. It's worth noting that the Spurs had a poised, well-oiled offensive scheme, as shown by the gorgeous ball movement, as well as their usual great defense. But by just these two basic stats – points-per-game and minutes-per-game – the conclusion is already obvious: the Spurs' success is primarily due to a balanced, deep, and well-trained roster, and a well-managed rotation, which in turn are rooted on a beautiful team basketball philosophy. 

This is basketball at its best.  Thus, this Spurs team deserves a slow clap.

It’s still annoying though that Tim Duncan got to tie Kobe Bryant at five rings.  Spurs fans and Kobe haters will surely use that as ammunition in arguing that Duncan is just equal or even better than Kobe.  Ugh. 

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