By John Schmeelk
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The Spurs were crowned NBA champions on Sunday night, winning in a very different way than teams have in the past couple of decades in this league.
As good as Tim Duncan has been over the course of his career, there is no megastar on the team. This particular championship was a true team effort. In truth, it is a team that plays European style basketball that relies on player and ball movement to win games. It’s something the rest of the NBA, from the players to front offices, should learn to emulate going forward.
The biggest difference can be found in the team’s salary structure. Only three players (Tony Parker, Duncan, Tiago Splitter) make more than $10 million a season and none make more than $12.5 million. Manu Ginobli re-signed for a modest $7 million-a-year contract. The Spurs are able to play the way they do because they are so deep, and they are that way because of the way the team’s payroll is structured. Credit should be given to R.C. Buford, but also the Spurs’ players for being willing to accept less money to play for a better team.
I promise you that players like Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, and Patrick Ewing would all go back in time and make a few million less over the course of their careers if it gave them a 20 percent better chance to win a title. Players want to get paid, and rightfully so since they are the best at what they do, but all of them should decide how important winning is to them versus the prospect of maximum dollars. In the current age of the salary cap, it is getting harder and harder to win a title with one player making “max” money.
I also wonder if the way the Spurs won could change the way some teams and general managers evaluate talent. The Spurs do not have the most high-flying athletically dynamic players in the league. They are very skilled, but no one is winning a dunk or vertical leap contest anytime soon. In the draft and free agency, the focus of teams always seems to be on finding the players that can create shots on their own and win one-on-one matchups. That’s certainly important, but should a player like that be taken over a smarter player that will help move the ball, hit an open shot and play good defense?
In his postgame press conference Sunday night, Popovich said he didn’t run one play for Kawhi Leonard the entire series. He got all his points in the flow of the offense. In fact, according to Synergy sports, the Spurs ran isolations on only 12 percent of their plays over the course of the series. They run a system offense, and no matter who is in the game that player can get open looks within the system. The Spurs are trying to lead the charge away from the isolation ball that dominated the NBA starting from the end of the 20th century. Other teams should follow suit. It is the best way to run an efficient offense.
Of course, to run a system offense properly does require different types of players. You need guys who are unselfish and worry more about the team getting a good shot than putting up any old shot themselves. You need a player with the smarts and vision to see the court and move the ball consistently to the open man. You need players that than can knock down the open shot when they are left open. Boris Diaw is a player that probably wouldn’t even get on the floor for a lot of different teams, but he thrives in the Spurs’ system because he does the things well that you need to in order to win in that system.
For a moment, it should be noted that much of what the Spurs do is borrowed from Mike D’Antoni’s offensive philosophy. The Spurs spread the floor and embrace the corner 3-pointer as a major weapon. They run a lot of screens outside to free ball-handlers, roll men, and shooters. The ball moves quickly with players being asked to dribble as little as possible. There are very few isolations. There’s a reason it looks like European basketball, where D’Antoni spent his formative years. Popovich embraced those principles, added his own, and the Spurs have become what they are today.
Or maybe the Spurs’ system isn’t repeatable. Maybe it only works because Popovich is such a good teacher and he has older veterans that are willing to take less money and play team basketball. But other teams should try to copy the formula. The Knicks should be the first in line, and it sounds like Phil Jackson has similar thoughts about utilizing an offensive system.
The common thinking is that the team with the best player usually wins a playoff series. The Spurs disproved that this year. Kevin Durant has been the best player in the West for a few years and the Thunder don’t have much to show for it. When the Pistons beat the Lakers in 2004 they didn’t have the best player in the series. The same could be said for the Spurs in 2007 when they beat LeBron James. The Celtics beat the Lakers in 2008, and Kobe Bryant was easily the best player in that series. Dirk Nowitzki played the best, but few would argue he was a better player that year than James when the Mavericks won it all in 2011.
It’s about putting the best team together than can play as one unit. Hunting for the superstar isn’t always the best answer. The superstar doesn’t always win. Basketball is the ultimate team sport, and it always has been, despite what advertisers and individual players would have you believe. Build a team. Don’t just buy the best players. That’s the lesson the Spurs should teach everyone else in the NBA.
You can follow John on Twitter for everything Knicks, NBA, Giants, the NFL and the Giants at @Schmeelk
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