If you had asked me a week ago, I would have told you that the San Antonio Spurs had solved basketball.
What a difference a week makes.
But let’s pretend it’s 7 days ago. The Spurs were putting on the most impressive basketball performance I’ve ever seen. I’ll even put it above the 1996 Bulls.*
Here’s why: the Chicago Bulls might have been the greatest NBA team ever, and they had beautiful chemistry, but they were also working with the benefit of the greatest superstar ever playing at his highest level. I’m not saying what the 1996 Bulls did was easy or unremarkable because of Jordan, but you have to admit it was an advantage.
By comparison, the only legitimate superstar on the Spurs is Tim Duncan (Parker and Ginobli are stars, but not on the same level). I have nothing but respect for Duncan, but he’s obviously past his prime. This is what made the Spurs run so impressive: though they are very talented, their success wasn’t fueled by talent. It was fueled by discipline and extraordinary basketball strategy. It was fueled by unselfish play and brilliant coaching.
If basketball success was a mathematical equation (and some would argue that all sports are, to varying degrees), the Spurs solved that equation. And they did it by assembling pieces that (for the most part) would be readily available to almost any team who was smart enough to see the answer to the puzzle.
Think about it this way. Pretend you are choosing teams for a 5-on-5 pickup game of NBA stars, and you could choose from all active players. You can pick any player, and you get them as healthy as they’ve been this season (so if you pick Steve Nash, you get a healthy 2012 Steve Nash, but not a healthy 2007 Steve Nash).
In no particular order, the players involved would probably be:
1. LeBron James
2. Kobe Bryant
3. Kevin Durant
4. Dwyane Wade
5. Derrick Rose
6. Chris Paul
7. Dwight Howard
8. Rajon Rondo
9. Carmelo Anthony
10. Dirk Nowitzki
I didn’t spend a lot of time on that list. It’s entirely possible that Griffin, Love, Westbrook, Williams, or maybe Bynum would crack that lineup if I took more time to think about it. The closest Spur would be Tony Parker (who did make the All-NBA second team), but you see what I’m getting at.
In a league that is superstar driven, and where luck of the draw can often determine whether you are blessed enough to have a superstar on your team, the Spurs have figured out a way around it. They solved the puzzle.
Fast forward to today. In a lot of ways, the Oklahoma City Thunder are the light beer version of the San Antonio Spurs. That may sound like a slight, but hear me out.
They’re younger, and probably a little rougher around the edges. They’re a bit more emotional, and their pieces don’t fit together quite as perfectly as San Antonio, but it’s not a far cry away either. Like the Spurs, the Thunder have a superstar big, an extremely talented point guard, and a 6th man who is talented enough to be a starter on any team, but understands that coming off the bench serves his team best.
What Oklahoma City lacked in basketball IQ and cohesion (in comparison to San Antonio), they obviously made up for in talent. They had enough of both to wear down the Spurs, the only explanation I can think of for them suddenly taking 4 straight games from a team that had won its previous 20.
Still, a common thread runs through both teams, best exemplified by their star players. As I see it, Durant and Duncan are similar superstars. Neither is very concerned with the limelight. Instead, both of them are quiet killers. Both are the types of players that when you look at the box score after the game, you wonder how you didn’t notice that they were pouring in points.
And sure, Durant is a bit more “noticeable” than Tim (and I don’t mean that in a bad way), but that’s why he’s the light beer version of Duncan. He likes his quirky clothes and shows a little more emotion on the court, but like Duncan, he’s a selfless, loyal star player who buys in to the team concept and demands respect from everybody.
Have you ever read a negative article about Tim Duncan? Me neither. What about Kevin Durant? Some guys are just beyond reproach.
But of course, light beer usually goes better with the month of June, and last night, the Thunder took their rightful place as the best team in the West.
Still, I believe that they owe something to the San Antonio Spurs, an appreciation and respect due to a team that mastered the execution of such a fluid game. I would argue that playing the Spurs in this series was the best thing for Kevin Durant’s career. It forced him to a new level that he wouldn’t have reached if they had been playing another team.
The Thunder are not the new Spurs, but they are the new version of what the Spurs were: the team that does it the right way. To assume that title, they had to take it away from the incumbent, like a student finally defeating his mentor.
I’m an Atlanta Hawks fan, which means that every May, I have to choose a new team to root for. I’ve been pulling for Miami the past two years, mostly because I want to see LeBron become the legend we all know he can be. But as I watched the Thunder/Spurs game last night, I couldn’t help but feel like the outcome of Boston/Miami is irrelevant. Neither team stands a chance.
At least as a Hawks fan, I’m used to disappointment.
*To be fair here, I’m 29 years old, and it’s totally possible that I’m ignoring great teams that came around before I started really watching basketball.
Author's note: I posted this here because I'm a Hawks fan, though I do understand that this isn't really a Hawks post. If this isn't an appropriate topic, please let me know and I"ll gladly remove with my apologies.