The 2014 San Antonio Spurs -- A Team for All Seasons

confetti spurs

"Sir Thomas More is a man of an angel's wit and singular learning. I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness and affability? And, as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes, and sometime of as sad gravity. A man for all seasons." -- Robert Whittington on Thomas More

There's going to be a lot of time to reflect on exactly where these incomparable Spurs stand historically. Legacies are written with the benefit of hindsight, not as in-the-moment missives. They ran roughshod over the league in the regular season, managing to win more games than anyone else despite dealing with injury trouble that would cripple their peers. They were the first team since the NBA/ABA merger to go without a single player averaging 30 MPG in the regular season, and they were one of just five title teams in the history of the league to field a Finals MVP who didn't make an all-star game. There are lots of team-wide accolades and accomplishments to thrust upon them, and many ways to tell the same story about their collective brilliance. It is beautiful. But it is hardly the be-all and end-all of the Spurs. Being the so-called "perfect team" can get you far, but to spin their accomplishment like that is to necessarily minimize the individual components that make up the whole.

Sir Thomas More was the philosopher-statesman who refused to recognize King Henry VIII's authority as the supreme head of the Church of England, given Henry's ill-begotten marriage to Catherine of Aragon. He was executed. He's historically relevant for both the courage of his convictions and the uncommon range of character and nobility he embodied -- as his friend Robert Whittington described him, More was a man of all seasons. Gentle, mirthful, noble, grave. He had a range of emotion and character rarely discussed when those around him canonized and idealized him. They simplified his character for ease of reference, and boiled him down to an uncomplicated idea in order to better share his story with future generations. They glossed over his flaws (see: his rabid persecution of protestants) to tell a simple and beautiful story. They obviously succeeded -- we're still talking about him, right?

Inevitably, we will simplify the Spurs. The 2014 Spurs will always be remembered as a stunning achievement of a team that redefined the NBA's hierarchy. But there will be time to reflect on the team as a whole later. For now, while the taste is fresh, it profits us to discuss the range of characters that conspired to bring about this singularly dominant run. The motley crew of oddballs and weirdos who collectively made up one of the finest NBA teams to ever run the gamut. There are fun men, there are sad men, there are hard-working men. There are strange, strange men.

These are their stories, at least a taste of them.

• • •

THE MIRTHFUL

If you're looking for San Antonio's resident smiley-sacks, you'd do well to start with the first point guard off the bench. You know who I'm talking about -- Patty Mills, professional towel-waver. His background was covered rather extensively in the player capsule I wrote about him and his little-known history. Ethnically, Mills is an aboriginal Australian, a long-suffering race of people who were subjugated by the British and whose children were forcibly torn from their homes with little-to-no records kept to put the pieces back together again. Patty's mother was taken from her family at the age of two, and Mills proudly waves the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags as strongly as he waves his Australian flag.

Mills could be a gloomy man. He could be of grave disposition -- he could be stoic, silent, sad. But he's not. He's the happiest man on the Spurs roster, a whirling dervish of energy and smiles that makes the court shine every second he steps on it. His family has had hardships to last a million lifetimes, but the man virtually never stops smiling. He's Australia's most famous basketball player. He averaged 22 points per game at the most recent Olympics, and he's finally filled an NBA niche as a hyper-efficient bench scoring guard with a great handle and a pestering defensive activity. His incredible turn in the 2014 Finals likely priced him straight out of San Antonio's budget for next season, but I doubt there's a single Spurs fan who won't remember him fondly. And nobody can deny the warm and tender feelings of his first title. He made it to the top of the mountain -- and with him, he brought his people and flags along for the ride. He gets to cement his aboriginal flag straight to the NBA's pinnacle.

Matt Bonner already won a title. And he was a bit player to end all bit players in this one, averaging the fewest minutes-per-game of his career (11.3) and even fewer in the playoffs (6.2). That said, he still filled a role, at least for me. Every single time he checked into the game, he was a threat for one of his patently hilarious lumberjack teardrops. That's what I call his unbelievably weird attempts at driving to the rim and scoring, a lumbering ginger determined to sniff the rim. Teams would generally leave him wide open, mostly because he's Matt Freaking Bonner. Matt Bonner took four free throws in the Finals this year -- prior to the Finals, his last free throws were in early March. That's right -- he went THREE MONTHS without taking a free throw in an NBA game. He made three of the four, because Matt Bonner is wonderful. Thanks, Coach B.

Austin Daye seems to enjoy the game of basketball. That's a good thing, because Spurs fans made it a point to give him "honorary MVP status" midway through the season. Clearly, he lived up to the task -- the Austin Daye Spurs have yet to lose a playoff series. When you compare it to the Nando era, it's like night and Daye. (... yeah, that pun was pretty bad. I'm sorry, but I'm also not really sorry in the slightest.) And then there's Aron Baynes. I've been really happy to watch Baynes this year, mostly because he's (fittingly) the NBA player who's closest to imitating the way I play in pick-up basketball. I'm skinnier than him (...obviously), but I can't shoot the ball to save my life and just try to constantly bruise in for post-ups. Aron Baynes is the Aaron McGuire of the NBA. Watching him play amuses me to no end. He's also the Aaron McGuire of the NBA in how he celebrated his title:

With his country's flag wrapped around his shoulders, Aron Baynes bellowed out, "I'm not an alcoholic, I'm just Australian!" as he dumped champagne on his own face.

Yep. That's pretty much how I'd play it too, Baynesie.

• • •

manu celebrates

THE STRANGE

There are weirdos on the Spurs roster, too. The organization may be mundane and buttoned up from the outside, but some of the NBA's strangest stories come from the sweltering San Antonio heat. (Yes, that's a joke about the air conditioning mix-up in Game #1 that's likely doomed to be forgotten in a year or so. If you're a future generation of NBA fan reading this to remember the 2014 Finals, run a Google search for the air conditioning kerfuffle in Game #1. It was kind of absurd.) To wit, three of San Antonio's weirdos:

  • Marco Belinelli. Yeah, I know. He played like rubbish throughout the entire playoffs. Doesn't matter. He's a champion now! And him being a champion gives me an excuse to go back to one of this season's most hilarious sideshow stories -- Marco's early-season attempt to use Twitter as Tinder and match up with a randomly selected cute follower. Seriously, spend a moment to really take that pickup line in. It's astonishing. Possibly the worst pickup line ever. How weird of a person do you need to be to think that's a reasonable line? WHO EVEN SAYS THAT?! Look. Every single time Belinelli shot the ball during the playoffs, I was scared for my life. But we'll always have this pickup line, and he'll always have his ring. (Somehow.)
  • Boris Diaw. When people refer to the Spurs as a team built of men taken from the garbage heap, Diaw is probably the first player everybody will flock to. After all... Boris was waived by the Charlotte Bobcats, a team then in the midst of a season where they'd come ever-so-close to the worst record in league history. People don't quite remember the circumstances correctly -- he was waived less because he was useless and more because he wanted to go to a new team but there wasn't a team in the league that would trade for him. But it's a fine story regardless. Diaw is roly poly to a fault, a post-up passing mastermind whose nicknames range from the "Stay-Puft Marshmallow Center" to "the Cream Shake". He's a tubby maestro whose basketball success is based on a multifaceted game the league may very well never see again. He was 3rd or 4th on most people's Finals MVP ballots despite averaging 6-9-6 in 35 minutes a night. The league will see other superstars, certainly. But it will NEVER see another Bobo. (Read this, when you get a chance. You'll understand.)
  • Jeff Ayres. Okay, no. He's not that strange. Ayres is the player formerly known as Jeff Pendergraph, if you weren't familiar. Pendergraph was the surname of his stepfather, a man who married his mother when he was in elementary school. Pendergraph Sr. left the picture when Ayres was in high school, and when Ayres and his wife had their first child this past summer, they decided that they didn't want their daughter to have the name of a stepfather that left his life years ago. Ayres is the name of his biological father, chosen to hearken back to his ultimate roots. There's nothing particularly strange about the idea of changing your name to better reflect your heritage -- it's a beautiful sentiment. But it is a bit out of the ordinary, and the story itself is sort of funny. There was a point in their name choices where they were jokingly considering renaming themselves to Mr. and Mrs. Awesome. Seems legit.

Finally, there's the player who most embodies the fundamental weirdness of the San Antonio Spurs: Manu Ginobili. All praise in the world to San Antonio's star shooting guard, the doting father whose weirdness is more on-court than off-court. We call ourselves Gothic Ginobili for a reason -- we're a weird blog, and Manu's a fundamentally weird player. He completes passes that exist on the fringes of human possibility. He's always a billion steps ahead of everyone -- sometimes, in his turnovers, this precognition is a curse. But all too often he just sees things that nobody else can. For all the talk about how teams should "play the right way" and play like San Antonio does, there's hardly a single player in the NBA who makes as many ridiculous and unnecessary plays as Manu Ginobili does. A Manu by any other team could be considered a chucker, or a risky daredevil who gets too cute for his own good.

It is strange, then, that he is so important to the Spurs.

But he is. And that's his charm. That's the odd twist at the core of the San Antonio system. The precise, rigid machinations of San Antonio's pinpoint passing are possible partly because of the wild unpredictable chaos that Ginobili brings on the court. Any lineup of marginal players becomes an offensive nightmare with Manu on the court. Any lineup of star players becomes unpredictable when he's on the court, and it disorients the defense in a way that few other players accomplish. His passing is similarly prolific, but it's fundamentally different from that of Steve Nash or LeBron James -- he doesn't JUST put his teammates in a position to succeed, and he doesn't JUST dominate the ball and score like an all-time great. His game isn't that simple.

Ginobili is an unstable chemical compound. He's an acid that reacts with the basketball to turn the game into a chaotic storm of air-bending passes and impossible step-back jumpers with barely a hair of space. He whips the ball from butter to cream, shakes defenders, and scoffs at the impossible. Manu Ginobili essentially blew out his hamstring on a dunk earlier this season. In Game #5 of the NBA finals, Manu rose and threw down exactly the same dunk -- in traffic, under duress, without fear or hesitation. That's his way. That's how he plays the game. He doesn't know how else to play. That's what it means to be Manu Ginobili. And the Spurs would crumble without him.

• • •

THE DILIGENT

Not all players on the Spurs can be considered weirdos. Not all players are likely to be smiling on any random moment you turn on a Spurs game. The overriding narrative about the Spurs places them as a team of lunch-pail strivers, a team of diligent workhorses who do their jobs and operate within their system like the blue collar folks that watch their games. This is, for many players, bluster. Nothing about Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw, or Patty Mills is "blue collar." They all work hard, but the Spurs don't necessarily work any harder than any other NBA team. They're more talented, more successful, more beautiful (to certain eyes). But that's silly. To conflate talent and success with how hard they work is to make a rank mistake in how you assess any team.

That being said, there ARE a few strivers on the team -- and they're worth mentioning, even if you reject the broader storyline. There's Cory Joseph, of course. He was a bit player during this run, and he wasn't a very important player to San Antonio's season on the whole. He played a tiny bit over six minutes in the Finals, when all was said and done. But his tiny role undermines his evolution as a player, and the importance he held in one key play. Joseph used to be a generally useless player -- no real defense to speak of, little shot, passing of ill repute. He's hardly perfect now, and he can't really get minutes in San Antonio given their reliance on Parker, Green, Ginobili, Mills, and Belinelli. But he's gone from a marginal-to-worthless player to a skilled spark-off-the-bench, mirroring the transformation Patty Mills went through from his marginal spark in Portland to his key rotational cog this year.

And, as I mentioned, he had that moment. Amidst a deflating blowout loss that had Spurs fans in peptic nervous terror, there were few positives for Spurs fans. The Thunder had roundly destroyed San Antonio's system in the fourth game of the Western Conference Finals, making Duncan and Parker look mortal and keeping Kawhi Leonard completely in check. Virtually the entire fourth quarter was garbage time, and Spurs fans are used to the random back-and-forth of those minutes -- it's hard to really take anything from it. Usually. Except for Cory Joseph, who used those garbage time minutes to do something nobody else on the Spurs had the courage to do. To wit -- he went straight at Serge Ibaka, rose up, and threw the damn ball in the hoop like an angry pint-size rottweiler. It's funny that a play as visceral and emotional as that one can be considered a triumph of process and work ethic, but it was. It stood as a culmination of Joseph's evolution as a player up to this point. And the Spurs took notice -- from that moment onward, the Spurs went hard at Ibaka regardless of their fear of his blocks, and the Spurs offense stopped getting quite so gummed up. Even though he barely played in the Finals, that play cemented Joseph's impact on this title run. It changed the complexion of a series the Spurs could have lost. He earned that ring.

And what of Tiago Splitter? The Spurs' oft-criticized starting center was beyond essential in the first two rounds, taking primary coverage on Dirk Nowitzki and LaMarcus Aldridge (who both had, not coincidentally, a terrible time scoring on him). He matched up less well against Miami and Oklahoma City, but he hardly backed down; he simply accepted the matchup difficulties and accepted his move to the bench with aplomb, impacting the game with his quiet defensive brilliance and his impeccable movement, screening, and box-outs. He doesn't play loud, and his skills are subdued. But he was as essential to this run as he needed to be, showing himself to be mightily deserving of the large contract he got last offseason.

Oh, and that other guy. Danny Green. Don't forget him either. Green's story is one of redemption and evolution above all else. He entered the league as a marginal player, a bit piece from one of the greatest college teams ever whose NBA skills seemed lacking. He was less than a nonfactor on LeBron's final Cavaliers teams, and he (like Diaw) was waived by a bad Cleveland team and left to the trash heap. He went abroad, and played in the D-League, and came back to the league as one of San Antonio's young guns. And he worked. For all the credit Chip Engelland gets for San Antonio's shooting stars, it takes an incredible amount of work to actually apply the tips and form overhauls Chip gives a player. And Green was ready to do it. He had his coming out party last year, with his NBA-record threes-in-a-Finals. This year he was less impressive, offensively -- he made 9 threes, a far cry from last year's 27. But his defensive achievements were many, including a national coming-out party for the best-in-class transition defense that silly egghead Spurs fans like myself have appreciated for a few seasons now. And he solidified his status as one of the league's absolute best shooting guards, full-stop.

He represents the absolute ideal of a roleplayer, and he's a roleplayer so game-changing and impressive that he's very nearly as valuable as a star. He always had the talent, but it took so much work to unlock it that one would be remiss not to point that out. He's got his ring.

And then there's -- in my view -- San Antonio's last strictly blue-collar player. It's strange to call him that, especially given his personality, game, and tastes. He's the drama. He's the one who wanted to go to New York. He's the one with the occasional bouts of heroball and isolation basketball. But Tony Parker's game has hardly stayed the same with time, and that's part of what makes him so similar to the Josephs and Splitters and Greens of San Antonio's universe. Think about it this way: Tony Parker was a superstar, back in the day. He was San Antonio's most essential offensive player for 3-4 years, a cog without whom the offense simply wouldn't function. San Antonio's constant playoff failures rarely fell squarely on his shoulders, but there was always a decent case that they should have. He was their rock, and he never quite seemed to be all there in the bitter end.

But now? Years later, as the Spurs ran roughshod over the league and ripped the title out of Miami's lethargic grasp, Parker had... a profoundly nonessential playoff run. He was important, of course -- he held the ball more than any other Spur, he darted across the court to make the plays and the reads Pop needed, and he kept the ball under control against Miami's tired-yet-dangerous defense. All of this is good. But part of Parker's brilliance was that he too sunk and faded into the background, letting the threat of his breakout game keep the floor open for the shooters San Antonio knew they could rely on. The Spurs offense could've worked with Parker averaging 20 points a game, most likely. But Diaw and Joseph were the only two Spurs who shot worse from the field over the NBA Finals, even with his garbage-time padding at the end of the final game.

Which is really the point. Miami spent much of the 2014 Finals chasing the shadows of Parker's prior accomplishment, covering him hard as they dared San Antonio's lesser lights to beat them. They were so scared of the threat of a throwback Parker game that they refused to leave him, even if it left a few open shooters around the rotation. At an earlier time in Parker's career, he would have seen that as a challenge -- he would have driven into the double and thrown up a wild layup, or accepted the long two and tried to drain fadeaways until the lights went dark. But this is a more evolved Parker -- he still does all of those things, but he does them contextually. He does them when the game really demands it, not when it's merely convenient.

Parker could have averaged 20-25 points a night in these Finals. But the Spurs wouldn't have won quite so emphatically. Perhaps they'd still have taken it in five -- it's hard to imagine any individual switch flipping the last three games. But the feeling of annihilation, this overriding sense that the Spurs demolished the competition en route to the title? That was accomplished by pushing every lever, and understanding EXACTLY which threats should remain threats and which roleplayers should shine to keep the opposition disoriented and disheveled. Parker couldn't have done that five years ago. Hell, he couldn't have done that three years ago.

But he's there now, and the Spurs are too.

parker grin

• • •

Yes, I know. I'm missing two of San Antonio's players. You know the ones -- Duncan and Leonard, the past and the future. This post has gotten too long to do them justice, so I'll have to return to them later this week. They deserve more words than I could possibly give them, but I'll try. Until then? Welcome to the offseason. Basketball will be back, before long.

Do try to enjoy the quiet before the storm.

2014 NBA Finals: What's the WORST possible story?

green and lebron

As part of our coverage of the 2014 NBA Finals, we're going to have an every-few-days check in with Aaron, Alex, and Jacob regarding various questions and quibbles with the Finals as it plays out. Today, we're going to give you a strange reprieve from the usual preview schtick with a "preview" of the world's worst upcoming stories. No, really. Let me explain...

Just about every single blog and writer has gone hard in the paint to bring you the best storylines and things-to-watch in this year’s Finals. Most of them are really awesome, and some of them are terrible! Friends: what storyline in the NBA Finals promises to be the single most annoying and unnecessary thread we nonetheless devote unseemly amounts of our focus to? What are your top few things-to-avoid-watching? Note: storyline does not have to exist, it merely needs to have the POTENTIAL to exist.

Aaron McGuire

AARON: This one actually happened last year, and it was one of the least substantial NBA stories I’d seen in a while. After the 2013 Finals, Danny Green happened to stop by the club that LeBron was celebrating in and gave him a dap and a handshake before leaving. TMZ (or some related rag) happened upon photographs of it, which led to a number of articles about how Danny Green was a failed Spur and how TRUE rivals wouldn’t be able to give the opposing superstar dap at a club after he’d beaten them for a hard-fought title.

You know what? SHUT THE HELL UP. Danny Green started his career in Cleveland, and he was friends for LeBron for a long time before he was a Spur. So it isn’t exactly some betrayal in the first degree that he felt the need to congratulate a friend of his. The worst part, though, was that the pictures were presented completely out of context and the stories assumed that Green had been seeking LeBron out. According to Green’s later statements, he was just going around from club to club trying to get his mind off the Finals. He happened to find LeBron. He left as soon as he realized LeBron was there, even though LeBron invited him to join the Heat players. In essence, he did exactly what the media would expect of a bitter sports rival – he refused hanging out with his old friend because of residual rivalry fury.

But the pictures were taken out of context and became a stupid big story. I imagine something similar is going to happen this year. Because it happens every year. Don’t know what, don’t know when. Maybe LeBron will be caught flipping off Duncan as a joke. Maybe Parker will be caught making eyes at a Heat cheerleader. But some completely innocuous action is going to get snapped or taken wildly out of context to create a stupid sideshow story that distracts from the awesome series at hand. Alternatively, some quote will be taken completely out of context, like the infamous Jennings “Bucks in Six” comment last year or the “We’ll do it this time” bravado from Duncan this year.

Avoid watching the tabloids. It’s never a good idea.

writer1

ALEX: Ooh. How about one of the most irritating tropes in recent memory, and one that doesn't dog just the Finals but every game the Spurs play. It's sort of a logical counterpart to the "LeBron just needs to take over [take and make 100% of available field goal attempts]" nonsense. It's the idea that ball movement, as practiced by the Spurs and Heat, is fundamentally unselfish and virtuous.

Maybe this is just something that only bothers me--a Spurs fan deigning to choose the exact lines of praise my team receives--but this always strikes me as a basic misapprehension of the sport. It's not always even altogether wrong, but it elides so many complexities as to be practically useless except as ambient noise. Passing as Manu Ginobili or LeBron does is phenomenally difficult. It may be easy to "just find the open man" in, like, a scrimmage, but almost by definition the situation changes the moment competition on a professional level is introduced. Most players in the human population just simply don't have the on-court intelligence or skill or athleticism to dribble all the way to the rim--if someone is in that rarefied air, it takes a kind of genius to be able to get there and then decide between the options you've created in a way that's consistently right even when defenders have been watching your previous choices for signs of exploitable weaknesses. Everything Manu or Boris or Tim does with passing is a potential masterstroke built on years of experience and an unteachable genius with angles and space. The way the Heat find space and surgically swing the ball around the perimeter is awesome and creative. But it's not built on virtue, and I genuinely believe it's not built on virtue even a little bit. No matter how personally caring and understanding these players may be, the dominant factor that determines the success or failure of their style is their unbelievable level of skill to create those kinds of plays, a skill plenty of teams identified as "selfish" would love to have.

And then, there's the slanderous converse of the narrative, even worse to these eyes. Prime example: The Thunder don't have an iso-heavy offense because they lack for virtue, emblematized by Russell Westbrook's evil shot-taking. Rather, it's their personnel. They can get away with several defensive non-scorers on the floor while still putting up a top-5 offense year after year, in part because the very same "selfish" Westbrook is able to selflessly carry that kind of burden. When the Thunder have sought out offensive lineups, why, it's remarkable the gain in virtue and unselfish, Secret-Santa-esque passing lanes! Reggie Jackson must be a saint, I tell you. Seriously, most teams do precisely what they have to do to win, including the Heat and Spurs. And scores of great players on both kinds of teams, whether the versatile two-way anchor of some of the best offenses and defenses of recent memory or the born scoring prodigy from an adjacent state, seem to me personally selfless enough for anyone's tastes. Durant and Duncan give the lie totally to that dichotomy.

The two offenses on display in these Finals are beautiful and a testament to the sport of Naismith. Let's not tarnish these offenses by reducing their brilliant geneses to ordinary virtue.

writer3

JACOB: This is a little more of a hot sports take type of thing, but I do mean it with all sincerity. Thus far it's been mostly overshadowed (and rightfully so) by the imminent drama of two Hall of Fame trios facing off to seize their respective basketball destinies, but were the Heat to seize control of this series, I anticipate the likely continuation of a running story-line 3 years overused: The Heat's triumph over struggles and strife. Look, I'm tired of hearing about the Heat's struggles. All of them. I'm tired of the over-dramatization of what they've "had to go through" and the mental gymnastics fans and the media have collectively performed to justify their slavish treatment of this team.

Seriously, what have the Miami Heat had to go through?

This story-line cropped up a few months ago, when LeBron responded to the Indiana's befuddling internal struggles with dismissal, implying it was nothing compared to what he and the Heat had suffered. Talking heads and the commentariat roundly cheered his response. "Yeah! Suck it up, listen to a real man!" was the implied sentiment towards the Pacers. But seriously, hold the phone. What have the Miami Heat had to suffer through? Wasn't the reason we all turned on them in the first place that they colluded to unite three Hall of Fame players in their prime? Weren't we insulted that they did so with reckless bravado, and responded to their ensuing domination with somewhat of a sneer of dismissal, because of course they were supposed to do that? Wasn't the extent of the suffering they had to go through the exact same kind of media criticism faced by the Pacers -- that is, almost completely self-inflicted? Correct me if I'm missing anything about the post-Decision media dynamics, and explain to me the difference between the two situations (beyond the obvious fact that LeBron speaks with the benefit of hindsight and the "RINGZZZ" that retroactively "justify" his decision).

Sometime during the 2012 Playoffs, while the Heat struggled gamely with a young Pacers team and an overachieving Celtics team playing on borrowed time, everyone seemed to talk themselves into this collective absurdity that everything said of the Heat before the Boston series was no longer true. Because Bosh was injured for a couple of games and Wade was no longer "Finals MVP" Wade, LeBron had done what he never could in Cleveland and dragged an inferior supporting cast past elite competition, won on the biggest stage, and triumphed over adversity. At some point we all talked ourselves into believing that because Chris Bosh's counting stats have fallen off, he's not a player still in his prime who proved himself as one of the best forwards in the league in Toronto. We point to Dwyane Wade not playing half the season as evidence he's basically replacement level (an argument I've heard made unironically by quite a few fans), rather than evidence that he'll be all the more dangerous come the big moments in the playoffs.

The Heat are a team with four Hall of Famers, minimum, playing a majority of the minutes in a system where they can all maximize their roles and unique specialties. They receive unabated adulation from the media. They're an elite team that plays in a largely noncompetitive conference, in one of the most one-sided eras of conference imbalance in modern league history. We all pretended that their jog to the much-lauded Fourth Consecutive NBA Finals wasn't by default because of the Pacers, but it's been clear to everyone since April that the Pacers were as much a perfunctory effort as any other Eastern conference opposition the Heat might face. "Overcoming struggle" never should have been a legitimate part of this team's identity, were it not for the media tripping all over itself to prostrate itself in apology for its overreaction to the Decision.

Don't get me wrong, the Heat have won these past two Finals fair and square (some good fortune in Game 6 last year aside). But in both cases against opponents who've had to overcome far worse in their journey to the same destination, and neither of whom could have ever afforded to "coast" the way the Heat can through large swaths of their regular season, much less the playoffs.

So yeah, I'm already tired of hearing about the Heat reaching the Finals four times in a row, the "first since the Celtics" and all that. To me, that's a laudable achievement when you've come by it honest, through legitimate competition and strife. But the Miami Heat have yet to suffer any pre-Finals drama that wasn't almost entirely self-inflicted. No team in the Eastern Conference during this run has been good enough to make Miami sweat when Miami isn't playing down to their competition. They still have had multiple game sevens and multiple incomprehensible embarrassments. Their fourth consecutive Finals is more circumstance than anything else, a byproduct of the period of competitiveness in NBA history they happen to play in. It's an accomplishment, but I'm not sure it's quite as incredible as it's been made out to be.

If anything, this talk of a fourth Finals in a row should give us some pause, and lead us to reflect on how screwed up the NBA conferences are that one of these Finals teams only had to beat one team that even would've made the other conference's playoffs in order to reach that much-exalted fourth Finals.

writer1

ALEX: I agree. But I would argue that the overzealous, tracks-covering narrative of triumph over adversity is as old as politics (and perhaps sport) itself. How tall was Goliath, really? How impossible was Thermopylae, really? How many of the great obstacles of history are completely apocryphal and how many legends were only half-legends carried by canny myth-makers eager to build up a legend? And how many actual legends were either forgotten by history or folded into generic legendary figures that were the most convenient or politically advantageous to ascribe those legends to?

Glory is so much determined by how it is framed by history's storytellers that, for me, it's hard to even talk about a supposedly glorious victory in battle without also picturing the glory-seeking PR reps and politicians walking astride the battle, looking for the best photo-op. The real story will always either be lost or fought to the bitter end. Because that's how the story goes, and it works. It's poignant. It's inspiring. It makes good copy.

My point is that it didn't start with the Miami Heat. Even in the NBA. Bill Russell was perhaps the best and surest winner in the history of North American sports, but the Celtics were cheaters. The legendary parquet floor had dangerous nails sticking up and broken boards, strategically placed. That floor had potholes upon potholes, and that famous steal by Bird on Isiah was probably preceded by an unseen bottle thrown by a Boston fan at Thomas, temporarily blinding Isiah from his right field of vision. I'm exaggerating, but not by much: the locker room dirty tricks by Red Auerbach were legendary, and that's after you account for the Celtics being essentially 20 years ahead of everyone else, on and off the court.

Michael Jordan, despite being the greatest player of all time, made up all sorts of adversity for himself. The Spurs feasted on incompetent management across the league and ridiculously advanced scouting and development (and, above all else, completely lucked out with Robinson and Duncan -- would the Spurs be the Spurs if they'd picked a 1997-era Anthony Bennett instead of Tim Duncan? NO!); the Thunder -- even with excellent scouting -- still hit the jackpot with Durant/Westbrook/Ibaka/Harden; and the Heat and Pacers had Pat Riley and Larry Bird, two of the smartest, savviest folks in the history of the league. And let's not even get into how Showtime and the Bird-McHale-Parish Celtics were born.

All this to say that you can make the argument that no great team has ever been in a position of pure adversity. Sports is never like a flat playing field - a large proportion (maybe even a majority) of victories were concocted out of good fortune. Athletes and media, always needing fuel for their next journey, endorse any narrative that makes the hero the uber-hero. That always means exaggerating the triumph and downplaying the fortune. Miami went 7 games against Indiana, Boston, and San Antonio -- they played their worst possible hands and risked elimination time and again, and they still emerged victorious. Ergo, the fact that they loaded the deck with 12 aces didn't matter. Not that much.

If you turn your eyes askew, The Decision was as much a stacking of potential humiliations upon themselves as it was a stacking of potential championships. The East's decline made it several times easier, to be sure. But, on the other side of the coin, imagine if they'd lost to Indiana or Boston. They'd be pariahs of the league, and LeBron would not just be hated by some; he'd be utterly derided. Laughed out the gym. They placed themselves on the cusp of ultimate vulnerability and emerged as champions. And that's just truth-feely enough to put into copy as an ultimate narrative of triumph.

It all circles around, though. It IS the most annoying narrative. When you break it down, they made the easiest path in the world to their great accomplishment, and then they made it rocky only with hubris and unlikable pomp and underperformance, and then they "heroically" overcame that rockiness. And they got some absurd breaks their way. That really isn't the most inspiring narrative in the world. But most real narratives about real people aren't, even legitimate legends, the moment you cast a critical eye.

When Knowledge Isn't Power (2014 NBA Finals Preview)

Here it goes. When the final four teams were locked down -- when the field had been whittled to the Thunder, the Spurs, the Heat, and the Pacers -- this was the match-up that Adam Silver probably wanted. Last year's finals were one of the highest rated since Jordan, and it got better as it went along -- Game 7's Nielsen score is second only to 2010's LAL/BOS Game 7 among post-Jordan NBA games. The Thunder are a fantastic story too, and a Heat/Thunder matchup probably would've had a similarly rated performance. But the potential for a grudge match rematch between the two teams that played one of the best NBA Finals series in the history of the league is undeniably exciting, and the Heat-chasing-a-threepeat angle is historically compelling. As Chris Bosh said in practice yesterday -- "Thursday is game #8." And it's #8 of the best series we've seen in decades. What's not to like?

But it's odd. There's a lot of history between these two teams now. The Spurs and the Heat have played 10 games in the last 12 months, and they're likely about to play 6 or 7 more. Both teams are similar to what they were last year, if not exactly the same. There's a lot of data to go on, and a lot of signals to read. The Spurs have been shutting down superstar offensive players in preparation for LeBron. The Heat have been filleting decent-to-great defenses for three rounds now with their precision offense. We know quite a bit more than we usually do in the run-up to the Finals. So... we should know roughly what's going to happen, right?

In theory, yep. But very few people are entirely sure how to handicap this series.

I'm afraid I'm not one of them.

• • •

Why am I so confused? Why is it so hard to prognosticate this?

Most people are excited about this series. I am too. But there was a smaller contingent of fans on Twitter that run against the grain. Despite last year's tour-de-force in the Finals, they weren't particularly excited to see this matchup. Their general point, in a word? There's nothing NEW here. A repeat of a phenomenal Finals is still a repeat. We don't get to think about what Kevin Durant does in a Harden-free finals environment. We don't get to whet our curiosities with Chris Paul's first deep run. We don't get to vomit into trashcans at the prospect of one more round of Indiana's misery.

Instead, we have the gift of reprise. The experiential comfort of the road once-traveled. But that gift is a nice way to spin a curse -- doomed to revisit, rethink, relive. Doomed to rehash the same tired storylines, over and over again. Spurs fans have spent the last 12 months reliving Ray Allen's three. They get two weeks to relive it in real-time, sure to be referenced in every single broadcast by the ESPN on ABC crew. The rest of the NBA has spent two months hearing about how the Heat and the Spurs are the model franchises, the NBA's golden ne'er-do-wrongs. Regardless of how the Finals plays out, fans will continue to hear that for yet another year. Because they're on top, and they're the NBA's class right now. Neither team features Lance Stephenson. It's not gonna go down like that. But some can't exactly shake the feeling that it's just a little bit TOO familiar. Too comfortable. Too tired. Fun statistic: there have been 15 editions of the NBA's championship series since 1999. Every single one of them has featured Duncan, Wade, or Kobe. Not a majority. Every single one. Isn't that a little trite? 

It all leaves the NBA's scribes (and the poor hobbyists like yours truly) scrambling to find some original angle. "The Spurs will need to run the baseline second stage quasi-hammer HORNS play off a scissor screen mirrored across the court twenty times with a side of fries if they want to score off the 17th inbound of the series." ... "For the Heat to win, it is essential that Rashard Lewis makes 3 shots in the series with only two of those being dunks. He also needs to defend Boris Diaw when Diaw puts his back to the basket, but if he shuffles his feet, the shuffle must be akin to the Electric Slide or else Diaw will score off a scoop layup with an ice cream cone." ... "Neither team can win the game if they don't reach this completely arbitrary sequence of statistics I've invented solely for the purposes of this easily-forgotten preview." We scrape and we pry and we squeeze for the last drops of narrative sustenance. We seek that smart silver bullet that solves the intractable equation of sport-borne randomness.

Which is basically all a run-around to avoid the fact that, for once, more data doesn't really mean we know much more than we did entering last year's Finals. Last year, we knew very little -- the Spurs and the Heat hadn't played a fully healthy matchup since 2011, and nobody really knew exactly what to expect. Some people figured the Heat would roll San Antonio. Others expected the opposite. Instead, what we got was a series where the momentum shifted tectonically with each individual game, and a series whose result offered an elegant proof of concept to the thought that NBA history can often hinge on a single high-leverage random event. The Spurs had a 98.5% chance of winning game six with 28 seconds left in the contest. They still lost it all. Did they lose it on Mike Miller's shoeless three? Did they lose it on Battier's massive one? LeBron's life raft? Or was it all that single bounce, that one unforgettable pass to history's greatest three point shooter?

Hell if I know. But I do know one thing. Last year's Finals shook my faith in the idea that the NBA can really be predicted. I came back around, and I'm back to believing in the confidence of my predictions. But I'm also having a monstrous time trying to handicap this particular series. Because we've been here before. And the stark probabilities and vagaries of the data didn't seem to mean much then, either.

• • •

Here's what we know.

The Heat can win the title. They feature the best basketball player in the world, a right-outside-his-athletic-prime LeBron James whose dominance spreads to all facets of the court. He can kill you on the block, he can kill you from three, he can turn his team to chalk, he can kill with lockdown D. (Much like my ability to kill you with terrible rhymes. Dewey, drop the beat!) He's a Swiss Army Knife with a beretta in the hilt, a force of nature more than an individual man. He's playing at his Cleveland team-dominant best. (And he needs it, given his cast right now, but that's for later.) Dwyane Wade is healthier than he was last year, and he's been better from long range this year than he was last year. San Antonio's success against a Miami team that was markedly better than they were last year was partly a function of Wade's inability to hit long range shots when the Spurs sagged off of him. It looks unlikely that will maintain to this year, not with his health and rest looking so much better than before. Which ups their chances significantly.

As for the team-centric thoughts, those are also simple. The Heat had an impressively easy road to the Finals, and they're as well-rested as they can possibly be. Their offense has blitzed through a decent Charlotte defense in Round #1 and a best-in-class Pacers defense in the conference finals. They know full well they can win in San Antonio, and the only reason the Spurs won a single game in Miami last year was a miracle-beyond-miracle shot by Tony Parker. Their bench is concerning, but it's hardly the end of the world -- Miami's starters can go longer than San Antonio's, and it looks likely they will. Even if their defense hasn't been great, it hasn't really needed to be. Their defense can kick it up to another level of swarming, blitzing brilliance. They'll have a shot to close it out in 6 games at home, something the Spurs didn't have last year. Cut no corners -- the Heat are an incredible team. They can do this.

Of course, the Spurs can win the title too. Even with Tony Parker's status questionable, it's worth reminding that Tony Parker was balky last year and -- by the end of the series -- essentially playing on one leg. He shot 26% on shots outside the paint in last year's Finals (... which includes the Game #1 prayer!), even though the Heat would occasionally sag off him to cover San Antonio's three point shooters. Parker's a much better shooter than he played like last year, and that gave Miami's defense a shot in the arm it needed to reach another level. As long as Parker can suit up, the Spurs should be roughly as good as last year. Kawhi Leonard's defense took a small step forward this year, and he took a decent stride in the right direction on offense. Tim Duncan looks exactly the same as last year (if not a tiny bit better, in a few important ways), and Manu Ginobili's renaissance is similar to Wade's on Miami's side -- Ginobili simply looks like he can hit shots this year he couldn't have possibly sniffed last year. He's worlds healthier, and the team as a whole looks spry and ready-to-play (with Parker's exception). It's a marked change from the usual injury-peppered Spurs team you see entering a series.

As for the broader context, the Spurs have much to like. The Spurs have run roughshod over an incredible gauntlet of Western teams. They're prepared for a dogfight, and they've brought the big guns. The Heat are worse in just about every statistical metric, and the Spurs have improved. They've tinkered with last year's formula and made a version ever-so-slightly superior, with better defense and better offense than they had last year and a team that's rolling to an incredible extent. Last year's Heat won 27 straight games and finished 7 games ahead of San Antonio -- this year's Spurs won 19 straight, finishing 8 games ahead of Miami. The script is sufficiently flipped. San Antonio has home court this time. Even though Miami has the best player in the series, an argument can be made that the Spurs have yet to face a team without one or two players better than all their guys in this year's playoffs. Dirk, Aldridge, Durant, Westbrook. It didn't matter, because the Spurs had an entire lineup of guys that were better than each of those teams' full lineups. And Kawhi Leonard's defense bridged the rest of that gap. If a team could possibly be ready to face LeBron James, it's the Spurs -- they have Kawhi, Boris, and the playbook to match him. The Spurs are hungry. They're determined to wash away last year's bad memories. Like the Heat, they can do this.

• • •

So, those are our potentialities. Summarized and hardly exhaustive, but potentialities all the same. I don't know which circumstances will rise above the others. I don't know which intangibles will prove decisive. Nobody does, and that make prognostication difficult. And potentially embarrassing. In 2013, you could boil the entire series down -- somewhat hilariously -- to the fact that Popovich defends late game threes with Diaw instead of Duncan. Usually, that's an impressively minor fact of life about Pop's coaching. The 2013 Finals hinged on an incredibly minor artifact of an all-time coach's playbook. A tiny speck of X's and O's minutiae doomed to eternal irrelevance were it not for that one pesky possession. Will this Finals be the same? I wonder. I can't stop wondering.

Will Miami's habit of forcing aggressive double teams lead to a wealth of open San Antonio shots in the cacophony of the AT&T center, unfairly dooming their aggressive traps to the dustbin of history? Will Kawhi's hawking of passing lanes lead to constant foul trouble against a tandem as good at contact-drawing as LeBron and Wade, unfairly dooming Kawhi's 2014 defensive season to a punchline in a single few-game sample? Will Marco Bellinelli's astonishingly terrible pick up lines throw LeBron off his game, fairly leading to a heel turn for Marco as Subway's new sponsor? Will James Jones break out his Darth Vader voice in crunch time, scaring the ball away from the basket on a clutch Manu Ginobili three, revealing himself to be a robot voiced by James Earl Jones?

I could see the Spurs win it quickly. They're statistically better to a vast extent, and they match up well with Miami. I could see the Heat win it quickly, overwhelming San Antonio with their well-rested length and a heaping helping of LeBron's magic. It could be exactly like last year -- a momentum-shifting war of attrition between two amazing teams. It could be quick, it could be long. It could hinge on a single play, it could be a lopsided sweep that reveals last season's classic as a quirky aberration. I see a vast expanse of possibility stretched out before us. We know more than usual, but the knowledge comes from a base so muddled and random and uncertain that it makes us even more cautious than we would be without it.

But I must pick something, so I'll pick with the heart.

Spurs in seven. Game eight is Thursday.

• • •