Two systems, one goal for Finals foes

Originally Published: June 8, 2014
By J.A. Adande | ESPN.com

SAN ANTONIO -- Erik Spoelstra provided the understatement of the NBA Finals when he said the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs are "built a little bit different." Contrast also happens to be the undercurrent of this series, a tone that was set when that "Built vs. Bought" billboard went up in San Antonio. That brings to mind another Spoelstra quote: "It's the theater of the absurd."

The notion that the Spurs' approach to constructing a team is any better or worse than the Heat's is ridiculous. Both teams utilize the means they have available, and both teams are worthy adversaries to the degree that in nine NBA Finals games over the past two years the Heat now hold a 5-4 edge by virtue of a 98-96 victory Tuesday night.

Tied 1-1, this year's series is a long way from being decided. We also have yet to determine which way of NBA life is better. But for the record, a transcendent individual prevailed over the ultimate team squad in Game 2.

LeBron James scored 35 points, including 14 points in the third quarter when he hit his first six shots. He short-circuited the Spurs' defensive scheme -- which included excellent rotation and rim protection -- by pulling up for jumpers early, well before the Spurs could send a secondary defender his way. Then he made the pass to Chris Bosh for the go-ahead 3-pointer in the final 90 seconds of the game, after spending most of the fourth quarter guarding Tony Parker at the other end.

"I just try to impose my will in some kind of way, either scoring or rebounding or assisting or defending," James said nonchalantly.

[+] EnlargeTim Duncan
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesFor Tim Duncan and the Spurs, it's been "system over superstar" that's led to more than a decade of dominance in the NBA.

In doing so, he also exposed a weakness in the Spurs' construction. Hey, even the Death Star had a flaw, right?

By incorporating so many players into their plan, the Spurs also rely on so many people to play well. That's a lot of variables to account for.

"We've got to be close to perfect to win," Manu Ginobili said.

In Game 2, the normally balanced Spurs couldn't even produce as many double-digit scorers as the Heat; Miami had four to San Antonio's three. The Heat also did a better job of boxing out and getting to missed shots, and outrebounded the Spurs for only the third time in the nine Finals meetings.

Gregg Popovich lamented that his team couldn't maintain its offensive flow -- and in the process provided his own view of the difference between the teams.

"I think it's a 48-minute game and we didn't move it enough of those minutes, basically," Popovich said. "It's how we have to score. We can't put it in somebody's hands and have them create everything for us. It's got to be a group effort and we didn't do that.

"That puts a lot of pressure on everything else. It means we're going to have to be perfect on defense. We can't miss four free throws in a row, those sorts of things. You move it or you die."

Funny, usually it's the Heat who are described in hyperbolic terms. They imported the vitriol that LeBron fostered with his move to Miami, turned up the temperature with their instant celebration and have spent the past four years soaking in the hatred that it now feels as comfortable as a warm bath.

Really though, built vs. bought?

Notice there wasn't any talk of taking shortcuts to championships when the Boston Celtics brought in Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen for the 2007-08 season, or when the Dallas Mavericks had paid more in player salaries than the Heat when they beat them in the 2011 Finals. And if you're going strictly by payrolls, celebrate the $80 million Heat for knocking off the $102 million Brooklyn Nets in the second round. Or save your mockery for the New York Knicks, whose $88 million expenditure this season couldn't buy them a spot in the playoffs.

Since when does America cherish being told where to work (via draft or trade) over choosing your own employer?

Apparently, since the Heat got together.

Even though their big three did not seek the maximum amount of money so that they'd have a better shot at a championship, which is what we always say we want players to value the most.

The Heat are not champions by checkbook. Since LeBron, Bosh and Dwyane Wade joined forces in Miami in 2010, none of them has made as much in one season as the $23 million the Heat paid Jermaine O'Neal the season before they got there. In 2010-11, their first season together, none of them made as much as the $19 million the Washington Wizards paid Rashard Lewis.

Is free agency really less honorable than luck? Because luck is the foundation of the Spurs' success. Not only did they win the draft lottery twice, they did it in opportune years. There are six No. 1 overall picks who won championships and most valuable player awards with the teams that drafted them, and the Spurs wound up with two of them: David Robinson and Tim Duncan.

Granted, the Spurs have done an outstanding job of filling out the roster with imaginative draft picks and shrewd signings. They were on the cutting edge of finding talented players overseas. They're also fortunate that their franchise player is willing to make financial sacrifices.

Duncan had the same number of points as Bosh in this game (18) and five times the number of rebounds (15-3), and did so at nearly half the annual salary ($10 million to Bosh's $19 million). Duncan accepted less money so the Spurs could have the financial flexibility to field a competitive roster. This doesn't make Duncan eligible for an Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYS, nor should we start a gofundme.com page for a guy with $224 million in career earnings. But wouldn't you prefer a system that could facilitate paying Duncan another $10 million a season rather than grant Donald Sterling a $2 billion windfall for selling his team?

The system is the way it is because the owners keep winning in collective bargaining. The irony is that the latest agreement could make it difficult for the Heat to achieve the same longevity and continuity that make the Spurs so admirable. It's even possible that this could be the last NBA Finals with the Heat as we know them, since their big three can all become free agents this summer and force the Heat to make some difficult choices in the face of huge luxury tax penalties. Would a Heat breakup really be a successful CBA?

"I don't know if I would necessarily call it a success," NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a news conference before the game. "Our goal was not to break up teams. We had a transition in which the more harsher luxury tax would be implemented. But ultimately, any type of cap system in essence is a form of player sharing. So, yes, to the extent that James Harden leaves Oklahoma City and the Houston Rockets then become a competitive team, that's a positive thing for the league. And part of the purpose of a cap system is so you don't see too much talent aggregated in one market.

"On the other hand, I don't want to take anything away from the Spurs and the Heat. While the players are a critical component, the players were attracted and remained in those markets because of the quality of the coaching and the quality of the management, and hats off to these organizations. And my sense is the better managed organizations are going to be successful regardless of the system."

These are two of the premier franchises in sports. Their success has made them destinations. They've taken different paths to the same place. They're both worthy of praise, not baseless comparisons.

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