In the modern era, the Spurs have never had to prepare for a season after a potentially franchise-defining loss. After watching the team choke away the last two games of the NBA Finals, I thought my interest in the NBA would never be the same. I had wholeheartedly attached myself to the Spurs as the last crusaders for all that was right in the NBA. Just watching highlights of last year’s series against the Heat and seeing that configuration of black, white, red, and yellow still brings back all the dark feelings. Whether you want to blame Tony Parker’s hamstring, Ray Allen’s uncalled traveling violation, Manu Ginobili’s extended out-of-body experience, or you're just a LeBron truther, we all have to move on.
Instead of pulling away from the NBA, I have chosen to enter this season with higher hopes than ever, with the ultimate rationalization: The Spurs will actually have an easier time getting back to the NBA Finals. I won’t invest in another season letting the media bully me into thinking that the Spurs are too old, or that the supplemental role players are eventually going to let the team down. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that the Western Conference is up for grabs. These are the reasons the Spurs will cruise back to the 2014 NBA Finals, and probably even win.
Back from a glorious international wedding, I'm ready to give my jet-laggy thoughts on a whirlwind second day of free agency — a day refreshingly free of the tanking taint. Most of the teams who made moves Tuesday did so in an attempt to actually get better at NBA basketball next season. We saw borderline playoff teams (Minnesota, Washington) stock up on players they like, and the incumbent Western Conference finalists reupped with key present and future cogs at fair-market deals. Heck, even Phoenix, which probably should be tanking, helped its 2013-14 cause by swapping Jared Dudley for a roughly equivalent player (Caron Butler) and a prized young asset in Eric Bledsoe. Only the Bucks took a clear step back in completing the epic transformation of Tobias Harris into J.J. Redick and then into zero human beings who will play for the Bucks next season.
Some quick-hitting thoughts on those moves:
The Clippers, Suns, and Bucks strike a three-team trade centered on Eric Bledsoe and a signed-and-traded J.J. Redick
A very solid deal for the Clips, who have known for a long time — at least a year — that they would have to trade Bledsoe in the event the NBA’s resident slumlord owner somehow convinced Chris Paul to ink a long-term deal. The Clips have acquired two very nice role players at fair prices — contracts that are easy to move in case it ever becomes necessary. They’ve got only seven players under contract now (including Reggie Bullock, their first-round pick), but those seven players alone have enough to form a top-three offense. The Clips already had a top-five outfit on that end, but it was uncreative and faced occasional spacing issues — little flaws that don’t show up in the big regular-season picture, but can become fatal against an elite playoff defense geared toward stopping a single opponent.
Stars win or lose basketball games in the postseason. That’s what everyone says, anyway. They play more minutes as the stakes rise and coaches shrink their rotations. Tim Duncan, ageless freaking Tim Duncan, just played 44:26 and 43:10 in back-to-back games in which he put up lines of 30-17 and 24-12 on 21-of-39 shooting from the floor combined. He also shot 12-of-13 from the line in a pair of games we should not forget when retelling the legend of Tim Duncan. Remember when Duncan was a bad foul shooter, by the way? My dad and I used to have good-natured arguments in the early 2000s during Spurs playoff games about Duncan’s place in the NBA’s hierarchy, with my Dad citing Duncan’s shaky foul shooting as a reason for skepticism that he might be the best guy in the league. I was the Duncan fanboy then, in love with his fundamentals and his defense, but it seemed like he went 1-of-2 on every big trip to the line when my dad and I would watch together.
Duncan shot 82 percent from the line this season. Isn’t that the damndest thing? With the season in the balance, Duncan put up box score lines — including in the “minutes column” — that you’d look at and just assume were from 2003. The Spurs damn near won the title despite a hamstring injury that clearly limited Tony Parker and, in the process, robbed the Spurs of their fine-tuned pick-and-roll game.
Only Game 1 of these NBA Finals has unfolded the way many of us expected the series would — with two teams leveraging their very different strengths in a tight battle of possession-by-possession tradeoffs. Miami’s ultra-aggressive defense, with traps and very early rotations at the rim, would bottle up and confuse San Antonio’s pinpoint passing attack on some possessions. And on others, the Spurs would skip the ball around the court ahead of those rotations, netting themselves open corner 3-pointers or Tony Parker rim runs. With two teams that are so damn good, neither could hope to win these battles in a landslide; whoever won them 55 percent of the time would win each game, and a legacy-changing title.
But only Game 1 has really played out that way. In Game 2, the Spurs took advantage of puzzling Miami breakdowns and appeared ready to steal another road game until we all blacked out and the Heat went up 30. In Game 3, the inexcusable Miami breakdowns continued, and the brilliant Spurs offense sliced up the Heat as a bewildered LeBron James and a sad Dwyane Wade tossed up bricks against San Antonio’s pack-the-paint defense.
And then, Game 4. Holy hell, Game 4. The Heat, save for some early hiccups, played perhaps their cleanest defensive game of the postseason, considering the stakes, location, and opponent. They corralled Parker up top on pick-and-rolls without scrambling themselves out of position, and their rotations along the back line were terrifying both in their ferocity and their precise timing.
We here at Grantland love doing power rankings, and I especially love comic strips. Thus, inspired by this "Dilbert" comic, I present the first-ever Grantland edition of NBA Playoffs Hair Power Rankings (NPHPR for short).
The title is pretty self-explanatory. Opinions may vary; scoring is arbitrary. My friend pulled my arm to get the remote out of my hand earlier so now my head hurts and I'm not thinking clearly. My dog also ate the previous draft of this because he was displeased with my Sager-esque, green paisley blouse. Feel free to yell at me in the comments about any obvious oversights.
Without further ado …
Honorable Mention: Zach Randolph
Z-Bo would've made this list for real except for the fact that I would be giving him 37/20 points based on the headband alone (-5 for the very average hair). There's a reason it's referred to as a headband. It does not relate to hair. Sorry, Z-Bo, maybe next time. After all, it took LeBron only nine years to win something huge, and he has a headband, too. (That is also one of the reasons Z-Bo gets the Honorable Mention nod and not LeBron; sometimes we just have to learn to share the wealth.) Good things are coming your way, though, Mr. Randolph — I can feel it. Just not today. Total: -5/20
Here’s a sobering thought: The Spurs are 8-2, with the fifth-best point differential in the league, and they are basically screwing around.
OK, that’s an exaggeration. Gregg Popovich rarely screws around, even though it’s delightful when he does. But the Spurs are clearly experimenting, with an eye on reinventing themselves on both ends of the floor by the time the playoffs come around. It seems strange to redesign a team that went 31-2 in the 33 games before the Thunder rallied for four straight wins in the conference finals, but the redesign is happening, and it’s Popovich’s way of recognizing that the team got as far as it could with its pick-and-roll-all-the-time offense and just-above-average defense. The Spurs ran into a more athletic team that did enough defensively to at least limit San Antonio’s pick-and-roll devastation, and they found they didn’t have enough on either end to compensate. The Thunder are still there, the Lakers are a powerhouse-in-waiting, and the Heat should be monstrous in the spring.