Friday, June 27, 2014

The Beautiful Game

The NBA news of the week of the decade of the millennium is that LeBron and Carmelo have both opted out of their contracts with the Heat and Knicks, respectively. If you’ll all think back to a few months ago, when the Knicks didn’t make the playoffs, or a few weeks ago, when the Heat lost to the Spurs in the NBA Finals, you’ll understand why I have a hard time caring about two of the best players in the NBA both becoming free agents at the same time.

Because it doesn’t matter where LeBron goes, or where Carmelo goes, or if they become the Big Two and make a Decision to play together in [insert city here]. Put together all the great players you want, NBA owner looking to make a splash. Players don’t win championships – teams do. And as long as the Spurs are run by Gregg Popovich and RC Buford, they’ll always have the best team.

The Spurs should be the two-time defending NBA champions. They were a crazy Ray Allen three-pointer away from winning in six games last season (covered perfectly by Grantland grand poo bah Bill Simmons), and this year they took apart the Heat and its Big Three, winning in five games.

Did you know, that on the same day LeBron opted out of his contract, Tim Duncan exercised his 10.3M option with the Spurs? See if you can find the story on ESPN’s front page.



It’s in the headlines, eight stories down. Why isn’t it getting the same coverage as LeBron? Because just like the Spurs, it’s not flashy or attention grabbing. It’s just a good old fashioned team-first basketball mentality.

It’s fitting that the Spurs won the NBA Championship in 2014, the same year as the World Cup. No one comes as close to the Beautiful Game on the basketball court as San Antonio. A friend and I were talking about this the other day (well, texting about it, but that’s basically talking now): San Antonio is America’s version of a top-class futbol – yeah, I said it – program. Their roster is filled with players from different countries; those players all had essentially professional play experience by the time they got to the Spurs; the players are coached to play fluidly and think and not drilled to follow each play step by step; they are coached to do one-touch passing until they find the open player; the players are all team first.

Who are these players, and what is it about them that they are able to maintain this team first mentality through thick and thin? Let’s take a look at the Spurs roster, focusing on the players who saw extensive playing time during the playoffs.

Starters:
Tony Parker – from Belgium, played minor league basketball in France from 1997-1999 and professionally in France from 1999-2001, 28th overall pick (2001)
Kawhi Leonard – from USA, played two years at San Diego State, 15th overall pick (2011)
Danny Green – from USA, played all four years at UNC, 46th overall pick (2009)
Boris Diaw – from France, played professionally in France 2000-03, 21st overall pick (2003)
Tim Duncan – from US Virgin Islands, played all four years at Wake Forest, 1st overall pick (1997)

Key Reserves:
Marco Belinelli – from Italy, played professional basketball in Italy from 2002-2007, 18th overall pick (2007)
Matt Bonner – from USA, played all four years at Florida, played professional basketball in Italy in 2003-04, 45th overall pick (2003)
Manu Ginobli – from Argentina, played professional basketball in Argentina from 1995-98, played professional basketball in Italy from 1998-2002, 57th overall pick (1999)
Patty Mills – from Australia, played two years at St. Mary’s (Calif.), played two games in the NBDL, professionally in Australia and China during the NBA lockout in 2011-12, 55th overall pick (2009)
Tiago Splitter – from Brazil, played professionally in Spain from 2000-10, 28th overall pick (2007)

Here’s what I notice from this group: players born in the USA are outnumbered, 7-3 (I’m including Duncan in the non-USA group). All 10 players had a minimum of two years playing basketball at least at a semi-pro (i.e. college) level, with the international players averaging approximately 3.0 years of playing in a professional league before reaching the NBA. The only player drafted in the top-10 in that entire group is Duncan (which makes the Spurs’ dynasty even more incredible, considering they are always going late in the NBA Draft).

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the players from overseas also played soccer growing up. I think that helps with the team first mentality. You’re not going to win in soccer if you play 1 v 11. In basketball, playing 1 v 5 is not advisable, yet it probably happens more often than not for those high school kids who are good enough to go right to the NBA. Then they go to college for that one year of “where will they go in the NBA Draft,” and then it’s off to the NBA. The biggest reason that you are seeing the Mercers and Lehighs beating big name schools in the NCAA Tournament is that they are teams, going against players.

Certainly LeBron and KD are exceptions (and exceptional), players who went straight to the NBA or played just one year in college and became superstars right out of the gate. Perhaps Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker will have the same kind of immediate success. I have my doubts, but I’ve been wrong before. Regardless, I’m already looking forward to watching the Spurs play. As Chris Bosh put it after the Spurs dominated the Heat in game four of the Finals, “They're playing beautiful basketball.”

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