Dating back to the 2010-11 season, when the Miami Heat consummated the troika of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, the Heat and San Antonio Spurs have won a lot of games — Miami ranks first (282 wins) and the Spurs are second with 270 wins, respectively.
In this span, Miami and San Antonio have combined for six NBA Finals appearances. They’ve won more games than the bottom five teams in the league combined. These teams are in a league of their own. Literally.
The only difference between the two teams? How they created their teams. The Spurs, as the trope goes, built their team, unearthing rotation players in the latter rounds of the draft and foraging through the murky international waters for Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Beno Udrih etc etc. San Antonio’s sustained excellence took precision, savvy and a bit of luck.
Miami, by contrast, bought their team (at least according to popular opinion). They signed LeBron, Wade and Bosh to massive contracts. They plucked Ray Allen away from the Boston Celtics. Miami used the remaining cap room to lure Shane Battier, Chris Andersen, Rashard Lewis, and others to fill in the gaps. Norris Cole and Michael Beasley are the only players originally drafted by Miami. Mario Chalmers was dealt to Miami on draft day and has played every game of his career in Miami.
The Spurs drafted Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter, Cory Joseph, Parker and Ginobili — representing 40 percent of their active roster. Their “notable” free agent acquisitions include Boris Diaw, Matt Bonner, Marco Belinelli, Patty Mills and Danny Green, who was on the NBA scrap heap after his first assignment with Cleveland.
Basically, Miami utilized free agency to build the foundation for their championship teams; the Spurs used free agency to support the foundation already in place.
Hence the “built vs. bought” notion. (This photo may not be real, but it’s still important in this discussion.)
This is what The Spurs vs The Heat is about. pic.twitter.com/snejaLwKb9
— Texas Humor (@TexasHumor) June 2, 2014
To which I ask: Does “buying” your team devalue the championship — the end result that all NBA teams strive to obtain? Does how you win really matter? And, if it does, how can we decide which method of winning is “better” or “more satisfying”?
Let’s tackle the questions, one at a time. To answer the first question accurately, it’s important to realize that all 30 NBA teams are all in the same boat — they have the same salary cap ($58.7 million this season), the same roster limit (15) and the same pool of players to choose from. Each team can exceed the cap and dive into the luxury tax if necessary.
Some teams have limited resources or the team in place isn’t good enough to necessitate spending money. So they don’t, opting to save money in hopes of finding the next superstar to vault their franchise to the next level. Others, like Miami, have the luxury of spending money. They can afford to spend $56.9 million per year on three players — a whopping 96.9 percent of their salary cap. They merely took advantage of the system in place in order to field the best team possible. The Spurs, too, operate under the same fiscal constraints. In total, the difference between Miami and the Spurs is $17 million per year — an additional $1.1 million per player. The disparity between the two teams is overblown, given the parameters of the CBA. This isn’t the Houston Astros spending $26.1 million and the New York Yankees spending $228.1 million last season. This is two very good teams taking advantage of once-in-a-generation star players and spending just enough to field a formidable team. Miami’s two titles in the LeBron era mean just as much Duncan’s titles.
Next question. Does how you win really matter? We’d like to believe that’s the case, that winning the “right” way is better than winning the “wrong” way. It’s what we’ve learned as kids, what we teach our kids and the ideology that guides our lives. But, what, exactly is winning the right way? And what’s the wrong way?
The Spurs way is plugging role players around Duncan, Parker and Ginobili, cultivating roles where they can succeed and operating in a ruthlessly efficient system. The Heat way is plugging role players around James, Wade and Bosh, cultivating roles where they can succeed and operating in a ruthlessly efficient system … sound familiar? They are essentially the same; the difference is how they arrived to the point. That’s a distinction fans rarely make. They take one event — James, Wade and Bosh signing in Miami — to discredit how they play basketball, how they win. Miami’s pace-and-space offense puts their players in the optimal position to succeed. They aren’t a one-man team, even though it’s easy to just credit LeBron. For reference: The Spurs averaged 25.9 assists per 100 possessions, tops in the league. Miami averaged 24 assists per 100 possessions, seventh in the league.
But, for the sake of the argument, let’s say how you win matters. What makes one form of winning better than the other? There’s plenty of ways to win a championship, but they all begin, and end, with one step: Acquiring a franchise player. The Bulls, Lakers, Celtics and Spurs acquired their franchise player in the NBA Draft. Miami, an outlier, signed their franchise player in free agency. Houston has been on both ends of the spectrum — they’ve won titles with Hakeem Olajuwon, who they drafted in the 1984 draft, and, if everything falls in place, they’ll add more with James Harden and Dwight Howard, acquired in free agency and via trade.
Once you find that franchise player — the first step is easily the most difficult step in the process since it isn’t a guarantee — you need enough quality players to support him. That’s where player evaluation comes in. The best teams identify positions and skills in need and find players (ideally as cheap as possible) to fulfill the roles. Regardless of whether you draft or sign players, the best teams exercise the same judgment. They just use different methods.
But buying a team is easy, they say. What Miami pulled off could’ve easily been derailed multiple times. Fielding an entire NBA roster around three players soaking almost all of their resources isn’t a task for the weak-minded. You also have to find players willing to take pay cuts and concede possessions. All the while making sure to appease three of the best basketball players in the world. If buying a team was easy, we’d see every team try and replicate the model. The Miami way isn’t rocket science, but it’s basketball calculus.
So why is the Spurs way better than the Heat way? Or why is the Heat way better than the Spurs way? Neither question has a concrete answer, because it simply doesn’t exist. Winning is the end-all-be-all in professional sports. Limiting a basketball team to one right way ignores the fact that there is so many ways to win a basketball game. Gritty, defensive teams have won titles. Teams with one superstar have won. Teams with two superstars and even three have won. Dynamic, offensive teams have won titles.
The Spurs built their organization from the top-down. It took several years to create the ideal culture and they had to constantly tinker with the system to adapt to the league and the ability of Duncan. Miami’s rise to the scene was much quicker, but still took one year to realize their fullest potential. LeBron, Wade and Bosh thought they could step on the court and win multiple titles with talent alone. But, even the indomitable Heat, have been on the brink of elimination on several different occasions. They’ve been tested, molded by their defeats and wins. Like all championship teams.
Built, bought, whatever. It’s just basketball. Let’s agree to appreciate the Spurs and Heat for what they are — two amazing basketball teams that arrived to the same end in a different way.