The San Antonio Spurs have won the 2014 NBA championship and in the process they have discovered a new path to the championship. For at least the last 30 years the conventional wisdom of how to win a Championship in the NBA was to have the game’s greatest player along with another top ten player or two. Michael Jordan solidified this concept more than anyone by winning six championships while he was the undisputed best player in the game and probably the game’s best individual player of all time. Therefore, the NBA championships have been won by Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James etc. rather than by the teams they play for.
There have been other more team-oriented champions in the past including the 2008 Celtics and the two Detroit Piston’s championship teams (2004 & 1988, ’89). However, those teams seemed to be exceptions rather than trends and analysts created explanations of how the team’s dominant defenses were led by superstar defenders. Stylistically, the 2011 Dallas Maverick champions used a lot of ball movement to dominate offensively. Even LeBron James is considered to be a very team-oriented, pass-first superstar.
The Spurs have taken the concept to a new level. Tony Parker, their leading scorer, was 51st in the league in scoring in the regular season with 16.7 points per game. This is lower than the leading scorer of any previous NBA champion. On any night up to 8 players might be their best player. It seems that it does not matter who matter who enters the game for them. All of their players play at a high level. Amazingly, none of their players other than Tim Duncan, have been drafted higher than number 15. Meanwhile, the Miami Heat has 7 players who were picked in the top 5!
So how do they do it? They simply have the most gorgeous screening and passing attack a basketball court has ever seen. They carve their opponent apart with a multitude of surgically precise passes until they create just the shot they want. It’s the Spurs’ system that won the championship. All of the players know exactly how to execute the system and they go about it methodically game after game. The passing seemed to wear down Miami on both ends of the floor as they had to chased the ball all over the court, always one step behind it and leaving them no opportunities to fast break and no energy left to attack.
Passing is not the only thing the Spurs do well. They certainly play smart defense and shoot the ball well but it is their most dominant feature.
The Spurs have been doing this so well for so long that I think the rest of the league is going to have to pay attention this time and see if there is a new way to build a championship contender other than having the best player in the league on their team and hoping he recruits his superstar friends. The Spurs have demonstrated that the new superstar in the NBA is an amazing, team oriented passing attack. It’s such an exquisite thing to watch that, if the rest of the league does try to emulate the Spurs style, the fans will be the winners.