The NBA, just like any other major league sport, is a superstar-driven league. While the definition of superstar is certainly fluid, historically NBA superstars are such, because they can take over a game offensively and score their team to victory. The 2013 NBA Finals were no exception to superstar power. In Game 7, when it mattered most, LeBron James stepped up and was the best player on the court and on the planet. While the San Antonio Spurs’ Big Three have all been superstars at one point in their careers, they are now merely regular stars, except when Tony Parker decides to glimmer a bit brighter. Yes, the Spurs lost Game 6 because they could not get a rebound, Miami hit two extremely lucky shots and Manu Ginobili missed a rare clutch free throw (albeit he had developed a strange habit of missing clutch free throws throughout this past season). However, the real reason the Spurs lost in the NBA Finals was that they do not have a superstar who is able to consistently take the offense over late in games, when it matters most.
Tim Duncan had an All-Star year at 37 years old. He completely dominated the first half of Game 6 of the NBA Finals. It was one of the best halves of basketball in his career. But at 37, Duncan cannot sustain that level of play for an entire game. After Game 1, Tony did not play at a superstar level during the Finals, as he did in the previous round. Tony’s play was hampered by a combination of a hamstring injury he suffered in Game 3, Miami’s blitzing defense, fatigue and LeBron James. While Tony did have an MVP caliber regular season for the second season in a row, also for the second season in a row, teams with aggressive, long defenders where able to largely neuter Tony in the playoffs. As far as Manu goes, this season is near damning evidence that he is at the tail end of being a reliable offensive contributor. With that said, look for somewhat of a comeback year from Manu this season. He will not be an all-star caliber player, but expect the efficiency to return along with his typical, somewhat accurate shooting. He is on the decline but not done yet and will put together a few more memorable moments next season.
Bottom line is that the Spurs do not have a superstar who can consistently score when the offensive system is foiled and the responsibility to score falls on individual players. Obviously coming across a player of that caliber is extremely rare. LeBron James, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Derrick Rose, Chris Paul – these guys win games because they are the best players in the league. The Spurs win games because they have the best offensive system in the league (it can be argued that the real superstar for the Spurs is their offensive system) and have now developed an almost equally potent defense. As vetted and vaunted as San Antonio’s offense is, long, athletic and defensively aggressive teams like Miami and Oklahoma City have proven they can break San Antonio’s system over the course of a seven-game series. These teams will aggressively trap Tony Parker and the Spurs do not have another ball handler capable of initiating the offense and scoring at will. Unfortunately, Tim and Manu are beneficiaries of the system at this stage of their career, not initiators. In 2007, each of the Spurs’ Big Three could carry the team offensively even with the rest of the roster barely contributing. Now the Spurs legitimately go 12 deep, with a slew of role players that can punch above their weight any given night. But, just like Tim and Manu, all of these role players are the beneficiaries of the system and when the system breaks, they do not have the skill set to consistently score on their own.
So, unless Marco Belinelli is suddenly transformed into the love child of the 1991-92 versions of Drazen Petrovic and Sarunas Marciulionis (anyone over the age of 30 will get that reference), the Spurs roster is still devoid of any player outside Tony Parker that can consistently create offense at will. It is unlikely that a system that has taken the Spurs to the brink of a championship these last two seasons, but failing to actually achieve one for the same reason each season, will produce a different result with the exact same personnel next season.
Unless… Part 2 next week.