In the midst of pondering more intriguing draft scenarios for the surging Toronto Raptors at pick No. 20, I was stopped in my tracks by watching Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
It wasn’t anything overtly crazy or even anything I haven’t seen before; the Heat have made it look easy for the last couple of years and the Spurs had something of a boring dynasty prior to that.
But that performance by the San Antonio Spurs on Thursday night, a team that still, stupidly, belies my always-tempered expectations, was not only extraordinary, but sobering in the realization that the collection of “good” teams in the NBA have so much work to do before they get to a legitimate championship level.
The Raptors are in that “good” group. The fact that they are entrenched there but still very young only increases the optimism. And that’s fine, not every team can make the Finals or win the title.
But it looks to me like an efficiency precedent has been set among the elite teams. Perhaps it’s hyperbole on my part after watching one super productive game from a team of questionable athleticism and ideally specialized role players, but it makes me wonder whether a team like the Toronto Raptors has the players or philosophy to fit such a model.
The Spurs shot 59 percent in Game 1. They do it with my nemesis, Danny Green, playing nearly 30 minutes a game. This is not the most talented team in the NBA and I could probably make the case that there are a handful of more explosive, more talented teams.
No one on the Spurs is capable of carrying a team to a championship the way LeBron James can; Tim Duncan had the ability to do that eight years ago and I always felt the same way about a hot Manu Ginobili, but both just supplement the machine now.
And it is a machine. It is a ruthlessly efficient system that seemingly puts marginal players into positions to amplify their few strengths (Green), yet allows for the creativity of natural playmakers (Tony Parker, Ginobili) and strangely brilliant passers (Boris Diaw), all within the confines of a system that everyone seems to know, respect, and really, feel honored to be a part of.
Just watching the Spurs collectively swallow up the heroics of the nearly immortal one-man show on the other side, it can give teams a tentative hope that such a build, without an elite superstar, is doable. But at the same time it has to make them think about what they are missing with their own role players or system; how can the Spurs’ success so outstretch theirs?
Maybe Gregg Popovich simply is that good and for all the new faces that make a splash, he is unrivaled in his approach, preparation, and ability to maximize the strengths of his personnel.
In looking at the Raptors, they appear to have more flash than someone like Popovich would appreciate. As often as I pontificate about how Danny Green would fit on any other team in the NBA, I would love to know how DeMar DeRozan would fit on a Popovich squad.
Would Kyle Lowry’s bull-in-a-china-shop offensive style interfere with the entire way that the elegant, controlled Spurs are set up to succeed? Would the boom-or-bust nature of Terrence Ross even have a place in Pop’s rotation?
Even the athletic outlier in the Spurs lineup, Kawhi Leonard, seemingly has a high basketball IQ and never looks out of control or lost.
Now I am hardly interested in going down the entire Raptors roster and explaining how they do or don’t fit into the efficient Spurs model that has me as captivated (although it shouldn’t) as I’ve been with the NBA in a while. But it is interesting. I am going to sit and watch Game 2 thinking about the movement and the passing and the easy shots that come from them. I’m going to watch role players be comfortable in their role and thrive when their number is called.
And I’m going to watch teammates have a trust in each other that I have to think can only be fostered from spending years together, studying and playing the game through the lens of a singular objective of success from work and total lack of ego.
Then I’m going to think about those young Raptors who said all the right things at the end of the year. If they are watching the finals, and true to those words, then perhaps the foundation for that model, if even just a little, has been laid. What’s it going to be, Mr. Lowry?