The Spurs are a different sort of NBA champion, as everyone has figured out by now. And not just because of style of play.
The style of play – the crisp ball movement that everyone wants to emulate – is grand but difficult. The Spurs have been trying to win a title like that since 2007 and didn’t make it back to the Finals until 2013. Didn’t win until Sunday night.
So while it’s a wonderful way to win, it’s not a snap-your-fingers method of success. But it is the way the Spurs had to win. They couldn’t just overpower people. San Antonio, in the twilight years of Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, are superstarless.
That wasn’t the case in San Antonio’s earlier titles. In 1999, 2003, 2005 and 2007, the Spurs had Duncan in his prime, and he was an absolute superstar. Ginobili earlier in the 2000s was sort of a hidden superstar. The Spurs’ system sort of hid his stardom, but no one on the world basketball stage ever thought of Manu as anything but a total marvel. Ginobili led Argentina to the 2004 Olympic gold medal. Think about that one for a minute.
Now, of course, Duncan is 38 and Ginobili is 36 and even Tony Parker is 32. Parker is the nearest thing the Spurs have to a superstar, and he’s not. Parker is close, and he’s San Antone’s most valuable player over the long haul, but he’s not a superstar in the current NBA vernacular.
Which makes the Spurs different. Which makes the Spurs like the 2004 Pistons.
Detroit a decade ago was the last team to win the title without a superstar.
These Spurs were led in scoring by Parker, who averaged 16.7 points a game. Duncan averaged 15.1 and Leonard 12.8, Ginobili 12.3 and Marco Belinelli 11.4.
NBA champions almost always have someone or someones who carry a much heavier scoring load. LeBron averaged 26.8 and 27.1 for the last two Heat teams, and Dwyane Wade chipped in 21.2 and 22.1.
The 2011 Mavericks had Dirk Nowitzki averaging 23.0 points a game.
The Lakers had Kobe Bryant average 27.0 and 26.8 in their back-to-back title years (2009 and 2010), and Pau Gasol was 18.3 and 18.9.
I guess the 2008 Celtics came closest to San Antonio. Paul Pierce averaged 19.6, Kevin Garnett 18.8 and Ray Allen 17.4. That’s three players scoring more than Parker scored this season, but not way more. But there was some sacrificing going on; the previous season, Allen had averaged 26.4 in Seattle, Pierce 25.0 in Boston and Garnett 22.4 in Minnesota. They were bonafide superstars.
As was Duncan in 2007, when he averaged 20.0 points on the previous Spur title team. Parker averaged 18.6 and Ginobili 16.5. The Spurs being the Spurs, that’s almost exactly what the numbers were in the title season of 2005 – Duncan 20.3, Parker 16.6, Ginobili 16.0. In 2003, Duncan averaged 23.3.
The 2006 Heat had Wade at 27.2 and Shaq at 20.0.
The Laker teams of 2000 through 2002 had Shaq and Kobe. The ’99 Spurs had Duncan at 21.7. The Chicago title teams had Jordan. The Rocket title teams had Hakeem.
But in the middle of all that sat the 2004 Pistons.
Remember that squad of Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince and the Wallace brothers (not really), Rasheed and Ben? Most fans would not guess correctly on who was Detroit’s leading scorer.
It was Hamilton, at 17.6. Billups averaged 16.9 and Rasheed Wallace 13.7. And here is my favorite stat from that Detroit team: the Piston who played the most was Ben Wallace, the stud defensive center, 37.7 minutes a game. He averaged 9.5 points.
That’s the team most like these Spurs. Hard to pick out their best player, though you’d eventually settle on Parker for San Antonio and Billups for Detroit.
Those Pistons were the closest thing to these Spurs in terms of team unity. Detroit didn’t pass the ball like San Antonio, but the Pistons were a starless team, led by a great coach.
Larry Brown formed those Pistons into a great unit on the quick – Rasheed Wallace arrived in February via trade. (As an aside, not all seemingly one-sided trades turn out that way. The three-team deal between the Pistons, Boston and Atlanta included only Wallace as a difference-maker; guys like Chris Mills, Mike James, Bob Sura, Chucky Atkins and Lindsey Hunter were involved. But the Hawks got a draft pick that turned into Josh Smith, and the Celtics got a draft pick that turned into Tony Allen. Nobody should be complaining).
That Piston team was even more of an amazing squad than these Spurs. For while San Antonio at least has guys who once were superstars or might be overlooked stars today, that Detroit team didn’t sniff a superstar.
The 2004 Pistons weren’t like the 1989 and 1990 Pistons, who spread the scoring around, too, led by Isiah Thomas (18.4, 18.2). Thomas was a superstar, for better or for worse.
But still, take nothing away from the 2014 Spurs. Their balance was superb. Parker’s 16.7 points a game is the lowest for the leading scorer of an NBA champion since the 1951 Rochester Royals, who were led by Arnie Risen, 16.3. The Royals moved to Cincinnati in 1957, moved to Kansas City in 1972 (and became the Kings, there already was a Royals in town) and moved to Sacramento in 1985. That franchise still awaits its second NBA title.