San Antonio was, rightfully, all smiles as it celebrated its well-earned 2013-14 NBA championship on Sunday evening. These aren’t levels that should be really be judged, but it was hard to recall a giddier Finals champion than these Spurs, even counting their combatants from Miami – who in one fell swoop downed the doubters and kept their expected longtime adversaries from Oklahoma City at bay in winning a ring in 2012.
Oklahoma City was supposed to return to the Finals for the next, oh, seven or eight years following that, but it has been the Spurs who have represented the West in the two seasons since. San Antonio was so, so close to downing the Heat last season, and it makes sense their cheeks hurt from smiling on Sunday night as they climbed all the way back to avenge what could have been a career-altering set of the bummers in the wake of missing out on the 2013 title.
A brand new set of bummers doesn’t exactly await these Spurs, but they do face some tough questions heading into the 2014 offseason. Tim Duncan hasn’t fully (much less legally) signed off on playing through the final year of his contract for next season, and even though Duncan’s legacy is secure and he’s not in it for the money, it’s hard to see him walking away from $10 million. Especially once one considers the fact that Duncan, even at age 38, is still very much worth $10 million next season if things hold up or (as expected) decline slightly.
Unless Gregg Popovich has some nasty reaction to the way Tony Parker started Sunday’s Game 5, missing his first 10 shots along the way, the Spurs will secure the final year of his deal in which he’s set to make $12.5 million, while Manu Ginobili ranks as the team’s fourth-highest paid player with a guarantee of $7 million for next season.
Comparing the relative pay cuts each of San Antonio’s Big Three took in order to keep this thing together to Miami’s potential for pay cuts for LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade isn’t fair. With the possible exception of Parker over Wade on some evenings, Miami’s trio is better, and they’re already to be commended for taking smallish pay cuts during the 2010 offseason to make this work. San Antonio may have a 15-year dynastic run and they may have just topped the Heat in five stunning games, but Miami has made four straight Finals – something San Antonio wasn’t able to do during its 2010-14 run, or any other span.
San Antonio already has the edge over Miami in terms of flexibility, but once again Miami has the space to try something spectacular over its offseason. If the Heat’s stars are really serious about pay cuts, they could scare people all over again.
The Spurs? They’re the champs and to be respected as such, but things won’t be as boffo.
Once again, San Antonio will have to trim around the edges in order to find the sort of depth and versatility needed to play 7 1/2 months of killer basketball once again. Assuming Parker and Duncan stay, the Spurs will have to have the sort of respectful free-agent negotiations they enjoyed with their stars as they talk to Boris Diaw, a free agent who could make more elsewhere as the Spurs attempt to re-tool. San Antonio’s best hope is that potential free-agent suitors might be scared off at a less-enthused Diaw playing for more money away from Parker and coach Gregg Popovich’s system, which could lessen his market value. San Antonio can’t exacerbate that and potentially hurt his feelings by throwing too low an offer at a big man who at times seemed to save their season.
Free agent Matt Bonner, sadly, is probably out, Austin Daye’s contract will probably be declined, and San Antonio will once again hope that internal development from Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter could put this team over the top in 2014-15.
Then, we have the Patty Mills Question.
San Antonio stuck with Mills as he figured out a role in this league as a shoot-first point guard off the bench, and his style of game figures to translate better to different teams more than Diaw’s would, and his skills (he can handle the ball and chase guards away from the ball defensively when motivated) would also seem to work in other environments better than the somewhat combustible ex-Spur Gary Neal’s did. Mills will get offers.
And San Antonio, frankly, should play along. The guy can score, he’s been improving month by month since entering 2013-14 with a slimmer frame, and in a way he’s the anti-Diaw – a guy who is (rightfully) only looking for his own shot once the play breaks down.
San Antonio, technically, will have just about double-figure cap room entering this summer , but they also have Diaw, Mills, a guaranteed first-round draft pick (provided they don’t deal it for a spate of seconds), the respective cap holds for those players and a few other roster spots to fill out. And, as it was last year and in just about every season since we started wondering if the team’s legs could make it until June, we’ll just wait things out.
Good thing we never get tired of waiting for these guys to come back. Enjoy your summer, champs.
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Kelly Dwyer is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at KDonhoops@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @KDonhoops
Gary Neal played 28 minutes off the bench against the Heat on Sunday, scoring 17 points with three boards and two 3-pointers.
The Scoop:He ate into Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's playing time, which is not really a surprise. MKG doesn't bring much on the offensive end and didn't score in the first half before putting in five after halftime, so this probably going to be a trend in this series.
The playoffs begin on Saturday, thankfully, which means it’s that lovely time of spring (and it is spring, right? It’s not going to snow again, is it?) when the minds behind Ball Don’t Lie to offer you their thoughts on the upcoming pairings in the first round of the NBA’s postseason.
Kelly Dwyer’s Old Grey Whistle Test
For those just hopping to the NBA season, understand the Charlotte Bobcats didn’t luck or back their way into their second (and final, considering the franchise’s imminent name change) playoffs.
Sadly for Charlotte, the Miami Heat didn’t, either.
You didn’t hear much about the Miami Heat this year, comparatively, because a lack of a 27-game winning streak will do that to a nation’s fancy. The Indiana Pacers held the Eastern Conference’s best record for nearly every day of the 2013-14 regular season, the San Antonio Spurs finished with the league’s best regular season record yet again, and Oklahoma City Thunder superstar Kevin Durant will likely and rightfully lope away with the NBA MVP award, ending LeBron James’ run with the hardware.
The Heat are the champs, though. And not in the “we’ll-call-them-the-champs-until-someone-knocks-them-out” way. That doesn’t mean that 2013-14 was a triumphant regular season turn, however.
The team won only 54 games, fewer than the Chicago Bulls (57) and Los Angeles Lakers (58) did during their three-peat conquerings in 1993 and 2002, and with Miami mostly working in an embarrassing Eastern Conference that saw the Heat lose twice to the Philadelphia 76ers and twice to the Boston Celtics. Dwyane Wade missed 29 games not just because he sat out on the second night of back-to-backs, but also because of a worrying late-season hamstring pull. Ray Allen shot, gasp, just about an average mark from 3-point range.
This is also a team that may just have 15 or 16 games between now and the start of the Finals. This is a team that can run James for huge heaps of minutes, while Wade works at his leisure, with Chris Bosh fitting in wherever needed. Allen’s 3-point percentage starts over on Sunday. Shane Battier grows angel wings. Erik Spoelstra gets to hammer out a game plan against the same opponent, over and over, rather than working against four other coaches in five nights.
Pity those poor Charlotte Bobcats. Kind of.
These Bobcats earned this. “Rookie” head coach Steve Clifford should be a Coach of the Year candidate, and had his team been on national television more often he’d probably have won the damn thing. The Bobcats have evolved into a team with solid depth, and most importantly to a playoff drive, the group defends like mad in spite of the presence of Al Jefferson on the floor.
Of course, the Bobcats wouldn’t be nearly where they are currently with Jefferson, who turned in a career year some six years after tearing his ACL, working in a new environment with a (damn good) point guard in Kemba Walker who isn’t exactly what we’d call “pass-first.”
If you haven’t seen Big Al, prepare for a throwback. Over 22 points and 11 boards in 35 minutes a game, despite needing the season’s first two months to work his way back (mostly on the court) from an ankle sprain. Low-post goodness, in a league that frowns on such things. Touch and footwork and a needed go-to option after a play breaks down for a team that ranked just 24th in offense.
He should have made the All-Star team, but in a lot of ways it was best that he missed it. The All-Star Game wastes talents like Jefferson, and those few days off in mid-February likely helped the player that led Charlotte to a 20-9 record following a showcase that tends to exclude players of a Bobcatian nature.
The ride is likely over. James is basically as tall as Jefferson. Walker had a very good year, but he shot 39 percent to Wade’s 54 percent. Bosh is floating, and the other Heat veterans have been through this before. It’s true that, somehow, Charlotte runs deeper than Miami, but none of this will likely matter when James spies Josh McRoberts’ too-cute entry pass from a mile away, swipes it and turns it into two points before Bobcat fans can even recall they’ll become the Hornets again this fall.
Fair-weather NBA fans? Happily introduce yourself to the Charlotte Bobcats, because this is a team worth watching.
Also, re-introduce yourself to the Miami Heat, because this is a team worth fearing.
Prediction: Miami in 4.
Dan Devine's One Big Question
Every postseason matchup has its own unique set of variables for each team, and prognosticator, to attempt to solve. Here's one that BDL's Dan Devine has been mulling over.
How much energy will Miami have to expend in Round 1?
LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh begin their bid for a fourth straight trip to the NBA finals against a Bobcats team that looks to be heavily overmatched and whom the Heat swept during the regular season. A closer look at the season series, though, suggests that what appears to be a squash might not be quite as breezy as Erik Spoelstra might like.
While the Heat did go 4-0 against the Bobcats, two of those games were nail-biters. There was a one-point Dec. 1 win in which the Big Three all played, but Charlotte point guard Kemba Walker (27 points on 10 for 22 shooting, six assists) largely got where he wanted, and a mid-January overtime victory that saw James (34 points, eight rebounds, six assists) and Bosh (25 points, seven rebounds) carry the day for a resting Wade to come back from a seven-point halftime deficit.
One blowout came while All-NBA-caliber Charlotte center Al Jefferson was sidelined with an ankle injury, which represents a sizable asterisk. The other happened when James became Death, Destroyer of Worlds . (That one still holds up.)
Still, while the Heat stumbled to the finish line by going 13-14 after March 1 -- including some games, to be fair, where they weren't exactly going all-out for the W -- Charlotte played perhaps their best ball of the year. The Bobcats won three straight to finish the regular season and nine of their last 11, including three tough overtime wins against fellow Eastern playoff squads (the Brooklyn Nets, Washington Wizards and Chicago Bulls).
The Bobcats went 16-9 after the February deal to import Gary Neal and Luke Ridnour from the Milwaukee Bucks, a move that added (some) long-range shooting and secondary ball-handling, and helped boost the Bobcats' offense from a dreadful 25th in points scored per possession pre-trade to a middle-of-the-pack 16th afterward. Another key helper: Josh McRoberts, the beautifully coiffed power forward whose fantastic touch as a high-post passer (five dimes per 36 minutes, assisting on nearly 22 percent of his teammates' buckets while he's on the floor) has paired perfectly with Big Al's left-block mastery, and whose long-range shooting (36.1 percent from 3-point land) has helped give Jefferson room to cook.
Gerald Henderson's production has dipped virtually across the board this season, but the versatile wing tends to be a bellwether; he's shooting 45.4 percent from the floor and 37.5 percent from 3 in Charlotte wins, and just 41.3/32.2 in losses. When he tries too hard to create his own offense, he can hurt more than he helps, but when he simply plays his role -- making smart cuts to take advantage of the attention Jefferson draws, or finding openings on the perimeter to be available for spot-up shots off kickouts -- he can threaten.
Rookie Cody Zeller has come on since the All-Star break , shooting 50 percent and averaging nearly eight points and five rebounds in 18 1/2 minutes per game by crashing the offensive boards, running the floor and ducking in off the weak side to dunk dump-off passes. Chris Douglas-Roberts has gone from scrap-heap signee to valuable piece in head coach Steve Clifford's rotation, adding complementary scoring and rebounding while providing defensive versatility on the wing and making some big shots .
Charlotte is a patient, careful team that turned the
Tanking remains a concern for many NBA fans and analysts, but there's no question why teams consider it a useful plan. Strategic losing gives teams a chance to rebuild and reload their rosters through the draft. It's the most apparent way of landing a star-quality player and becoming a true contender.
This manner of rebuilding has become such an acceptable plan that it's easy to identify several franchises that enter the season with little hope of making the postseason. This fall, those intentional losers appeared to include the Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns (a surprise playoff contender until finally being eliminated on Monday night ), and Utah Jazz, among others. Yet the worst team of the 2013-14 season may not have intended to be anywhere near this terrible.
On Monday, the Milwaukee Bucks lost to the Atlantic Division champion Toronto Raptors 110-100 . The defeat pushed the Bucks' record on the season to 15-66, or three games worse than the 18-63 Sixers, who defeated the Boston Celtics . With only one game remaining for both teams, the Bucks have now clinched the worst record in the NBA and the highest odds of winning the draft lottery at 25 percent.
It does not appear that the Bucks planned to be picking this high in the draft. This summer, the Bucks made it very clear that their leadership (including owner and former U.S. senator Herb Kohl) does not condone losing on purpose and thinks such a practice would harm their public image and put them in a precarious financial position. Although the Bucks lost backcourt members Monta Ellis, J.J. Redick, and Brandon Jennings in the offseason, they believed that pickups like O.J. Mayo, Brandon Knight, and Gary Neal would meld with young and improving frontcourt players Larry Sanders, Ersan Ilyasova, and John Henson to form a group capable of challenging for a playoff spot in the weak Eastern Conference.
Instead, Milwaukee has experienced something like a worst case scenario. None of the offseason pickups has played up to expectations, with Neal getting dealt at the deadline ; Sanders has undergone a season-long nightmare that includes on-court griping and regression, off-court issues , injury , and suspension ; and no one else has made enough of a leap to make up for it (although rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo looks like one of the league's most promising young talents). It's been a giant mess, and Bucks fans will likely to be glad to see the season end (if they haven't checked out already).
The Bucks can now do no worse than the fourth selection in the draft. However, as the math suggests, they're not guaranteed to have their pick or the litter in June. The worst team in the NBA has won the lottery only three of 24 times since the league adopted a weighted system in 1990. The Bucks still have 25 percent odds, since the math doesn't change regardless of past results, but that history does show that getting the first pick is no sure thing.
The question for the anti-tanking crowd is if they deserve it. Based on their common claims, the system worked in the 2013-14 season. If the Bucks did indeed enter the season with the intention of winning, then they lost while giving it a fair shot, standing as one of the NBA's worst seasons for pretty much the full 82-game schedule. On the other hand, this show of effort made the Bucks significantly less watchable than those teams that appeared to enter the season with tanking in mind. The Bucks' pursuit of veteran free agents didn't just make them irrelevant, as some of us predicted they would be — it also made them a horror show on the court. As ever, putting forth an effort to win is not necessarily a form of progress.
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Eric Freeman is a writer for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter!
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