Big Three Basketball
The Story So Far
The Best Thing About Game Five
What Miami Has to Do Differently
Tonight is Game Six of the NBA Finals, with the beloved San Antonio Spurs up against the Miami’s hated Heat. I called “Spurs in six” before the series started but I don’t know if I really believed it; or if I were just saying it at the time, hoping — like a prayer — it would come true. Surely smart money was betting on the Spurs, but that had more to do with dumb money over-valuing favorites than the Spurs’ actual likelihood of winning; Miami with LeBron James has posted a truly special brand of offense this year, and looked quite unstoppable relative to the rest of the Eastern Conference during the first 82 games. “Spurs in six” was borne mostly out of the surprising Indiana series… Miami lost more games in the Indiana series than the Spurs lost all through their Western Conference playoff run… and Miami didn’t even have to contend with Steph Curry throwing Red Shells.
The Spurs, for their part, were gorgeous last season; it looked in fact like they were going to win the entire playoffs without losing a game… Until they abruptly fell in four straight to Kevin Durant, James Harden and the OKC Thunder after going up two in the 2012 Western Conference Finals. It was understandable, even given the Spurs’ offensive brilliance going on 30 games… The Thunder last year were a kind of younger version of the Spurs, down to playing their most efficient scorer off the bench, and it looked like the old guys just petered out.
The Spurs were old and the Thunder sprightly. The Spurs’ magical 2012 offensive system gave way to the Thunder’s combination of youth and talent, and though OKC took the first game of the Finals… Evil reigned for at least one year while confetti rained in South Beach.
This year things seem different; though for my part as a fan and observer, as Timmy gets ever-closer to a fifth ring, I pang at the idea of his having won back-to-backs*; Manu Ginobli has traded off with Wade as the best shooting guard in the league for most of the last decade (the joke being that Kobe Bryant won MVP in 2008 and Manu won Sixth Man the same year… and Manu was even or better in every statistical area but minutes played / shots taken); and over the last season or two Tony Parker has stepped up from being a Kobe-junior sort of flashy scorer to a truly productive Stockton-esque penetrating PG, making his deadly quickness more unpredictable than ever for defenses.
The emergence of Parker as a legitimate stud (instead of “just” a scoring machine) combined with the quiet superstardom of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green (both worth essentially two standard NBA players in their own rights) makes this Finals against the archenemy Heat not just a legitimate contest but a fleeting model-breaker.
Commentary on contending NBA basketball teams in the current era focuses a lot on “Big Three” lineups; as a fan I think of this discourse coming out of the 2008 Boston Celtics team, which was designed around LeBron-light (and eventual MVP) Paul Pierce, sharpshooter Ray Allen, and PF Duncan-rival Kevin Garnett (who had spent some seasons as the legitimate best player in the game, albeit relegated to a non-contending team… kind of like his Kevin-inheritor Kevin Love today). The Big Three model has existed longer than that of course, but to my exposure it seems closely tied to the ’08 Celtics.
Basketball is a study in force multiplication, similar to the Landsraad units versus Fremen or Sardaukar in Dune. In Dune, the fundamental unit in an armed engagement is a Landsraad soldier. The Emperor’s stranglehold on military supremecy comes from a monopoly of fanatical soldiers (the Sardaukar) who are the equivalent of 10 Landsraad each.
The best of the Atreides soldiers — Duncan Idaho — is able to “trade with” and unheard-of 19 Saurdaukar in a key siege of the conflict:
… Implying that Idaho is essentially worth 190 common Landsraad.
Dune conflict is a combination of force fields, giant wurms, forbidden nuclear missles, surprise explosions, and most of all swordfighting. It is dazzling — given Frank Herbert’s universe — to imagine one hero slicing through 189 common soldiers before trading with the last one.
Force multiplication is key to the Atreides family eventually usurping the Empire; Paul Atreides acquires the harshly-trained Fremen, who are near-Sardaukar in per-unit military efficacy.
Basketball is much the same. You can’t go up against a Big Three (and two other guys) with five regular guys; or even one All-Star and four regular guys. Teams like Miami were built to contend with [other] three All-Star teams, essentially packing the efficacy of 10+ players into five bodies on the floor. For his part, LeBron James is worth about 3.5 men.
An average NBA basketball player produces at an average level. The common Landsraad soldier of the National Basketball Association, they take anaverage number of shots that produce an average number of points; they take care of they ball in an average fashion. Or not. Kyrie Irving is a good example. He is an absolute poet on offense… But possibly the worst NBA defender on any team. If you rated players only by their point production (as a deceptive mainstream media does), Kyrie would be perhaps the best of Guards… But he doesn’t excel at rebounding, doesn’t take great care of the ball, and doesn’t pass at an elite level… at least not when compared to [other] elite PGs. To date, Kyrie Irving is no Duncan Idaho.
Contributing to a basketball team’s wins comes in two flavors:
- Cultivation of possessions (steals, rebounds).
- Conversion of possessions to points [at a high rate]; generally you can score two-point shots at a high percentage (Tyson Chandler), get to the free throw line consistently (James Harden), or nail three pointers (Danny Green) to produce above par offensively. Taking a lot of shots at a low rate can rack up a point total… But doesn’t necessarily help your team win.
LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Carmelo Anthony are often spoken about in the same breath. One of these things is not like the others.
Both James and Durant take 22-23 shots per 48 minutes. James scores at a stunning 56.5% (1.5 PPS) and Durant 51% and 1.59 PPS.
Melo — now the NBA scoring “champion” — shoots a gaudy 29 times per 48 minutes… But shoots only 45%… Less than 80% of LeBron’s efficiency. He is quite simply not in the same category as James or Durant. He just shoots a lot! Melo scores 2-4 points more than LeBron and Durant per 48 minutes, but has to burn seven possessions to do so. That means Tyson Chandler (NYK’s elite rebounder) has to work that much harder to get his team scoring opportunities… That end up as misses.
Turnovers and missed shots are poison to the cultivation of possessions. Possessions lead to scoring opportunities; you want them, and want to restrict the opponent from having extra opportunities.
This season LeBron James is worth about three-and-a-half NBA players on the floor. James over-produces by scoring at an amazing rate when he has the ball, taking lots of shots (that he translates successfully), while standing out in many other areas, such as pulling down tons of rebounds, blocking shots, stealing the ball, and passing to his teammates.
Back to the Boston “Big Three” Championship year 2008, the Celtics posted a starting lineup of:
- PG Rajon Rondo: 1.9 NBA players
- SG Ray Allen: 1.8 NBA players
- SF Paul Pierce: 2+ NBA players
- PF Kevin Garnett: ~3 NBA players
- C Kendrick Perkins: 1.5 NBA players
These Celtics essentially outnumbered their opponents two-to-one.
Today’s Spurs can field a similarly exceptional lineup:
- PG Tony Parker: 1.8 NBA players
- sWing Danny Green: 2 NBA players
- sWing Manu Ginobili: 1.5 NBA players
- sWing Kawhi Leonard: 2.5 NBA players
- PF/C Tim Duncan: 2.5 NBA players
Pundits, commentators, and talking heads talk about fuzzy-around-the-edges things like “athleticism” or Ginobili’s “heart”; but basketball is about cultivation of possessions and conversion of possessions to points. The ancient Spurs of the last two years have perfected the art of ball movement to deepen the value of their possessions like almost no other team. Parker might be the wiliest, fastest, PG in the league but what makes the San An offense so great is the ability to counteract the athleticism of younger teams by passing Passing PASSING until they have found an open shooter. Then Bam!… Conversion at a great PPS.
Ginobili at his height has been close to 3 NBA players in efficacy (c.f. the Championship of 2007, or you know, just last year). Green and Leonard have both beeing playing at an HoF level in the finals… Into the 3-player range as well. But the most important lift is Parker who has always carried the ball for this team. His best season before this one was at a “mere” 1.5 NBA players (2007, when he won the Finals MVP) and he has languished at “average” production through most of his career. Yes, Parker has always been an unstoppable scorer but he’s also had years where he turned the ball over about as often as Russell Westbrook / he’s never been a truly elite passer or distance shooter / etc. Given the minutes Parker has to shoulder, increased production on his part is like spotting the Spurs an extra Mario Chalmers / Norris Cole for free.
In 2007 my beloved Cleveland Cavaliers, led by The Whore of Akron LeBron James (ironically?) made it to the NBA finals… Where they were summarily trounced by Duncan, Parker, Ginibili, and a different supporting cast.
Some people would have become anti-Spurs after this, but instead I studied this singular team and decided they represent all that is right and good, or at least what is possible about sports. San Antonio is a small market team. Unlike many teams including Cleveland itself that have lost superstars, San Antonio has convinced players like Duncan to take smaller salaries to continue a legacy.
And yet… We all probably talk too much about Duncan. Duncan is pretty fantastic, obviously; but you can’t reduce all four — and hopefully five — of their championships to one draft pick. Tony Parker went 28th in the draft. Kawhi Leonard — quietly San Antonio’s best player for the past two seasons — was passed up by nearly every NBA team. Danny Green was waived by my Cavaliers and picked up by San An, only emerging when Ginobili was injured. And Ginobili?
When arguably the deadliest shooting guard of the last decade was drafted, he was so unknown that the announcers couldn’t even pronounce his name! Taken 57th (!!!) Ginobili may have been the greatest steal in the history of the NBA.
San Antonio is a picture of turning lemons into lemonade.
Of their Big Three — none of Duncan, Parker, or Ginobili have ever donned another team’s jersey. Popp knows how to retain their stars.
But it goes beyond that.
San Antonio is like a case study of the best of the 1980s. San Antonio combines the transformation of Optimus Prime with the continual, successful, reinvention of Madonna.
After the 2007 win, San Antonio lost in the first round of the playoffs not once, but twice between 2008 and 2011. Popp realized that something had to change. He transformed his squad — which had been a relentless defensive team built around arguably the greatest PF of all time — to the magical offensive passing machine that we have witnessed last year and this. This has been utterly inspiring to me. Last year I had a rough patch at work where an eight-figure empire I built had to be torn down and reimagined not due to business results but — argh — industry compliance. It was a very difficult transition, but I realized that Popp did way more with the 2012 Spurs; and last month I had my best month ever.
Whenever I feel like I hit a dead end I just think of the 2012 Spurs… And all of a sudden I realize that We Can Do This.
I would summarize the Finals thus far thusly:
- Game One – Either ball club could have won; Spurs steal thanks to a little momentum and some dynamic hero-ball by Parker; Spurs commit almost no turnovers.
- Game Two – The Empire Strikes Back. Villains come in with a chip on their shoulders and bury the heroes in turnovers.
- Game Three – Erik Spoelstra Has No Idea What Is Going On Part I: Spurs move the ball Spurs-style; get every open look they want. Spoelstra utterly fails to adjust, or as far as anyone can tell, guard Danny Green. The most egregious error is leaving James in for many minutes after the game has already been decided. Dude could have gotten hurt.
- Game Four – Could have gone either way; tied at the half; in my (biased) opinion, first half was at part up to the refs. Chris Bosh being called for a $5,000 flop was just one play of about eight plays that would have had the Spurs up at the half… Which would have made for a different game **. Popp blamed the turnovers; basketball is about cultivation of possessions, after all.
- Game Five – Erik Spoelstra Has No Idea What Is Going On Part II: Every media outlet in the world talks about Manu Ginobili starting and having a breakout game… But that is not even half the story. In Game Five Popp flipped the script on Spoelstra, switching from Spurs-style ball movement to Kobe-style Iso Hero-ball. Popp turned Manu back into 2007-2008 Kobe-plus and Parker back into a penetrating Kobe-junior. Every time one of those deadly offensive guards penetrated I was anticipating a kick-out to Green or another sharpshooter… But instead they just kept driving for layups! (You could tell the Heat were looking for passes too.) Both of the previous Spurs losses hinged on turnovers (Miami guarding the frequent Spurs passes) so Popp had his guards drive past the old Allen, and broken Wade and Miller. Fucking brilliant.
From a Magic perspective it is like a U/R Storm deck siding in the Exarch Twin combo. You are still facing a U/R combo deck but instead of a kill based on lacing movement and velocity on more movement and velocity, one creature / scorer is just given the ball / Aura and goes in for infinite. Your defense is set up to stop a chain of similar spells but those digging spells are now simply poised to set up the hero creature. All your Dismembers are now in the wrong 15/75. All your game are belong to us.
"I'm LeBron James! Are you going to call six offensive fouls on me or blow the whistle on this guy nobody was talking about two months ago?"
— Michael Flores (@fivewithflores) June 13, 2013
I actually stole that from ESPN, who were at the time talking about Roy Hibbert, not Green.
But the best thing?
The refs didn’t call blocking on the guy! On a handful of occasions Wade or James was on a breakaway “sure” layup, Green got back, defended, stopped the shot and didn’t get called for a foul. Unbelievable!
Green is playing at a historic level offensively, but if he never sinks another shot this series, he will still be contributing if he can keep James in “mortal” scoring territory, restricting his ability to perform like three-and-a-half NBA players to perhaps just two.
In Game Six, Miami has to adjust to this or suffer some vicious headlines. For all the ire right-thinking men have for LeBron James, calling into question his legacy [again] over a Popp-over-Spoelstra defeat is simply not going to be his fault. He is the best player in the game and probably the best SF of all time [that actually plays PG and PF].
I would put much of the blame on a failed Miami campaign squarely on the coach. The coach’s job is minute allocation and Erik has been doing a loathesome, George Karl-esque job of it. George Karl, “Coach of the Year” lost his job at the Denver Nuggest this month following an unpredictable six-game rout by the unheralded Golden State Warriors… Who lost their All-Star PF in the first game to injury! Karl has one of the best bigs in the league at PF and numerous awesome Forwards… But elected to try to play a speedy “small ball” game with Golden State (who have superior small players). It was like Gerry Thompson handing you the Thepths deck he just built before anyone else knew what it was… but deciding to try to win with only one Thopter Foundry instead of Jace or the Hexmage combo.
Some suggestions for Spoelstra:
- Play [even] more Allen. Dude was 4-4 from three in Game Five; 21 points on 10 shots. My God that line. Get Mike Miller open, too.
- WTF Chris Bosh v. Chris Anderson?!? Bosh has been… average. Anderson was a greek god in the East, setting offensive efficiency records while playing awesome interior ball; on balance, San An has basically just played Duncan as their only big. Huge size opportunity here. Anderson’s minute allocation: 0 minutes Game Four; 0 minutes Game Five.
- Put a man on Danny Green! In 2009 the heavily favored Cavs attempted to let the Orlando Magic have every long jump shot while putting two men on Superman Dwight Howard on the inside. I liked this strategy until I realized that the usual PPS / 3P% stats don’t assume that you leave sharpshooters wide open. The Cavs lost in six, principally to awesome three-point shooting by Orlando. Danny Green has already set the Finals record for three point makes while playing amazing defense on James and Dwayne Wade. Spoelstra seems completely uninterested in guarding him; I think Danny has proved up to the challenge by this point. By contrast the Spurs this year have given Wade and James free reign to take as many long two point shots as they want, turning two of the best players of this generation into essentially [max-contract All-Star] Carmelo Anthony (LOL).
Actually. Never mind. Erik — Don’t do any of these things. I would like it to be over tonight.
You will have to excuse me. It’s 8:59 and the game is about to start. I will be cheering for the good guys!
* As I’ve said quite a few times recently, the sharpest divide in this world is between those who see it as it is, and those who imagine it as they, you know, imagine it.
** Again, we live in this world, not the world of what could have been.