The modern NBA (post 1976 NBA/ABA merger) can be broken up into three categories: before Michael, during Michael, and after Michael.
Before Michael, Showtime was in. Bird’s Celtics and Magic’s Lakers dominated the storylines of the league with the same force that they competed against each other, trading championship blows for almost an entire decade. These competitors brought basketball to a new level of relevancy. Introducing the world to the excitement of the sport and setting the stage for it’s biggest star.
Then, came Michael Jordan, a competitive force so great that no other could even compare (TWO SEPARATE THREE-PEATS!). Basketball enjoyed a peak in marketing (ever heard of Air-Jordan’s?) during the period of his dominance truly making it’s way onto the national stage. There were other teams, and other great players of his era. Isaiah’s Pistons, Hakeem’s Rockets, and the Jazz led by music-making, pick-n-rolling duo of Stockton and Malone all challenged the greatness of Jordan’s Bulls. But all of these teams, even with their greatness, were all just apart of Jordan’s narrative.
As my life began, and the Jordan-era wound to a close there appeared to be new Kings in town. Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant ripped through a weakened league (and my Sacramento Kings) on their way to a Jordanesque 3 straight championships. However, the dynasty couldn’t last. The feuding between Shaq and Kobe couldn’t be reconciled, and the Power-NBA couple was divorced, never reaching their full potential as a duo. Meanwhile, down-south in San Antonio, far from all the glitz and glam of Hollywood a true dynasty was being born. The Spurs, led by a promising group of international youngsters including Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili won championships on either side of the Lakers three-peat. Quietly, as would become their calling card, creating the infrastructure for a decade and a half of steady contention.
From there on out, the Spurs have been a force in the league. These Spurs haven’t ever gotten the dynastic three-peat of a Jordan or the Shaq/Kobe Lakers, nor do they have the star-power of the Big 3 of the Celtics or the glamour of Kobe’s individual Laker title runs, but through it all, they have been there. With their self-less and team-minded play these ageless wonders have been the antithesis of the “AAU” era in basketball.
And then there are the Heat. Brought together in a moment of arrogance and triumph for the power of free-agency, the Heat forced their way into the spot-light by putting together their team of “super friends.” Ever since, LeBron and his buddies have been running the spot-light of the NBA and immercilessly pointing it at themselves. With 4 final appearances in the 4 years they have been together and a bid for a three-peat currently in the works, the talks of dynasty that started as soon as the team was assembled have begun to be realized.
The Heat are the embodiment of the “AAU culture” in the NBA. For those who didn’t play basketball growing up, the “AAU culture” refers to the practice of hoarding talent. It refers to bringing together all of the most talented players onto one team, even if they have never really played together, and winning with sheer talent alone. If you grew up playing basketball there is a good chance that you know exactly what I mean. More often than not, there is always a team at the AAU tournaments that has way more talent than everyone else. Many of the times, the guys on the teams do not even know each other that well, have hardly practiced together, but still dominate.
Most of the best players in the NBA grew up in these cultures, and a result, were a part of some of these mini “superteams” when they were kids. The dominance of AAU culture in basketball has seeped into all levels of basketball with college ball being dominated by the pit stops of one and done freshman and the NBA being all but dictated by modern superteams.
However, currently, there is a battle brewing under the surface against the dominance of this AAU culture in all of basketball. People are getting sick of the super-teams and the ego’s of the super-stars, the one-and-done’s in college, annoyed with the arrogance of it all. The NBA has always been a superstar driven league, but what happens if people start to get annoyed with the superstars? The battle is brewing, and it is bubbling to the surface during these NBA Finals in the form of the San Antonio Spurs.
In my Critical Thinking and Writing 1 and 2 classes at Santa Clara University I studied and researched the emergence of the “right-brained revolution” and how it was going to affect the future. I looked at and argued how humanities education would become increasingly important in this right-brained world as it would give students the power to truly think. We are moving into a world where empathy, creativity, and teamwork are going to be among the most important of skills and I would like to argue that the same is going to be true in the NBA.
Just as with the real world, the NBA puts a high value on individual talent. It is a left-brained idea. The team with the most individual talent will win. But that is not what basketball is about. As Bill Simmons pushed forward in his 2010 basketball bible appropriately titled “The Book Of Basketball,” there is more to basketball than individual efficiency. There is a secret. And as NBA great Isaiah Thomas says and Simmons repeats, “The secret to basketball is that it is about more than basketball.”
I argued in my essay earlier this quarter that while STEM education wasn’t inherently bad in any way, our obsession and specialization in it without any regard for right-brain skills was. It is the same in basketball. Talent is not inherently bad. At the end of the day, you still need talent to win basketball games, but just as with left-brain specialized education, it is not enough anymore. In the future, the NBA is going to pay more attention to “the secret” and have more of an emphasis on team. In short, they are going to have to start to play more like the San Antonio Spurs.
This current NBA Finals is a great metaphor for the battle between left-brained and right-brained basketball. The Heat and Spurs are arguably the two greatest dynasties in the Post-Jordan NBA, but they are almost complete opposites. The Heat came together in one moment, almost exclusively through free-agency (barring Wade), and place the most importance on their super-stars. The Spurs on the other hand, have come together over time, almost completely through the draft, and place the importance of team basketball way ahead of any individual player. Because of their system, the Spurs can turn role players that other teams could get almost nothing out of into assets. They have built a system based on team and passing and only success has resulted. Making the playoffs 15 straight seasons, and one win away from taking their 5th NBA title since 1998.
The Heat, although they have improved as a team, are based on a different principle. Their role players are meant to be just that, role players, always taking the backseat to LeBron, Wade, and Bosh. The Heat may have been able to overpower the Spurs last year (barely), but as evidenced by the two 20+ point wallackings the Spurs have put on the Heat in games 3 and 4, the Spurs have them figured out. The Spurs Big 13 has left Miami’s Big 3 overmatched and unable to keep up.
Even so, the 2014 Spurs are an NBA museum piece. It is not often that a team like them will come along an be able to derail (and make it look easy) a team that is as talented as Miami. However, I believe that while the Spurs will not last the ideas that they are based on will, and due to shifts in the NBA landscape, these ideas will become ever-important in the future of the NBA.
The era of the super-team is only going to continue for now, but that I argue is going to be what inevitably leads to its downfall. There are already talks of Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook joining up when they are free agents, and just earlier this week of Carmelo Anthony joining the Big Three in Miami to make them an unprecedented Big 4. However, as with all arms races I believe this struggle with eventually lead to détente, and that is when the ideals of Spurs basketball may be revisited.
There is more talent in the NBA then there has ever been, and with an ultra-talented rookie class, that is not going to change anytime soon. However, the increase in talent will at some point null itself in that all of these contending teams are going to have ridiculous levels of talent. Continuing the syllogism between left-brain education and talent, NBA teams are going to realize that forming a super-team is not enough anymore and are going to have to chase a more right-brained approach to team building. The overall increase in talent in the NBA can be compared to the automation of our world that I argued would destroy left-brain specialization in a my previous essay. It allows us to do everything faster (better), but at a certain point we realize that since everything is so automated (talented) that in the future more creativity (teamwork) will be needed. In the future, having a ton of talent may be able to get you into the playoffs (win regular season games), but to win a title, teams are going to need to focus on building right-brained ideas of team-work and selflessness.
The right-brained part of basketball is hard to understand because it is hard to quantify. After watching these Spurs dismantle the Heat in the 2014 Finals I believe that more people will begin to catch on, and the right-brain movement in basketball will slowly begin. To quote Bill Simmons:
Fans overlook The Secret completely. Nobody writes about The Secret because of a general lack of sophistication about basketball; even the latest ‘revolution’ of basketball statistics centers more around evaluating players against one another over capturing their effect on a team. Numbers help, but only to a certain degree. You still have to watch the games .The fans don’t get it. Actually, it goes deeper than that—I’m not sure who gets it. We measure players by numbers, only the playoffs roll around and teams that play together, kill themselves defensively, sacrifice personal success and ignore statistics invariably win the title. We have trouble processing the ‘teamwork over talent’ thing. But how do you keep stats for ‘best chemistry’ and ‘most unselfish’ or even ‘most tangible and consistent effect on a group of teammates’? It’s impossible. That’s why we struggle to comprehend professional basketball.
With one more win the San Antonio Spurs will become the definitive dynasty of the Post-Jordan era, and their style of passing and sacrifice oriented team first basketball will be a model going into the future. “The Secret” of basketball may not be a secret for very longer, and I think we can give credit to the 2014 San Antonio Spurs.