This NBA season has delivered in ways that the last lockout-shortened season did not. Players learned from their predecessors’ missteps in 1999 by arriving to training camp in relatively good shape. And although their rust showed well into the season, the storylines that ensued made fans believe that this season would be a worthy sequel to the ’10-’11 season that entertained to the final buzzer.
The All-Star Weekend did not disappoint…in being a complete letdown from the previous year, providing the Twitterverse with much more fodder than if Blake Griffin had defended his Kia Slam Dunk title by jumping over Antoine Walker’s debt in poker chips. Throughout the season, Deron Williams continued to make chicken salad out of chicken s___ during his free agency audition as a New Jersey Net. Spanish phenom Ricky Rubio showed Americans that he was worth the wait (before a season-ending knee injury). Dwight Howard ended any discussion of being a polarizing figure in the league by handling his imminent free agency so poorly that even Miami Heat fans found his soap opera indefensible.
In terms of teams, the Oklahoma City Thunder dispelled the adage that youth is wasted on the young, as WD-40 (Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and James Harden’s Beard) tore through teams with a consistent combination of energy and skill unseen in years. Conversely, the Boston Celtics apparently used a Richard Pryor quote as their theme for the season, demonstrating to all of us motherf___ers that they were “not dead yet.” Rajon Rondo’s increasingly unreal court generalship and the Boston Three Party’s ability to defy their aging bodies for one last run may very well be its own 30 for 30 documentary by year’s end.
Even the NBA Playoffs have been a wild ride from the start, but the impending Finals matchup appears to be the climax of not only a well-salvaged season but also the last word in which socio-political philosophy will ultimately prevail on the turbulent American landscape.
At first glance, it may seem absurd to foreshadow the fate of a nation with the outcome of a contest between two groups of rich people who have very little incentive in doing anything for those less fortunate…nevermind; it’s not absurd at all. And with the San Antonio Spurs and the Miami Heat as favorites to win their respective Conference Primaries—sorry, Finals—the ideological conflict that those teams represent makes Rocky IV look like a subtle commentary on foreign policy.
In one corner, the Spurs represent the traditional American ideal that the suits in Washington tout but rarely honor. With an opportunity to win their 4th title since the ’99 season (huh!), Tim Duncan and his squad of eclectically talented role players and specialists speak more languages among them than all American Presidents combined. The Spurs’ steady and methodical style of play lacks the glamour expectant of David Stern’s more TV-friendly NBA teams, but no one can deny that the Spurs’ consistency is a lesson in what it takes to be successful in a world where competition is in the very fabric of existence.
Now enter the Miami Heat, basketball at its most Hollywood. The important difference between the Heat and the last true Hollywood team (the Showtime Lakers) is, well, the Lakers’ Magnificent Seven-like depth would destroy the Heat’s nightly rendition of Two and a Half Men. Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, and Chris Bosh, regardless of whether they wanted to, symbolize the shortcomings of hype-based exceptionalism. Each player has undoubtedly demonstrated a wealth of talent, but the way they channeled their excitement in joining forces two summers ago reeked of premature entitlement and has since only proven foolish.
And then there is the coaching battle. A hard-nosed chess master who prefers maximum accountability above special treatment of stars, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich is the Emperor Palpatine to Phil Jackson’s Yoda…if Sith Lords favored dry wit. The system Popovich has cultivated over the last decade has earned the complete investment of his players, allowing them to excel in an ego-free zone tailor-made for perennial success.
Meanwhile, Erik Spoelstra assumes the awkward position of a coach whose adequacy has always been in question. His efforts to find the perfect balance of his All-Star talent with the Heat’s supporting cast have kept fantasies of Heat President Pat Riley’s return to coaching alive and well by Miami fans and nostalgic NBA fans alike. So Spoelstra’s spot is far from enviable: even with the talent he has, no one would judge him too harshly if he did not achieve ultimate victory with the group. He may get another head coaching position if the Heat organization fires him, but his career track will likely resemble that of also-ran coaches like Doug Collins, Don Nelson and George Karl, which is nothing to be ashamed of. And if Spoelstra can coach the Heat to a Larry O’Brien Trophy, he still may not necessarily win the total respect of the media because, after all, how could you not win a championship with Wade, James, and Bosh on the same team in their prime?
The irony of this coaching matchup is that, on paper, Popovich’s cast of players seems impossible unify. Instead, potential language and culture barriers aside (seriously, that locker room looks like the United Beards of Benetton), their differences seem to underline the importance of victory above all else. The way the Spurs speak basketball is therefore simpler than how the Heat relate to each other on the court. Spoelstra’s assistant coaches may spend more time managing egos of role players than they do advising Spoelstra on details to address during timeouts (but, to his credit, assistant coach Keith Askins also finds time to defend his throne as Bowtie King).
As for the cost of victory in this championship series, the Heat defeating the Spurs would validate the philosophy that a team does not have to be greater than the sum of its parts as long as some of those parts are great already. On the other hand, a Spurs championship would reintroduce the importance to teamwork and shrewd scouting to the way teams do business. General Managers throughout the league will all watch this NBA Finals as the pivot that will influence how to build a champion.
With respect to the series’ implications on American society, a trophy for the Heat would demonstrate that the 99% versus 1% dynamic is superior to a more evenly balanced distribution of accountability and expectation. A more simplistic dichotomy to graft this matchup onto is capitalism versus socialism, but if the Spurs model is an act of class warfare, their weapon is the assertion that playing with class leads to undeniable success that the Miami Heat have yet to set themselves up to achieve. If that philosophy is socialist, then maybe socialism is worth a try.
So while the world watches the NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs, a sports contest becomes a battleground whereon the future of a country hangs in the balance. Hopefully fans will consider what their allegiances stand for, because choosing which team to support has never been a bigger statement than it is this season.