Watching the Spurs dismantle the Heat Sunday night to close out their fifth NBA Championship, a title that fans have been waiting for the past seven years and one that was especially sweet coming off the way the 2013 campaign ended, I came to the realization that a disturbing, odd little thought was forming in the back of my brain late in the third quarter. Being one unaccustomed to having thoughts on a regular basis, any time a new one forms, it's always special.
I had been minding my own business, basking in the storm of Patty Mills raining threes, delighted to finally feel free like Andy Dufresne letting the crashing sky fall over him. And yet, as happy and delirious as I was, I was astonished that this nagging, most unwelcome realization was growing larger and larger.
I actually feel sorry for LeBron James.
It's a thought I never would've imagined having under any circumstances. Get out of here, stupid brain. Let me enjoy his suffering. I've waited a year for this.
Yet here we are.
Gregg Popovich is known for saying that the Spurs are "older than dirt," but by now we know that's a canard designed to throw mediots off the scent. But the thing is, the last time the Spurs won a title before 2014, they were older than dirt. The Big Three were all in their primes to be sure (Tony Parker was yet to enter his, actually), but they were surrounded by a supporting cast well into the winter of their careers. By the time they "brought the whole band back together" to defend the 'chip in 2008, Duncan, Ginobili and Parker were going to battle with Bruce Bowen, 36; Michael Finley, 34; Brent Barry, 36; Robert Horry, 37; Fabricio Oberto, 32; and Jacque Vaughn, 32. Their trade deadline additions were Kurt Thomas, 35; Damon Stoudamire, 34; and Ime Udoka, 30.
Outside of the Big Three, the highest PER on the team belonged to Barry at 16.7, and he only played in 31 games due to injuries and having to sit out for a while because he was traded, bought out and re-signed. From the people who were there all season, Oberto had the next-highest PER at 13.8, well below average. The next couple of seasons, there was more floundering with questionable free-agent signings like Roger Mason, Antonio McDyess and Keith Bogans, a disastrous trade for Richard Jefferson and good-not-great draft finds in George Hill and DeJuan Blair.
It wasn't until 2011 when the Spurs really started reversing their fortunes. Tiago Splitter and Danny Green played bit parts that year, but at least they were in the fold. Kawhi Leonard was acquired in a draft day trade the next off-season, with Hill being shipped out, and Cory Joseph was brought in. Patty Mills joined the fray during the season and Aron Baynes in 2013. Last off-season they added Marco Belinelli, Jeff Ayres and Austin Daye, all guys who can be useful in the right spot.
Look at the roster of this championship squad and behind the "older than dirt" big three and a 31-year-old Boris Diaw who's really more like 28 considering he hardly moved for three years in Charlotte, there's Leonard, 22; Green, 26; Splitter, 29; Mills, 25; Belinelli, 27; and Joseph, 22.
Leonard finished with a higher PER than Parker at 19.4 and Mills (18.4), Splitter (16.5) and Belinelli (15.0) were all better than average, while Diaw and Green, primarily a 3-and-D specialist, were very close.
Nobody on the Spurs averaged 30 minutes per game and Duncan led the club with 2,158 regular season minutes played. Belinelli, the eighth or ninth man on the roster, was second with 2,016.
The Spurs had youthful legs and energy to burn, and not coincidentally they finished third in the league in defensive rating.
Now contrast that to the 2013-14 Miami Heat.
LeBron James is 29 and is considered to be in his prime, but he's already played 11 seasons and logged 1,000 games and 40,000 minutes, regular season and playoffs combined. He played around 750 more minutes than Duncan this season and a thousand more than Leonard. Chris Bosh, also 29, declared that his body is too worn out to play in the post anymore and has become basically a rich man's Andrea Bargnani.
Then's there's Dwyane Wade, 32, who already looks ready for the glue factory. He's got an arthritic condition in his knees and has lost cartilage in one of them, meaning that he's got a bone-on-bone situation similar to Duncan's. Timmeh, however, is a big-man and doesn't need to be as mobile laterally or as explosive. At seven-foot tall and with arms that go on forever, he's never needed to jump much to be a threat at the rim on either end of the floor. Wade, already undersized for a shooting guard at 6'4" and below average for his position as an outside shooter, is severely handicapped if he can't run and jump and cut sideways sharply.
Last Finals, many pundits and critics alleged that Ginobili should retire after he played poorly in the Finals. Manu had an 11.61 PER in that series, one of the worst marks of his career.
Wade had a 11.59 PER in these Finals.
He looked a bit heavy against the Spurs, couldn't get off the floor, was blocked emphatically by Splitter in the close-out game and inspired an 11-minute-long YouTube video tribute for his lazy, inattentive, immobile defense, the kind of embarrassing clips that would make James Harden blush.
And after those three guys, it gets bad.
Ray Allen is 38, strictly a specialist at this point of his career, but stretched beyond reason into a huge role by Miami coach Erik Spoelstra. Chris "Birdman" Andersen, 35, might as well be nicknamed after some flightless bird, his soaring aerial feats well behind him. Shane Battier is also 35 and clearly hung on one year too long. He should've gone out on top last year and he almost admitted as much. Rashard Lewis, 34, was pressed into a starting role after logging 47 minutes the previous playoffs. Spoelstra turned to him to fill in the void created by Battier's struggles and Mike Miller's absence -- Miller was amnestied in the off-season to save $15 million -- and he wasn't up to it. Locker room leader Udonis Haslem, 33, has always had a similar role for the Heat that Kendrick Perkins has for the Thunder, but unfortunately his game has started to resemble Perkins' as well. James Jones, 33, is another three-point specialist, though he's completely unplayable because of his awful defense. Like, imagine Gary Neal wearing a blindfold. That's Jones. Of their rotation guys, only Andersen managed an above-average PER.
There is youth at point guard with Mario Chalmers, 27 and Norris Cole, 25, but they're both subpar players. Spoelstra excised Cole from his rotation down the stretch in the last Finals and gave Chalmers similar treatment this time around. Still, to give you an idea how poor that tandem is, in 2013 their PERs against the Spurs were 6.9 for Chalmers and 4.6 for Cole. This time around it was 4.4 for Chalmers and 2.8 for Cole. That's just unspeakably bad.
Anyway you slice it, this is a roster with problems, aside from their big three. As Battier pointed out to CBSSports.com's James Herbert, no NBA team won a Finals without being in the top ten in defensive rating since the 2001 Lakers. These Heat finished 11th and only managed that because they played the lion's share of their games against inept Eastern Conference "competition." Defense is a young man's game. Not a rookie or a second-year player, mind you, because those guys just run around like chickens with their heads cut off, but you know, players who've been in the league three or four years and learned the game. Once your role players get old though, they can't move their legs, even if their brains tell them to. That's why the Spurs defense sagged so much from 2008-2011.
You just wonder what the endgame is for Miami. If they were serious about not caring about home court advantage, why did they play James all those games and all those minutes? Ex post facto analysis is to blame Spoelstra for it, but according to ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst, a longtime James chronicler, it's an open secret that James is just as complicit for his obscene minute totals and that he essentially coaches himself. Spoelstra tells him he's not allowed to be tired and James refuses to come out of games even when it's clear that he needs a blow. In the heat of competition both men lose track of the bigger picture.
Wade probably needs another surgical procedure because painting his toenails didn't seem to cure what's ailing him. According to Windhorst, no matter what he does surgically and how hard he works out with longtime trainer Tim Grover, Wade will be limited for the rest of his career, to the point where he can be effective for three weeks but then needs to be rested for two. That kind of schedule might work for the regular season, but you obviously you can't just take two weeks off in the middle of the playoffs.
Bosh, meanwhile, has turned soft. A nice guy, a great quote, but still soft. This was his explanation to the Shandel Richardson of the Sun Sentinal about not wanting to play in the post anymore:
"For some odd reason, I always get double-teamed still," Bosh said. "I don't understand it. That's the reason I really stopped because every time I go down there, I get double-teamed. I was just like, `For what?' They won't double-team LeBron, but they'll double-team me?"
Since when is getting double-teamed a bad thing? That means somebody else is wide open and you can kick it to them for a three. That's what you want. The Spurs would probably post Duncan more if he still got doubled.
Bosh also had some telling quotes after the Finals, telling the Associated Press that the season wasn't fun at all for him.
"I don't think anybody really enjoyed this season like in years past. There was no, like, genuine joy all the time. It seemed like work. It was a job the whole year. Winning was just a relief. Losing was a cloud over us sometimes, and then we'd break out of it -- and then go right back. But we got here. We had a chance. They were just better."
I don't dislike James nearly as much as I used to. He's matured quite a bit and is a bit more gracious about his opponents. His new-found love of reading has dramatically improved his vocabulary. He's just really polished now. I won't blame him if he jumps ship from this flagging franchise. Spoelstra is an enabler and has relied too heavily on James, making him do everything on both ends of the floor. It's almost abusive at this point. Sure, I get that James' gravity is so overwhelming that his greatness demands that kind of "give him the ball and get out of the way," mentality while four guys just stand around, but James needs to be saved from himself by a more secure, self-assured, big-picture-minded coach.
The thing is, he shouldn't have to take a penny less if he decides to stay in Miami, even if the goal is to acquire another star or more help. He's so, so, good that he deserves all the money and more. Nobody's gonna remember it five years from now, but James was waaaaaay better in these Finals against the Spurs than he was a year ago. All his teammates just got worse.
Wade, who is far more annoying, has to chop his salary by half or more and agree to be their Ginobili. He's got to become a sixth man and give the team a good 25 minutes instead of a mediocre 33. He also needs to really work on his three-pointer in the off-season. It's just sad that a guy who can't really go to the rim anymore keeps trying to barrel into people because he doesn't trust his jumper.
Bosh needs to agree to a sharp pay cut or be shipped out. He needs to be willing to get back in the paint, especially if it draws doubles. The Heat offense was devastating last year when he worked from the high post and Spoelstra used to run his whole offense through Bosh, similar to what the Spurs were doing with Diaw, and calling him the team's "most important player." He's got to go back to being that guy instead of a glorified spot-up shooter. You don't pay three-point shooters $20 million.
It's going to be interesting to see what happens with these guys. The impression that I get is that the Heat would love to dump Wade, but it's not really up to them. He has the player option and might very well decide to opt in, even though it'll kill their cap room. If he agrees to opt out, it would likely be to sign an extension for more years and more overall money, but less salary. He's not going to just agree to hit the bricks. Same deal with Bosh. It's his choice.
I wonder if they both decide to opt in for one more really overpaid season if that'll be James' cue to leave. At some point James has to level with those two, right? "Look, this is how good I am, this is how good you are, there is no way we should be making the same money." I suspect that Heat president Pat Riley will take a similar tack with Bosh and Wade, telling them that if they opt in for those balloon salaries and force James' hand, there is no way either will be re-signed in free agency.
So yeah, I kind of felt sorry for James for a minute there. I'm as shocked as you are.
But I got over it pretty quickly when I saw our guys hugging each other on the bench.