As the league gears up for free agency and the draft, the memory of the Finals is starting to fade away. Before focusing fully in the offseason, however, it would be beneficial to take one last look at the Lakers’ ultimate success to see if there are useful takeaways.
From a Spurs-centric perspective, there are two things we can learn from the Finals that, while not exactly revelatory, are important to keep in mind.
Superstars still matter more than anything
The Miami Heat were the feel good story of the playoffs. They beat the league’s MVP and a Celtics team that has two future perennial All-Stars in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, along with another decorated veteran in Kemba Walker. Miami had two All-Stars of its own, but neither Bam Adebayo nor Jimmy Butler had much hype coming into the season.
The success the Heat enjoyed seemed to signal that with a winning culture in place, great coaching and good finds in the draft and free agency, a team could potentially win a championship even if it lacked that truly special player. Unfortunately LeBron James and Anthony Davis quickly disabused all of us of that notion.
For as good as the Heat were this season — and they were truly impressive — they simply didn’t have the horses to compete with an opponent that has two of the top five players in basketball. Giannis Antetokounmpo was only one man, so they took him down. Brown, Tatum and Walker are all very good, but none atr elite yet. James and Davis were simply on a different level. The two combined for an average of 55 points, 22 rebounds, and 12 assists in the Finals while playing good defense. There was nothing Miami could do to counter them and in the two games in which they did, they had their own star up his game to historic levels to match the star power of their opponent.
The reality suggests that teams like the 2004 Pistons or the 2014 Spurs are to be considered anomalies, not blueprints if the hope is to win championships. After the Warriors broke up and the Kawhi Leonard -led Raptors won the title with just one superstar, it seemed like talent could potentially be spread more evenly throughout the league and that maybe there was more to building a winner than accumulating top tier players. These Lakers appear to be a pretty convincing counterpoint to that notion.
As unfair as it might seem for a market that struggles to attract stars, the Spurs will need some if the hope is to get back to contention. Drafting well without hitting home runs and making smart signings can get you far, but it’s unlikely it will get you all the way if you don’t have superstars.
The top of the West is going to be stacked for a while
There is a universe in which the Lakers don’t win the championship. Even in the universe Davis likely stays, but considering James in on the very tail end of his prime, a disappointing ending of the season against a less heralded Heat squad would have likely mean a shakeup of the roster. The few young players available would have probably been packaged for a big name in the hopes of actually getting the title the next year while some of the veterans might have been let go and replaced with new names.
Instead, the Lakers won and now don’t have the pressure to do anything too drastic, which is a problem for the rest of the west. Big moves made in desperate times involve risk, and now there doesn’t have to be one. Not only will the Lakers likely hold on to their cheap, young players, but also probably to some of their veterans, which will provide them stability. We’ve seen that James has not declined yet, so there will plenty of journeymen who will take a discount to play with him and Davis, because they have proved they can win.
For teams like the Spurs, it’s bad news that the season went as well as it did for the Lakers, as LA was one of the few truly good western teams that had an aging star and pressure to win now. Had things gone poorly either because James declined or because the pairing with Davis didn’t work, a direct competitor for the playoffs would have faced some tough questions. Now, we have to count the Lakers as a power for at least the next two to three years.
The Heat had an opportunity to help the bottom half of the west by weakening one of the top tier teams. Alas, it didn’t happen, so the conference will be as top heavy as ever for the foreseeable future.