The San Antonio Spurs' fifth title will be seen by many as a triumph of basketball purity over pure talent. The Spurs are a symbol of what we believe to be the Right Way to play the game. They won with unselfishness, coaching, preparation and character. They didn't have Miami's talent, but persevered with better cohesion.
These are well-meaning platitudes, and there's an element of truth to them. San Antonio's unselfishness is real, and its depth is unparalleled. Their victory harkens back to the Finals series a decade ago, when a well-rounded Pistons club stunned the star-studded, but flawed Lakers. The Spurs are the Super Pistons, with five legitimate Finals MVP candidates, not to mention Game 5 hero Patty Mills or defensive ace Danny Green. And yes, they are here because they maximized every space on their roster and built their team around Tim Duncan and everyone else's spare parts.
One for the thumb
One for the thumb
But those platitudes also do the Spurs a disservice. They suggest the Spurs defeated the more talented team, and that is wrong. It is wrong for one simple reason: the Spurs are damn talented.
The face of their franchise is a former swimmer from the Virgin Islands who combines the size of a center with the dexterity of a guard. He can outrun big men 10 years younger than him. He can balance his torso to set legal screens at any angle. When push comes to shove, he can still toss in bank shots, turnarounds and runners that no other player in the league can hit. Tim Duncan is damn talented.
The team's star point guard is the most elusive player in the game. He can run at full speed around multiple baseline screens, then stop on a dime. Then, he can start again, leaving his man in the dust. Twenty-nine point guards around the league are asking their player development coach how they can develop his touch around the basket. He has perfected the most difficult shot in the game for a guard. Tony Parker is damn talented.
The youngest Finals MVP in 15 years is built like a mad scientist's dream. He has hands the size of claws and arms the length of a Stretch Armstrong toy. You'd be hard-pressed to find a player in the league that is better at moving side to side. He's also as fast as most smaller guards, one of the few players capable of flying in for a rebound at one end and taking it coast to coast the other way. Kawhi Leonard is damn talented.
The longtime shooting guard has a flair for the dramatic and the vision to see plays before they develop like his far more famous soccer-playing countryman. He can squeeze himself or his one-handed passes through the smallest cracks in the defense. At age 36, he's still athletic enough to do this.
Manu Ginobili is damn talented.
The team's X-factor is essentially a 6'9 point guard. He can back down smaller players, yet has eyes in the back of his head to spot far more open teammates. While his weight has been an easy target, he can really get up. Just ask one of the front-office executives that was able to scout him.
"Boris walks into the gym one day wearing flip-flops and holding his customary cappuccino, which was a staple for him every morning," Griffin recalled. "It was during pre-draft workouts, so he sees the Vertec [machine] and asks what it is.
"We tell him it measures your vertical leap by determining how many of the bars you can touch. He asks what's the highest anyone has ever gone, and we tell him Amare' [Stoudemire] cleared the entire rack.
"Boris puts down the cappuccino, takes off his flip-flops and clears the entire rack on the first try. Then he calmly puts his flip-flops back on, picks up his cappuccino and walks away, saying, 'That was not difficult.'"
Boris Diaw is damn talented.
Even the role players are damn talented. The star of Game 5 is an Australian whirling dervish that zips up and down the floor and has the supreme body control to stop on a dime and shoot pull-up threes. The starting off guard is one of the league's best shooters and has the mobility to stop the best wing scorers and the wingspan to roam around and disrupt even the easiest passes. The backup center was one of the top big men in his country and is more mobile than almost all of his opponents. Even the ninth man is one of the best shooters in the league.
And all that is before we think deeper about what the word "talented" means. The drive to run suicides in 100-degree weather during the lockout is a talent. The mental capacity to accept a drop in personal statistics and trust those around you is a talent. The aptitude to process a coach's game plan and remain disciplined in carrying it out is a talent. Even the ability to carry out your talents in such a way as to amplify the talents around you is a talent.
The Miami Heat, too, are talented. They were a worthy two-time champion and deserved their spot in their fourth straight Finals. But they did not lose because they fell victim to the little Spurs engine that maximized itself by Playing The Right Way. They fell because the Spurs were more talented from top to bottom. They fell because of the Spurs' ability to turn their supreme individual talents into a top-to-bottom talent juggernaut that came together with ruthless efficiency. They fell much like the Mavericks, Blazers and Thunder did: because they had talent deficiencies that the Spurs were able to exploit.
You may call that something else, but talent is not a four-letter word. The San Antonio Spurs -- nay, the five-time champion San Antonio Spurs -- were indeed one of the most talented teams we've seen in many, many years. That should be this year's legacy.