There's a photo going around of what purports to be a billboard in San Antonio ripping the Miami Heat's team-building method of choice.
This is what The Spurs vs The Heat is about. pic.twitter.com/snejaLwKb9— Texas Humor (@TexasHumor) June 2, 2014
It remains unclear as to whether the billboard is real or a Photoshop invention. Either way, Spurs fans have embraced it in advance of the NBA Finals rematch between the teams. It taps that rich vein of national anti-Heat sentiment that argues that Miami's success is less valid because of the way in which the franchise was constructed.
And if you don't think that sentiment still exists ...
BOOM, @SPURS NATION pic.twitter.com/eeoqXL6jAT— Kaitee Daley (@daleysports) June 3, 2014
The Spurs, a lovely team with (historically) few fans outside of Texas, are the overwhelming preferred choice. Heat Hate remains real.
Of course, the "built vs. bought" dichotomy means literally nothing. As it turns out, free agency is a perfectly valid method of team-building! That San Antonio's stars were all drafted by the Spurs, whereas two of Miami's stars — LeBron James and Chris Bosh — arrived as free agents means nothing. The NBA has maximum contracts, and LeBron and Bosh actually signed under that max amount to allow Udonis Haslem (a long-time Heatien) to stay.
This isn't a "Built vs. Bought" battle. It's more like "Built vs. Recruited." Which is to say that San Antonio has done its share of recruiting. Tim Duncan, the long-time Spurs legend, had to be recruited to take less money in the prime of his career so that San Antonio could build an affordable contender around him. And by "affordable," I mean a team under the luxury tax threshold.
That's a big key here. Heat owner Micky Arison is willing to spend $80 million on his team to compete for a title. Spurs owner Peter Holt will occasionally trickle past the threshold, but typically stays below it. It's not that R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich are morally opposed to "buying" a roster. It's just not feasible given their financial limitations. And it's not necessary because the front office hit grand slams in three drafts, picking up Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
To me, the more important distinction between the Spurs and Heat in terms of team-building is the level of player empowerment each franchise reputably has. San Antonio is considered a very top-down, management-driven squad. Duncan is regaled as the most coachable superstar in the league, and Pop never hesitates to bust on him during huddles. This is seen as a reflection of Pop's great skill and power as a coach and of Duncan's superhuman respect. It sets the example for the rest of the team: everyone listens to Pop.
Miami is seen as being led more by the players. Not just LeBron and Dwyane Wade, but also Haslem. Erik Spoelstra's reputation as a coach is pristine at this point, and Pat Riley needs no heralding. But from the genesis of The Heatles, the image is of the three amigos who decided themselves to hook up and create a dynasty. In this telling, Riley just made sure Miami had the cap space.
Let's be honest: that level of player empowerment rubs plenty of sports fans the wrong way, even though Miami has given us some beautiful basketball and thrilling times in the four years since. This is the same reason fans bristle when players embrace free agency, request trades or act anything less than totally enamored with the team that pays them. For whatever reasons — the slow death of unions, the growing power of big business, rampant American deference to authority in some circles, lingering discomfort with the young, rich and often black wielding any sort of power — some fans just don't want to see an NBA where the stars of the show actually pull the strings.
"Built vs. Bought" is a good slogan, but it only toys with the real story of why much of the nation wants to see San Antonio win. The bigger issue here is that a lot of people prefer a sports world in which managers and coaches have the power and the players don't. That's what drives anti-Heat sentiment at this point. Most fans aren't so childish to hold on to a grudge with someone they've never met for four years. (We'll exclude Clevelanders from that statement. It is not childish for Cleveland fans to remain salty over LeBron's exit.) And the superteam backlash makes little sense considering the Heat's opponent has been superb for 15 years and has had its own Big Three for a decade.
Social issues are often tucked deep down inside of sports debates. The "Built vs. Bought" laughter is just the latest example.