Sympathy for the Lakers? You must be mad. Tom Ziller isn’t mad, but he does get even with Laker exceptionalism.
The most important moment of the NBA season occurred last July when LeBron James announced that he was leaving Miami for a Cleveland homecoming. LeBron’s move did more than just swing the balance of Eastern Conference power north. It also had a ripple effect throughout the league as players shuffled teams and franchises recalibrated their place in the pecking order.
If LeBron doesn’t go to Cleveland, Andrew Wiggins is still a Cavalier and Kevin Love is playing somewhere else. Those are only two of the most obvious consequences. You can go up and down rosters and find similar examples. No player in the league yields as much power as James, which was also in evidence by the slow free agent movement that preceded his decision and the flurry of activity that followed. Everyone was waiting on the King.
A few weeks earlier, another important moment took place when the San Antonio Spurs won their fifth championship, knocking off LeBron’s Heat squad in a shockingly easy five games. The Spurs’ title was viewed as a crowning achievement for the entire organization and a testament to the longevity of Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
As gratifying as it was for them personally, the Spurs’ triumph had implications that stretched far beyond San Antonio. It proved that a team seen as the embodiment of old-school traditionalism could adapt and modernize itself while playing a far more entertaining brand of ball than it had previously. It also showed, perhaps unfairly, that a well-executed system could beat the league’s reigning star in his prime. The rest of the league took note on both counts.
If we were making a list of words that have entered the basketball lexicon in recent years, none have as much currency right now as "pace and space." That’s shorthand for crisp offensive execution that relies on ball movement, outside shooting and smart decision-making.
No one does it better than San Antonio. The Spurs’ system has not only paid dividends on the court, it’s helped lengthen the careers of their franchise stalwarts and made folk heroes out of role players like Danny Green, Boris Diaw and Marco Belinelli. You may not be able to find the next Duncan, but you can always get yourself a wing.
There is nothing revolutionary about the way the Spurs play, nor is it unique to San Antonio. The very same Heat team they so easily vanquished had their own version of pace and space that they used to win back-to-back championships. But the Heat also had LeBron, whose individual brilliance overshadowed strategic innovation in the popular imagination.
Pace and space is rooted in the age-old "four-out" formula that coaches have used for generations where teams spread the floor with shooters and leave the middle of the floor open. The approach was updated by Mike D’Antoni in the 2000s whose Phoenix teams played at breakneck speed. Put them together and you have the system du jour. It’s not a panacea; simply watch teams that struggle to get into sets and pass the ball with little rhyme or reason.
But several other teams have adopted the approach with great success. Former Pop disciple Mike Budenholzer has reinvigorated the moribund Atlanta Hawks and turned journeymen into All-Stars. Out West, Golden State has transformed itself from a good, but hardly great, offense into a hyper-efficient scoring machine and made an MVP candidate out of Stephen Curry. Then there are the Celtics, who have made an unlikely run to playoff contention under coach Brad Stevens with a roster that is notably lacking in stars. The Spurs, of course, are peaking as the postseason beckons.
The regular season may have validated the system, but many are still wary of its ability to overcome pure, raw star power in the postseason. That’s especially true in the East where the Hawks and Cavaliers seem headed for a conference finals showdown that will pit Atlanta’s balanced attack against the full might of LeBron. There’s good reason for skepticism.
Championships have almost always been won by the team with the best player, or ideally players. Systems come and go with the times, but stars ultimately win. What we think of as a triumph of system over talent is more likely rooted in advantages beyond the obvious matchup.
Bill Russell’s Celtics had a wealth of options that Wilt Chamberlain’s teams could rarely match. The 2004 Pistons were far deeper than the top-heavy Lakers. Even the Spurs had a surplus of quality players over the injury-ravaged Heat once you got past LeBron.
There are several moments in league history that do stand out as victories for team-oriented systems over individual talent. The 1970 Knicks, who thrived on finding the open man, beat a Laker team that featured Wilt, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West. The 1977 Portland Trail Blazers overcame Dr. J and the star-crossed 76ers with Bill Walton commandeering a ferocious fast break that helped neutralize Philly’s halfcourt advantages. More recently, Rick Carlisle’s Mavericks schemed their way past LeBron’s Heat, and helped transition Miami away from isolation-heavy sets to yes, a pace and space system that emphasized smaller lineups.
All of those teams are revered as much for what they were about as for who they had on their rosters. Not surprisingly, the coaches -- Red Holzman and Jack Ramsey -- became as iconic figures as the players. (Carlisle may be in that company one day. He’s already viewed as one of the best tactical coaches in the game.) As David Halberstam wrote in The Breaks of the Game, his seminal ode to Ramsey’s Blazers:
"When Portland won, the phone rang off the hook in the Portland’s coaches office with congratulations from other coaches, professional and college. There were hundreds of telegrams and letters thanking the coaches and players for making it easier to coach basketball the right way."
The systems may have made the coaches, but it was still the players who made them successful. Those moments are significant, not because of their allusions to purity and unselfishness, but because they rarely happen.
The 1980s were blessed with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, each playing for supremely talented teams. The 90s had Michael Jordan and his Bulls, who monopolized the Finals. When Jordan retired for the first time there was room for Hakeem Olajuwon. The Dream, incidentally, proved the best player theory as much as Jordan, considering his supporting cast. The 2000s were the era of Duncan, Kobe and Shaq, who combined to win eight of the 10 championships.
All those teams had their own systems, from the Triangle to the Showtime fast break. They were all predicated on putting their star players in the best position to succeed, but they were successful mainly because of those singular talents. Just as pace and space sputters when run by ill-fitting personnel, so too has the fabled Triangle failed miserably without superior players.
The Cavs’ revolve around LeBron, who recently revealed that he calls the plays as he has for years. While not as fast-paced as their competitors, their offense generates points at a remarkably efficient clip. The Spurs, meanwhile, are rolling at exactly the same time that Kawhi Leonard has become the focal point of their offense. The stars make the system, not the other way around.
"It’s just like with me and Manu back in the day," Tony Parker recently told the San Antonio Express-News. "You have to share and wait your turn. Sometimes I don’t see the ball for a long time, but Kawhi is playing unbelievable. And it's going to be Kawhi's team anyway. Like Timmy transitioned to Manu, Manu transitioned to me, now it’s going to be transitioned to Kawhi. I’ll try my best to be aggressive and stay involved, but Kawhi's going to be the man."
Had he been healthy for the entire season, Leonard would be right in the thick of the Most Valuable Player race. Consider that the next time someone tries to sell you on the notion of the Spurs lacking top-10 players. Leonard’s emergence is just one of the fascinating subplots this season.
We’ve also had wide-open playoff races that will come down to the final days, a fascinating MVP debate with a new generation of stars and genuine surprises like the Milwaukee Bucks. The Bucks are the antithesis of pace and space offensively, but they offered a glimpse of an antidote. While still in their infancy, they have assembled a position-less team filled with rangy, versatile players who can switch defensive assignments without yielding mismatches.
Through it all, pace and space has defined the 2014-15 season. The stars, however, will ultimately decide its fate.