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San Antonio Spurs

Felina

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I still remember the first time I went to watch Kobe Bryant play. It was 2009 and my Aunt Becky had bought me two tickets to watch the Lakers play the Spurs. My mom and I drove up to the game from my hometown of Corpus Christi (about a two-hour journey up I-35 to San Antonio) and arrived 30 minutes before the doors opened so we could get in line to get in as soon as possible.

Growing up in South Texas, I was a part of a family full of Spurs fans. Because they were on local TV all of the time, they were the only NBA team I was intensely familiar with growing up, but the only fond childhood memories of them that I have involve Ginobili, a player whose game always resonated with me. The first NBA game I ever went to was between the Spurs and Charlotte Bobcats. Ginobili didn’t play that day, but I remember him being shown on the big screen and then yelling down at him from our modest seats, to which he responded by turning and offering a wave.

Other than Manu, the mid-2000’s Spurs were not exactly awe-inspiring, not when Nazr Mohammed and Antonio McDyess were prominently involved. One day, my family was watching a postseason game between the Spurs and Lakers in the living room at my Aunt Ruth and Uncle Billy’s house. I can’t remember if I knew anything about Kobe back then, but I do know that I rebelled against everyone in the room that day after being one over by Bryant’s style and flash. When I celebrated one of Bryant’s big fourth quarter baskets, I almost got kicked out of the house.

Given that the Spurs had not captured my imagination, it wasn’t heard for Bryant to snatch my fandom. Soon I was like millions of other kids across the country who had gravitated to Bryant from thousands of miles away. So getting to see Kobe up close and personal was as good as it got for me in a sporting context.

Sadly, when we got to the door to have our tickets scanned, an unfortunate error came to light. Apparently, Ticketmaster had a policy that restricts people who don’t have a billing address in the state of Texas from purchasing tickets to Spurs games (and similar policies for teams in other states). My Aunt Becky lives in Pennsylvania, so our tickets were cancelled a day after she bought them, and despite the fact that we had already printed them, we were never notified that the tickets were no good. “Orders by residents outside of this area will be cancelled without notice,” the hidden policy stated.

I should note that the Spurs were nice enough to try to remedy the situation by offering my mom and I tickets to another big game against the defending champion Boston Celtics. While I was obviously not the biggest Celtics supporter given my Lakers fandom, I did enjoy getting to watching Duncan and Garnett go up against each other, and watching the way Ray Allen worked off the ball in person, as well as how Rondo ran the game, offered up a new perspective on their games.

The Spurs customer service group allowed us to stay in the arena, so long as we purchased standing room only tickets, but because we spent a good hour arguing with the customer service department, all of the prime spots in the FanZone were taken. We stayed anyways, hoping an empty seat or two would present itself, but nothing materialized. The AT&T Center has curtains covering the entrances to every section, so I could not even pop my head in to watch the game from the upper deck. Every time I did, an usher shooed me away. I went section-to-section hoping for a kind-hearted usher would let me poke my head through the curtains, just to get a glimpse at Kobe. I never found that usher; instead, one told me that he would call security to come remove me – a 14-year-old – from the building if I didn’t back away from the seating areas. So I did. I went and found a chair in the lobby area and sat there, listening the cheers and jeers of the crowd from afar.

Never again did I want to be stuck behind the curtain.

That was the impetus behind me pursuing sportswriting as something more than a hobby. By that time, I had already started writing on my own blog, which has evolved into this site today, but I wasn’t sure of any the specifics related to writing about sports as a career. Being kept outside of the arena on that night made me dream about watching and writing about games for a living more and more, it made me strive to be someone who would not have to bother with showing a ticket to get passed those curtains.

The second time I went to see Kobe play was in March 2010. There was no credit card fiasco that time; well, unless you count my family splurging to get me a single seat seven rows off the court just to the side of the basket. I’m sure they wished that ticket had been cancelled, too.

Bryant didn’t put on the kind of dominant performance that he usually reserves for his meetings with the Spurs that night, but he was 11-of-16 from the floor for 24 points with six assists and four rebounds, and he was vintage Kobe down the stretch. He roasted George Hill in the midpost in the first half and then did the same to Manu Ginobili, Keith Bogans, Richard Jefferson and Roger Mason Jr. in the second; in retrospect, it was the kind of game that made the Kawhi Leonard trade, which would come a year later, seem like a necessity if the Spurs were going to win in the postseason against the likes of Bryant, Durant and LeBron.

Bryant had some fantastic moments in the second half, including some one-on-one baptisms of Ginobili and two huge 3-pointers to give the Lakers the lead in the fourth. His first was a 30-foot pullup from a stand still position with Mason Jr. on his hip. He rose and fired without a conscious and the ripple of the net sent the Kobe fans in the building to go into a frenzy. And then with just under three minutes left, Gasol found Bryant in the left corner, where he buried a wide-open 3-pointer to put the Lakers up 11 after trailing by seven at the half.

That was the last basketball game I remember going to as a fan. In January 2012, I started writing NBA columns for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, and within a few months I was covering the Spurs, Mavericks and Rockets as a credentialed media member. That summer, I also covered Team USA Basketball’s preseason camps and showcases in Las Vegas, New York and Washington, which was the first time I had met and interviewed Kobe in a professional capacity. Someone snapped a photo of me in a scrum with Bryant, and everybody always says I look like the happiest person on the planet in that photo. They’re probably right.

That summer, I wrote a feature about Russell Westbrook being the next Kobe, with comments from both parties. You can find that piece here.

It will soon be four years since I started writing for the Caller-Times. During that time I’ve covered two NBA Finals, four Spurs postseason runs and more than 100 games in total. Perhaps the downfall of Bryant and the Lakers coinciding with it helped, but I certainly do not feel ties to the Lakers like I did before. I once punched a hole in my door when the Lakers lost Game 3 of the 2009 Finals, but I’m not sure it’s possible for me to be that emotionally invested in a single team any more. My fandom, in that sense, has been stripped.

In fact, I root for the Spurs to succeed more so than the Lakers, simply because if the Spurs are good that means I get to cover a more compelling team, and if they are winning then I’ll have a better shot at covering postseason games. That logic seems unthinkable for someone who almost got kicked out of his uncle’s living room for cheering against the Spurs, but I compare it to Stockholm Syndrome. Covering the Spurs upclose and personal makes it impossible not to respect that way they do things, and the way they played in their run to back-to-back Finals forced me to improve as a writer. It was like being on the art beat during Picasso’s reign; if the basketball was that beautiful, I felt my words had to live up to it. It was the same feeling I got when I wrote about Kobe.

Although my support for the Lakers has dwindled in the quest of becoming an objective journalist, one thing I could never shake was my infatuation with Kobe. He was the reason I liked basketball. He was the reason I wrote about it. He is the reason I’m a Sports Media in college. He is the reason I’m covering the NBA.

So on Friday night, I showed up at the AT&T Center for what might be the last time I attend an NBA game as a fan. I wore a black Kobe shirsey, matching the Lakers Hollywood Nights uniform. It was a different feeling watching that game than all of the ones I’ve seen since I started covering the Spurs. I wasn’t worried about Pop’s rotations, the Spurs’ pick-and-roll coverages or the kinds of sets they were running for LaMarcus Aldridge. I was only worried about Kobe. From the moment he came on the floor in warmups, I watched his every move.

I still didn’t find myself clapping or cheering – I sense that part of me has been buried, or at least reserved for when I tear someone apart on FIFA. But I smiled every time he brought the ball up the floor or rose up to shoot.

Kobe started the year chucking at the same rate he has his entire career, only with the success rate of an 8-year-old playing on 10-foot rims for the first time. He has seemingly reigned that in since making his announcement, choosing to be much more selective with his shots and generally allowing the offense to flow a bit more (although, when Ray McCallum was switched onto him Friday, Bryant demanded the ball like a bully demands your change in the lunch line).

When Kobe voluntarily kept himself out of the game in the fourth quarter against Minnesota last week, I knew Bryant’s mindset was changing. Here was Kobe, a man who lusted for end-of-game shots like no other player, requesting that he remain a spectator during crunch time. That, as much as anything, was a sign Bryant is not what he used to be, and I’m sure it resonated with him the same way it did with me. He has gone from fighting the disease of age foolishly to finding a more efficient, and perhaps more rewarding, niche.

Bryant had a vintage first quarter against the Spurs, scoring nine points on 4-of-5 shooting, mixing in longrange hits and midrange pullups, but he was just 1-of-7 for the remainder of the game. Watching him in person, it is obvious why Bryant has been so eager to shoot in the opening quarter. It seems like Kobe only has 12 good minutes in his legs each night, so if he is going to one of those classic scoring spurts, it is likely going to happen soon after the tip. Bryant did not have any lift on his jumper in the second half, and when the Spurs got up double digits in the fourth quarter, I saw Kobe motion to Byron Scott, signaling it was time for his night to end.

It was uplifting to see Bryant can still have a positive impact at the NBA level, and if he was fine with lowering his career scoring average and going through the round-the-clock treatment he has to deal with to recover from games, you could envision this version of Bryant playing another year or two for 20 minutes or so a night. But let’s be honest: He doesn’t want to be that guy, and I don’t want him to be that guy either. In fact, I was pretty upset that Bryant wasn’t in gunner mode against the Spurs. I, nor the swaths of “Laker” fans in Kobe jerseys, didn’t come to watch Lou Williams and D’Angelo Russell. I came to watch Kobe, and even if he shot 3-of-20, the slightest chance that he might get on a roll for a few possessions was more appealing than watching Robert Sacre airball a hookshot while Kobe stood in the corner.

That said, watching Kobe put up those ghastly 3-of-15 or 4-of-20 shooting performances early in the year was kind of like visiting a relative on their deathbed, clouding your memory of them with pictures of them at their worst. Bryant seems more at peace with his impending departure now, and as a result he is easing his way into the afterlife with his dignity intact.

As the final seconds ticked off the clock on Friday, the large collection of Kobe fans seated near the visiting tunnel started a Kobe chant.

It was then that I finally realized that my favorite athlete would soon be gone, and that the countless basketball masterpieces he provided, those sources of infinite joy, pride and comfort that outlined my childhood, were slowly fading away. I spent years obsessing over his each and every game, staying up late on school nights for those L.A. tip times and jolting to the library at lunch to watch the same YouTube clips day after day. But as prolonged as his stay atop the NBA mountain top seemed as he wraps up his 20th season in the league, I look back and wonder how it all went by so fast.

“KO-BE! KO-BE! KO-BE!”

I had a tear in my eye.

I watched Bryant as he greeted Gregg Popovich at midcourt, sharing a hug and a laugh. And finally, I watched as Kobe walked toward the tunnel, his hand going between his chest and the air as he acknowledged the heartfelt response of the crowd. He moved briskly, his head bowed, humbled by another platoon of his supporters firmly entrenched behind enemy lines.

He thanked the crowd once again and kept walking.

And in the blink of an eye, he was gone into the darkness, forever lost behind the curtains.

Still On Top

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The Clippers nearly did the impossible. They nearly became the first team in what seems like forever to spot Golden State a 17-point, come back and live to talk about it. Nearly.

Instead, despite getting a 10-point lead of its own with five minutes to play, the Clippers fell short of the Warriors once again. It was the same old story for Golden State: Remove all of the constraints of traditional basketball – ie. a big man – and play free flowing basketball with offensive threats all over the flow. The Clippers are supposed to have one of the most capable frontlines in the league when it comes to countering Golden State’s futuristic lineup, but they were shut down on Wednesday night.

Draymond Green flew around the floor and made plays, and his teammates followed suit. Even when Andre Iguodala wound up switched on Blake Griffin, who is on a tear to start the season, Griffin couldn’t muster much when trying to back him down. As we saw when the chips were down last postseason, Golden State’s trump card changed the game, with its stops fueling its offense, and particularly Curry, who fired in threes from across the bay like it was nothing.

This game had a weird flow to it. Curry was taken out of the game after just three minutes due to foul trouble and didn’t return until the start of the second quarter. In the second half, the same thing happened to Paul, who picked up his fourth foul with eight minutes left in the third and sat almost an entire quarter until he returned. Even still, both teams managed to play tremendous offensive games, especially given the defensive prowess of its opposition.

Griffin was spectacular for most of the game, but his inability to muster a good look when the Warriors had smaller defenders on him down the stretch was worrisome. In a postseason matchup between these two teams, that would be a frequent occurrence, and if Green is going to switch onto Paul, then Griffin has to make Golden State pay. Curry (31 points, 5 boards, 7 threes) and Paul (24 points, 9 assists, 3 steals) were both fantastic, as always seems to be the case in one of the league’s most exhilarating point guard matchups. The same cannot be said for whatever Jamal Crawford was doing last night.

Despite the loss, I think this might be an early-season confidence boost for the Clippers. They got down big in the league’s toughest road environment, fought back with their reserves and got themselves in a position to win. Execute better, and smarter, when the Warriors hand you a size advantage and get out to Curry quicker on his pull-ups and perhaps this result is different. No other team has challenged the Warriors to this point and despite the somewhat deflating loss, I thought this was a good showing for Los Angeles overall.

SASWAS

In the blink of an eye, the Spurs were down 19-2. Then they went on a 21-3 run and took a 23-22 lead at the end of the first quarter. While it was a particularly impressive comeback in the moment, in hindsight it was illustrative of a larger issue that has troubled the Spurs through five games: The starting unit is far from a finished product.

The Spurs starting lineup, while elite defensively (96.1 defensive rating), is only scoring 91.2 points per 100 possessions in their 78 minutes together this season. But once Pop makes his first waves of substitutions – usually Manu Ginobili for Danny Green, Patty Mills for Tony Parker and Boris Diaw for Tim Duncan – the Spurs look like one of the best teams in basketball. The group of Mills, Manu, Kawhi, Diaw and Aldridge is scoring 106.5 points per 100 possessions while only allowing 88 points per 100 possessions on the other end.

Aldridge and Diaw have been the Spurs’ best big man pairing both statistically and aesthetically. Aldridge has shown better prowess as a rim protector than I thought he would, so when Diaw checks in for Duncan and provides his unique blend of passing, cutting and spacing, the Spurs get back to the beautiful game that they showcased in the 2014 Finals. With Duncan and Aldridge, things are more cramped, possessions develop slower and Aldridge really isn’t getting that many touches, which is surprising only because the slower pace seems to be a way to introduce Aldridge’s post-game into the Spurs’ vernacular.

San Antonio looked good for most of this game after the first quarter, but once the starters returned in the final five minutes, the offense went in the tank and its turnovers fueled the Wizards’ transition attack. The Wizards, who were playing small with Jared Dudley at the four, were always going to trouble San Antonio’s twin towers lineup in transition, and the Spurs’ turnovers only made matters worse. Tony Parker nearly saved San Antonio with his game-tying three in the final seconds, but Bradley Beal returned the favor after the Spurs messed up a switch on a high screen designed to free Beal. Beal shook a hurried Aldridge, who was rushing to cover for Leonard, and buried the winner.

In May, I wrote about John Wall’s path to stardom, and he was unbelievable in this game. Shooting 6-of-16 isn’t great, but he orchestrated everything for Washington in this game, dishing out 13 assists with only one turnover while gobbling up four steal that got the Wizards on the break. His ability to read a defense continues to impress, and he caused several breakdowns by the Spurs in this game.

Meanwhile, I may end up writing a similar piece about the growth of Bradley Beal. Beal looks like a legitimate offensive superstar right now, and he’s a good defender as well. Beal scored 25 points on 50% shooting, grabbed give boards, dished out four assists and collected three steals against the Spurs, and he’s averaging 25 points with 48/46/75 shooting splits to start the season. It looks like Washington’s two budding stars are finally coming into their own. And if this team lands a certain local kid in the summer, the East might have a new king.

HOUORL

The Magic are the most entertaining, if not best, 1-4 team I can remember seeing in recent years. Their four losses have been by a combined 14 points (or six points less than the standard Rockets loss this season), two of which came in over time, and they’ve played the Wizards, Thunder, Bulls, Pelicans and Rockets. 1-4 against five playoff teams may be a solid indication that the Magic still have a ways to go before they are legitimate playoff team, but they’ve been right there in every game and Scott Skiles has done a nice job revamping this team on the fly.

Perhaps the Magic would have prevailed in this one had Nikola Vucevic not gone out with an injury in the second quarter. But Aaron Gordon came off the bench and gave the Magic 32 really good minutes. He scored 19 points on 7-of-11 shooting while grabbing eight rebounds and playing really good one-on-one defense when matched up with James Harden on a couple of occasions. Evan Fournier was also quite good for the Magic, posting a 29-6-4 line while spending most of the game attacking Harden on the offensive end.

Harden had another awful shooting game – you know you’re shooting poorly when a 2-of-11 performance from three actually improves your 3-point percentage for the season – but in typical Harden fashion, he got to the line 17 times and helped seal the victory in the closing moments. Interestingly, Gordon’s emergence led to just 21 minutes for Tobias Harris, who played well for the most part. He had 16 points and five boards but didn’t see any time in the crucial moments of the game, save for the final possession. Harris seems like the kind of guy who you want to play as much as possible against the smallball Rockets, but I guess it will take some time for Harris to earn Skiles’ trust after their falling out in Milwaukee when they were both Bucks.

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The Thunder had this game in the bag. They lead by six with two minutes to go, but the Raptors were the most aggressive team down the stretch. They scored eight points from the free throw line and their two crunchtime field goal came inside the paint while Westbrook and Durant couldn’t manage to put home any of their close-range attempts.

This game must have taken place in a parallel universe, because the Thunder, who own time shares at the free throw line, had only 14 free throw attempts while DeMar DeRozan had 15 by himself. As a team, the Raptors had 39 free throw attempts, which helped make up for the fact that Oklahoma city shot 48% from the field in this game. DeRozan put his head down and went at Andre Roberson and Serge Ibaka all game long, and I thought Jonas Valanciunas, off to a fine start this season, got the better of Steven Adams and Ibaka as well.

Russell Westbrook came out of the gates on fire – as a passer. He dished out 16 assists on the night, but he was off from the field, and Kevin Durant’s 27 points on 10-of-18 shooting wasn’t enough for the Thunder to overcome their excessive fouling and 19 turnovers. Oklahoma City is last in the league in turnovers per game at 20.2, more than two more than Philadelphia, who take as good of care of the ball as I do of my pencils. It’s early, but Billy Donovan still has some work to do with his team’s discipline on both ends.

Notebook from OKC’s Opening Night victory over the Spurs

in NBA by
kawhidurant

For more of my coverage of this game, visit the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. For my Spurs’ season preview, click here.

DION WAITERS STEALS THE SHOW

Dion Waiters is far from the first player who comes to mind when you think about Oklahoma City’s end-of-game options.

But Waiters stepped up in the final minutes against the Thunder’s 112-106 opening night victory against San Antonio, knocking down two jumpshots over Spurs’ guard Tony Parker to give OKC the lead.

With Kevin Durant struggling in his matchup with the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Kawhi Leonard, and with San Antonio putting defensive ace Danny Green on Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City went to Waiters, who had a size mismatch on Parker.

“A lot of point guards like to guard our (shooting guard),” Westbrook said. “I think it’s my job to be able to find the mismatch. Dion did a good job of knocking down some big shots.”

Waiters’ first shot was a pull-up jumper late in the clock with 2:11 to play, which tied the game at 103. On the next possession, the Thunder ran a mid-post isolation for Waiters, who faced up Parker and drilled a stepback jumper to put OKC ahead by two.

“(I) got a chance to do what I do,” Waiters said. “We went to the mismatch and I made big shots.”

JUMPMAN, JUMPMAN, JUMPMAN

Hip-hop is the music genre of choice in most NBA lockerrooms.

However, anyone who hasn’t been in the San Antonio Spurs’ lockerroom might assume coach Gregg Popovich has Bethoven’s 5th Symphony playing on an endless loop instead of Rich Homie Quan’s latest single.

In reality, the Spurs are rarely jamming out to anything before games, but that didn’t stop Spurs’ guard Manu Ginobili from learning his name was a lyric in Drake’s hit new song “Jumpman.”

“It’s kind of hard not to be find out about those things nowadays,” Ginobili said.

Ironically, Oklahoma City’s entrance music on Wednesday night was “Jumpman.”

“I hit that Ginobili with my left hand up like woo,” Drake says in the first verse of the song, which is a collaboration with fellow rapper Future.

Although Ginobili, who hails from Argentina and likely has a musical taste more in line with his coach, didn’t seem overly impressed by the mention, one of his younger teammates, guard Ray McCallum, celebrated the achievement for him.

“It’s funny that you say that,” McCallum said, “because he hasn’t mentioned one word about it.

“The rest of us know about it. If that was me, I would embrace it, but that kind of stuff is not really important to him. You wouldn’t know he was on one of the hotest verses out there unless you brought it up to him.”

POP-ISMS

On Friday, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was named the coach of Team USA for 2017-2020. When asked if Thunder star Kevin Durant is a player he’d like to coach with the national team, Popovich responded in a way only he can.

“I don’t know if he is good enough,” Popovich said.

When asked if he was pleased with the way LaMarcus Aldridge has fit in with the Spurs offense, Pop offered up another sarcastic reply.

“Sure, I am,” Popovich said. “And if I wasn’t I wouldn’t say that. I would just lie to you. So, silly question.”

After the game, Thunder coach Billy Donovan said it was special to go up against Popovich in his NBA debut, detailing how Popovich had welcomed him to be around the Spurs last year so he could pick the collective brain of San Antonio’s coaching staff.

This was surprising to hear, for three hours earlier, Popovich had a one-word response when asked if he had ever spoken to Donovan about anything basketball related or otherwise.

“No,” Popovich said.

NBA Preview Podcast With Zach Lee

in NBA/Podcasts by
alddun

Zach Lee, a Sports Media major at Oklahoma State and a writer for House of Houston, joined me for a preview of the 2015-16 NBA season.

Tiki-Taka

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USATSI/Steve Mitchell

MIAMI – The World Cup started on Thursday afternoon, which meant it was time for my personal tradition of cramming as much soccer-related information as possible into my brain so that I have at least some understanding of what I am watching throughout the tournament. Of all of my research, what interested me the most was reading about Spain and how their national team was inseparable from a certain style of play.

I had never heard the phrase “tiki-taka” before reading about the Spanish national team. At first I thought it was a unifying rallying cry like “Ubuntu” was for Doc Rivers’ Boston Celtics. Instead, tiki-taka represents Spain’s unique style of play, which is defined by constant, whip-smart passing, perpetual movement off the ball and a benevolent group of players.

Now, tell me if that doesn’t sound just a little bit like a certain basketball team from San Antonio that just eviscerated the two-time defending NBA champions on the road in back-to-back games to secure a 3-1 edge in the 2014 NBA Finals.

Of course, the Spurs have their own saying that symbolizes the fabric of their organization: Pounding the rock.

Gregg Popovich’s favorite mantra is a reference to an old quote by Jacob Riis about a stonecutter’s dedication to his craft in lieu of results and how his ultimate success comes not because of his last strike of the rock, but because all of the ones before it. In short, the quote, which hangs on the wall in the Spurs lockerroom, sums up Popovich’s “process over results” philosophy.

And throughout these NBA Finals, the Spurs have never wavered from their process, which heavily entails that tiki-taka style of succeeding collectively on every possession, and it’s put them in a position to claim their fifth banner in Game 5 on Sunday night.

San Antonio’s steadfast unity has never been more clear than in Games 3 and 4, where the Spurs used an unprecedented combination of unselfishness, smarts and individual creativity to dismantle what has been the most vaunted post-season defense in the league over the past few years. The Spurs had a historic shooting performance in Game 3, but their dominance was sustainable because it was rooted in their fundamental style of play, and yet another brilliant group effort allowed San Antonio to flourish again in Game 4.

It’s not easy to make this Miami team look vulnerable defensively, at least not when they are locked in. But the Heat either haven’t found that extra gear that they’ve relied on in years past or they have and the Spurs are too good for it to matter. Based on the way Miami reacted to San Antonio’s second straight annihilation of their defense on their home floor, constantly peering at the ground looking dejected and defeated, I’d say it’s the latter.

What’s even more impressive than what the Spurs did to Miami’s defense is how they made them look on the other end. Ironically, the star-studded Heat are not all that different than the anonymous Spurs when it comes to sharing the basketball and the credit. Like Tim Duncan, LeBron James has always been one of the more magnanimous teammates in basketball.

But the Spurs have completely disrupted Miami’s championship rhythm. San Antonio has executed defensively with the same devastating precision and imperative attention to detail that makes them a terror to guard on the other end of the floor. Anytime that LeBron or Dwyane Wade got into the paint in Game 4, they were met by the long, extended arms of Duncan and Kawhi Leonard, and San Antonio blew up some of Miami’s more complex offensive sets all game long by switching on all screens.

So, in what was a must-win game for the Heat if they were going to keep a three-peat within the realm of possibility, Miami looked more and more like Cleveland throughout the night, at least from LeBron’s perspective. Wade turned in the worst game of his Finals career, scoring just 10 points on 3-of-13 shooting, Chris Bosh was nowhere to be found after an initial burst in the opening minutes, Ray Allen only got two open looks courtesy of some lucky bounces and I’m pretty sure someone filed an actual missing persons report for Mario Chalmers.

The third quarter essentially summed up the game for the Heat. James shot 7-of-8 from the field and scored 19 of Miami’s 21 points during the third period and the Spurs still won the quarter 26-21. Given how little his teammates were contributing, LeBron was probably longing for the days when Larry Hughes and Boobie Gibson would hit a three every now and then, although that trio got throttled by the Spurs, too.

And, as usual, the Spurs were operating on the opposite end of the spectrum. Game 4 marked the second straight game where neither of San Antonio’s perennial powers were individually brilliant. Instead, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Duncan once again looked like Leonard’s overqualified sidekicks.

Leonard’s out of this world talent has only been surpassed by his uncanny acumen over these past two games. The defense he has played on James – moving his feet like Baryshnikov in sneakers and waving his arms around like the wacky waving inflatable arm flailing tube man – has been befitting of comparisons to Scottie Pippen, and his emergence as not just a finisher with the ball, but as another fluid cog in San Antonio’s rhythmic offense has kept things humming along. Despite two below average games to start this series, Leonard’s play in Miami may have been enough to make him the favorite for Finals MVP should the Spurs close this out.

It’s too simplistic to say that San Antonio has put on a clinic over the past two games. In fact, that may be belittling what they’ve done. Calling their offensive execution a clinic means they are setting some kind of example for others to follow. While that may be true about their selflessness, the kind of ball movement that the Spurs consistently display is not easily replicated.

We can talk about how the Spurs play the right way, but what’s more true is that they’ve found the right combination of players – a unique and perfect blend of light’s outs shooters, quick dribble penetrators, nimble and cunning defenders, Picasso-like passers and, most importantly, dedicated brothers – to fit their rare, adventurous and ravishing tiki-taka style of pounding the rock.

And now they are just a win away from being cemented as one of the best teams in NBA history.

A Little Help Here

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NBA: Finals-Miami Heat at San Antonio Spurs

SAN ANTONIO — The San Antonio Spurs outscored the Miami Heat 16-3 in the final four minutes of Game 1 of the 2014 NBA Finals.

They did so by rediscovering the precision and the ball movement that had escaped them in the game’s previous three quarters, when they were turning the ball over like it had a bunch of splinters lodged in it. Manu Ginobili was threading the needle to Tim Duncan on pick-and-rolls, Danny Green broke out of his shooting slump with a trio of Tar Heel triples, and Tony Parker had a pair of big shots. After turning it over 21 times in the first 44 minutes of the game, San Antonio committed just one possession-ending error down the stretch, and it allowed their collective brilliance to shine through.

Also playing a role: The fact that LeBron James didn’t play during those final four minutes.

Thanks to a broken AC, everybody in the arena was forced to deal with an unrelenting, literal heat throughout the night. Interestingly enough, San Antonio’s cast of foreign players pleaded that the playing conditions weren’t that bad given their experience playing in inferior conditions overseas.

Nonetheless, for a player that has had documented issues with cramping, the combination of heat and humidity, which was so bad last night that the corridors of the AT&T Center glistened like a freshly mopped floor, caused muscle contractions in LeBron’s left thigh, rendering his left leg motionless late in the game.

And because it is LeBron, this has to be about more than a rare physical malfunction for the game’s greatest player. Forget the fact that LeBron dealt with a very similar issues in Game 4 of the 2012 Finals, only to come back into the game and nail the game-changing three, no, LeBron’s “cramps” last night were clearly a manufactured effort by James to bow out of a close game. If not, LeBron not checking back into the game, despite his own intentions to do so before his coach shot down his efforts, must mean that he’s not as tough as Jordan or Kobe.

We’ve come to expect some level of dismissible discourse when it comes to LeBron, but placing any of the blame for last night’s result on him robs us of the opportunity to examine the real issue with the way the Heat lost Game 1.

Miami’s meltdown without LeBron is understandable, but not totally excusable. We are not even two full years removed from people criticizing LeBron for having to get help from other stars to win a title, and now we’ve reached a point where the Heat couldn’t muster more than three points with LeBron off the floor down the stretch.

James is obviously the center of the Heat’s universe and things are going to change drastically if he’s not on the floor. But why does that mean that Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh get a free pass for what was a punchless effort from them after LeBron exited the game? Would LeBron get the same treatment were it Wade that went out with an injury, leaving James with some added responsibility?

Why does Wade, whose campaign to be known as the third greatest shooting guard of all-time was recently kickstarted by Mark Jackson, get away with a two point fourth quarter, without a single point in the final four minutes? Wade and James have never been a perfect match offensively, and yet, when Wade was put in a position where the offense was relying on him, he failed to deliver anything at all. How does that go unnoticed while talking heads blab about LeBron not being superhuman enough to overcome an ailment that would sideline anybody?

Wade was an astounding minus-21 in the final nine minutes of the game, which is when LeBron’s issues starting flaring up. Bosh was a minus-15 in his six fourth quarter minutes. Individual plus/minus is a very hit or miss stat, but in this case it clearly illustrates just how poor an effort the Heat got from Wade and Bosh when they needed it the most.

It’s fitting that this whole thing played out against the Spurs, a team that has won two decisive games this post-season against the Blazers and Thunder with Tony Parker missing the entire second half. A popular narrative about this series may be about the battle of the big threes, but San Antonio is way more capable of operating sans one of their stars than Miami is when James has any kind of ailment, which is ironic given how Wade and Bosh are often portrayed as LeBron’s crutches by those that belittle his accomplishments.

People will use last night as an example of James’ imaginary issues in big moments, but I see what transpired in Game 1 as further proof of his greatness. That the team completely collapsed in his absence is nothing if not a statement on how integral he is, even on a team with two other superstars.

The main reason LeBron went to Miami was so that he could offset some of the unreasonable burden that he carried with him in Cleveland. Wade and Bosh were supposed to be the other pillars that prevented such a disaster from taking place if LeBron was off his game.

But last night they were buried in the rubble.

Heat Waves

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NBA: Finals-Miami Heat at San Antonio Spurs

SAN ANTONIO — With nine minutes left in Game 1 of the 2014 NBA Finals, San Antonio seemed to be facing a nightmare scenario. They were down seven after a Chris Bosh AND-1 three, Miami was hitting everything from deep, Danny Green had ironically gone cold at home as the temperature in the arena kept getting hotter and the Spurs had an unthinkable 20 total turnovers, which led directly to 28 Heat points.

Then LeBron’s Herculean body succumbed to debilitating cramps, which may be his only kryptonite as an athlete, and Miami suddenly looked lost without their leader. James asked out of the game after a couple of long jumpers around the seven minute mark, and upon returning after a few minutes on the bench, his thigh promptly cramped up again following a made lay-up. His second bout with those muscle contractions was devastating enough to lock up his entire left leg and keep him out of the game for good with four minutes to go.

Meanwhile, sensing blood in the water, the Spurs finally broke out of their turnover trance, Green got a couple of huge shots to go down to boost his confidence and in the blink of an eye, the Spurs had regained control of the game and taken what was a prime opportunity to steal a road game from the Heat.

During the final nine minutes of the game, the Spurs outscored the Heat 30-9, turning the ball over just twice while getting back to the selfless, efficient and effervescent style that has defined their team over the past few years. Getting Green on track was huge in mounting a comeback, even with James in peril, and after tailing him without error for the first three quarters of the game, Miami made fundamental mistakes that sprung San Antonio’s most lethal long-range shooter wide open for two big threes in the fourth.

And Green wasn’t done. A vintage Duncan outlet pass off of Dwyane Wade miss at the rim got Green out into transition, where he outran Rashard Lewis and threw down a dunk that capped off a personal 8-0 run for the slumping sharpshooter. That run turned the game from a 4-point Heat lead to a 4-point Spurs lead in the span of two minutes. James reentered the game after Green’s spurt, but he only lasted one possession. Following James’ permanent exit for the evening, the Spurs went on a 16-3 run fueled by the brilliance of their big three as well as their budding superstar.

First Ginobili found Green for another three, then he lofted a pass to Boris Diaw, who was being fronted by Chris Bosh, that I still can’t comprehend which resulted in an easy lay-up. Next Parker found Leonard for an open three before a Ginobili/Duncan pick-and-roll produced some tic-tac-toe passing from Manu to Timmy to Tony for the dagger corner three that appropriately came with Parker drilling the shot just a few feet away from where a bent over James watched from the bench.

What has to eat at the Heat even more than the fact that they lost their best player in the final four minutes of what was a two point game when he checked out for good is that they squandered a game that the Spurs were quite literally trying to give to them. You don’t see the Spurs play games this sloppy very often. The most recent time that San Antonio had a 22 turnover performance was in the first round against the Dallas Mavericks, and the result of that game was a 21-point loss on their home floor to an eight seed. On top of that, this was the first time the Heat have ever lost a game in which they forced 22 or more turnovers in the LeBron era, which is an even bigger sign that this is a game they should have had.

You have to credit Miami for most of San Antonio’s careless play; their chaotic defensive style forces opponents to make poor decisions and nobody works harder – or smarter – to prevent post entry passes. But once San Antonio started each possession with a clearer idea of their intentions, the ball started moving on a string and the offense developed that rhythmic flow that makes them so fun to watch.

Ironically, after his plague of turnovers in last year’s Finals, Ginobili was the Spur who looked most comfortable with the ball in Game 1. Manu spent the whole night dissecting the same Heat defense that made it seem like his career was over last season, slicing up Miami’s pick-and-roll coverages to the tune of 11 assists, with a couple of hockey helpers thrown in there as well. Ginobili started off the game with three three-pointers in the first quarter and slowly started to get others involved as the game when on, racking up four assists during the game’s deciding stretch.

Parker, whose health was still a question mark coming into this game, was just as good when getting others involved. Other than an occasional limp, Parker seemed to have his full array of sharp cuts and ravishing dashes to the cup available in this game. Miami’s speedy defense can contain him at times, but he was able to get a clean path towards the basket a few times in this game, and he made sure to get his teammates the ball when he saw the help come over. And somewhat surprisingly, Parker was also killer from the corners in this game, knocking down a pair of triples from there, which gives San Antonio the valuable ability to have Ginobili, who is a better three-point threat on the pull-up, handle the ball on the majority of high screen-and-rolls.

And Duncan was so key, as he always is, in making everything click. Duncan struggled a bit protecting the rim, but other than that, he was so solid in every facet of the game. He cleaned the boards, he dove to the basket and made tough finishes against pesky and often smaller defenders, and he did a good job of moving the ball when he was doubled in the paint. Duncan did struggle with turnovers, coughing it up a team high five times, but a lot of those could be solved with better set-ups from the perimeter.

Unlike the AT&T Center crowd, the Spurs weren’t always feeling hot in Game 1. They had patches of brilliance here and there followed by other stretches when the Heat put their stamp on the game with a unique blend of maniacal defense, a cornucopia of long-range options and LeBron’s individual greatness.

But when the game was on the line, San Antonio rode a heat wave to victory while the Miami Heat wilted away.

Remember The Alamo

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NBA: Playoffs-Golden State Warriors at San Antonio Spurs

The city of San Antonio owes most its national notoriety to a two-century old building that played a crucial role in the Texas Revolution. The Alamo, which now sits in the heart of the city near the River Walk, is one of America’s most historic tourist attractions and a fixture in most history textbooks. Impossibly outnumbered by the Mexican Army, 189 brave men from different and distinct backgrounds stood their ground at the Alamo before the strength of Santa Anna’s siege overwhelmed them way back in 1836.

Though the Alamo briefly stood as a symbol of victory for the Mexican Army, shortly after the memories of that battle would help turn the Texas Revolution into a legendary triumph for the Texian Army. Led by General Sam Houston, who would later be known as the “Father of Texas”, the Texian Army took down Santa Anna’s army with frightening precision at the Battle of San Jacinto as the troops famously shouted “Remember the Alamo!”

For a team that is as rooted in its city’s culture as any other organization in pro sports, it is apropos that the San Antonio Spurs have the opportunity to close the book on the Tim Duncan-Gregg Popovich era with such a similar final chapter.

Last year’s NBA Finals acted as a roadblock to liberation for Duncan and Pop. With just one more win, they would have been able to ride off into the sunset with a perfect record on the games biggest stage. But Ray Allen’s miracle shot in the final seconds of regulation in Game 6 was a cannonball that produced the first crack in the Spurs’ wall, and then LeBron, an army unto himself, was able to break it down with his heroic performance in Game 7.

For San Antonio to be as close as they were in Game 7 was another sign of their incredible resilience and courage, but it wasn’t enough to derail Miami’s quest to control the NBA.

But now the Spurs have fought their way back, ready to exact revenge for their downfalls in 2013. Duncan and Manu Ginobili have repelled Father Time for yet another year, Tony Parker turned in another elite season, Danny Green has returned to avenge his letdown performances in Games 6 and 7, Kawhi Leonard has made strides on both ends of the floor as his burden has increased and the rest of San Antonio’s supporting cast has never been better.

Rather than wilting in shame of their failure or succumbing to age and eroding skills, the Spurs have returned stronger after last year’s Finals, due in large part to the incomparable leadership of Popovich. Popovich, an Air Force Academy graduate, has helped build the most mentally tough battalion in all of sports, unrelenting in their execution and in their belief in each other. That faith has been vital in San Antonio’s return to the Finals, as they’ve met each and every obstacle thrown in their way – Serge Ibaka’s return, Tony Parker’s injury in Game 6 of the conference finals, etc. – without batting an eyelash.

Now the Spurs assume their positions in front of the Alamo City walls yet again, with LeBron and his troops looking to charge right in.

The Alamo was viewed as “The Last Stand” for the Texian Army, but even after their crushing defeat, they were able to muster the moxie necessary to seek out and defeat the Mexican Army in the decisive Battle of San Jacinto.

How fitting would it be for the Spurs, a team whose last stand has been proclaimed and forecasted for the better part of this decade, to rally together for one more battle after what looked to be a true deathblow last season? How perfect would it be for this series to be Duncan’s true last stand, one that he emerges from victorious?

And if Popovich and Duncan can finally obtain that fleeting freedom that allows them to walk away from the game after raising their flag on the NBA’s mast for the fifth and final time, the description of their swansong may someday read like this:

“Though the 2013 Finals briefly stood as a symbol of victory for the Heat, shortly after the memories of that battle would help turn the 2014 Finals into a legendary triumph for the Spurs. Led by Coach Gregg Popovich, who would later be known as the “Pop of San Antonio”, the Spurs took down LeBron’s army with frightening precision at the Battle of San Antonio as the players famously shouted “Remember those yellow ropes!”

Love Lost

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NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Miami Heat

The prominent theory when it comes to building a contender in a small market is that the team needs to bottom out and nab a superstar in the lottery in order to start down the path towards success. Coastal cities will inevitably attract star power as well as aging veterans looking to string out their careers with the added bonus of enjoyable scenery, so the best shot for the little guy is to build from within.

The San Antonio Spurs are the model franchise in this respect. They landed the number one overall pick back in 1997 and, despite some flirting with the Magic in 2000, Tim Duncan has been in San Antonio for 16 years. Even as Duncan had his team at the top of the standings each year, the Spurs were able to mine talent from unfamiliar territories to surround him with and they had the best coach in basketball to put everything together.

But as much as we want to admire San Antonio for being able to escape the confines of its market, doing so creates an impossibly high standard for every other small market franchise in the league. Over the last decade or so, the only other franchise that has been able to replicate San Antonio’s success was Oklahoma City, and not surprisingly they did so by hiring a young executive that grew up in the Spurs organization.

Another common thread between Oklahoma City and San Antonio that makes them more outliers than the standard is that the superstars that they built around were incredibly humble and devoted individuals; a different breed in today’s hyper, egotistical world of professional sports. Duncan almost went to Disneyworld back in 2000, but since then he’s never wavered in his loyalty to San Antonio, even taking massive paycuts in order to give his general manager financial flexibility. Durant is yet to enter his prime, but everything he’s said seems to indicate that he loves the quaint mid-western town that he’s in.

Those kinds of superstars are rare, and what’s even rarer is that the same front office that lucks into the top pick necessary to draft a Duncan or Durant is also capable of building a title contender around them. More often than not, the draw of being able to play with a star isn’t enough to offset the financial or lifestyle sacrifices that such a move would necessitate.

Thus, there is increased pressure on the executives to build through the draft. Oklahoma City was far better off than the Spurs since they landed the 4th overall pick in 2008 and the 3rd overall pick in 2009, which allowed them to take Russell Westbrook and James Harden, whereas the Spurs have yet to have a lottery pick of their own since they got Duncan. But because the Spurs are able to extract efficient production from just about anybody and because they’ve had so much success with foreign prospects, they also represent an uncommon string of effective personnel decisions that few teams can ever replicate.

This reliance on outstanding draft success as a substitute for big free agent signings has led to a severe decrease in championship windows for small market teams that draft players that would normally be considered capable of leading a team on multiple deep playoff runs.

LeBron James was able to get the Cavs to the Finals just once during his seven years there and he’s one of the 10 best players of all-time. But Cleveland never could put a roster together that complemented him as well as Miami’s roster, even without Dwyane Wade, does. Ditto for Dwight Howard, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year who carried the Magic to a Finals appearance before a series of dumbfounding decisions by Otis Smith had Dwight fleeing for Los Angeles and, eventually, Houston.

The latest causality is Minnesota Timberwolves, who appear to be on the verge of having to trade their star power forward for the second time in seven years. Kevin Love’s “people” have reportedly told the team that he will walk away from the franchise next off-season when he’s able to opt out of his current contract, which means the T’Wolves would be smart to start listening to trade offers so they can get something in return rather than seeing Love walk away for nothing.

It’s saddening, to say the least, that more small market teams that land superstars in the lottery wind up losing them rather than holding onto them for the majority of their career. It’s not about money; Bird Rights have been implemented for the specific purpose of giving small market teams the advantage when re-signing players by giving them an extra year to offer. And in the social media age, it’s not about endorsements or building a brand; LeBron was Nike’s co-star alongside Kobe from the day he entered the league, Howard was Adidas’ biggest endorser in Orlando and Love is already on your TV selling you Taco Bell.

rubiolove1
Rubio’s selfless, endearing style may not be enough to keep Love in Minnesota.

More often than not, these divorces are related to poor supporting casts, and big cities act as a safehaven since, even if the front office is incompetent, the city and the opportunity to play with stars can sell itself to other big-time players. In the case of Minnesota, they have multiple opportunities to surround love with a strong supporting cast. After he got the best of Memphis with a draft night trade that landed Minny Love’s draft rights in exchange for O.J. Mayo back in 2008, David Kahn swung and missed in the draft three years in a row, including his infamous mishandling of his four first round picks in 2009.

Kahn’s decision to take Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn back-to-back with the 5th and 6th overall picks in 2009 will haunt the franchise forever. Rubio is a good player but his brilliant aesthetics and overall effectiveness are neutered by his never-ending search for a jumpshot, and Flynn was a total flop that didn’t last three full seasons in the league. To make matters worse, with the pick right after Flynn, the Golden State Warriors landed themselves a franchise changing talent in Stephen Curry, leading to a tremendous what-if regarding the potential trio of Rubio, Curry and Love.

Things didn’t get much better from there. Armed with the 4th overall pick in 2010 and the 2nd overall pick in 2011, Kahn drafted two players that are no longer on the roster, one of which played for the league minimum this season: Wesley Johnson and Derrick Williams. Minnesota’s streak of misses continued even after Kahn was gone, as Flip Saunders’ first move as team president was drafting Trey Burke and trading him for Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng. While Dieng had a strong run to close the season, Muhammad, the higher selection of the two, seems to be a long way from lottery-like production.

Even with a strong coach like Rick Adelman, the Timberwolves struggled to survive in the rugged Western Conference. Granted, they dealt with some severely unfair injury issues over the past two seasons, but given the state of their roster relative to the rest of the conference, it’s safe to assume that a playoff berth would have been the extent of their accomplishments. And as much as you want a player like Love to stay in Minnesota and keep the franchise relevant as he enters into his prime as one of the brightest stars in the league, can you really blame him for pursuing a shot at success?

It will be interesting to see if the league deems this a problem big enough to address when the new CBA is up for negotiations, if they decide it is a problem at all. At the end of the day, the result of these superstar fallouts it getting ultra-talented players to places that maximize their earning potential. And even as the Timberwolves would be set back for five or six years as they try to hit the lottery again in the draft, a team like Milwaukee will experience a brief upswing up until Andrew Wiggins decides to bolt for the beaches. It’s a cyclical process.

But perhaps the league is right not to address the increased number of fleeting small market stars since the underlying and most prominent issue is inept front offices and coaching staffs. Had Kahn drafted like Sam Presti and had Danny Ferry and Mike Brown crafted a culture like the one they experienced during their time in San Antonio, perhaps Love and LeBron are still pumping money into those small market economies.

Then again, maybe the Spurs and Thunder have just gotten our hopes up. Their success inspires other small market franchises to follow their blueprint, but in reality, they are deviations from the norm whose commendable coups still pale in comparison to those of the Lakers and Celtics and whose admirable triumphs are far less likely to sustain past a generation than a franchise whose arena is within a few miles of beaches or Broadway.

Who’s To Blame?

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Orlando Magic vs. Indiana Pacers

If the reports are true, Stan Van Gundy will be the next head coach of the Detroit Pistons. And their next president of basketball operations, too.

Over the past few years, there seems to have been an influx in the amount of head coaching candidates that want a tighter grip on personnel decisions to go along with their usual lockerroom leadership duties. It’s understandable, to an extent, since a disconnect between a front office executive and a head coach can have disastrous results. Coaches know what players fit their system the best and without a doubt they already have an evident amount of say on personnel decisions when it comes to deciding if that player suits their style or if they’ll fit into the culture of the lockerroom.

But front office guys often have their own points of view, and even their own agendas. A GM on the hotseat can make hasty decisions that saddle a coach with deadweight players and an undesirable capsheet, thus leading to the eventual ousting of the coach, too. It’s a situation that Van Gundy wanted to avoid when he started fielding job offers earlier this month, likely because his downfall in Orlando unfolded in a similar manner.

Trying desperately to build a winning team around Dwight Howard before he had a chance to leave in free agency led then Magic general manager Otis Smith to trade for Gilbert Arenas, who hasn’t had a relevant basketball moment since, and to sign Glen Davis and Jason Richardson to sizable mid-level deals. When it came time for Howard to make his decision, after changing his mind a few dozen times, he recognized the situation around him was less than desirable, and Van Gundy and Smith got the boot soon after.

I get why Van Gundy, or any other high profile coach, would want to protect themselves from that kind of a situation. But what I find interesting is that, rather than just trying to find a good general manager to pair themselves with, these coaching candidates have gone a step further, demanding full control and final say on all basketball operations while the GM handles the day-to-day responsibilities. I wouldn’t say it’s particularly egregious; it’s not like Scotty Brooks is the one asking for control over personnel decisions. But I’m not quite sure what got us to this point. Where along the road did the best coaches in the league want to usurp all of the basketball-related power within their organizations?

The easy answer is that it began with Phil Jackson during his time with the Lakers. I know there are some more historic examples, but ever since front offices have expanded to house several executives, including one person specifically chosen to have final say on the shaping of the roster, Jackson is the best example of a coach that didn’t want anything to be above his pay grade.

There were three pretty obvious reasons why Phil wanted to extend his jurisdiction past the sidelines: 1) He had already six titles in Chicago under an overbearing owner, 2) His triangle offense was as unique as any system in the league and required specific kinds of players to make things click, and 3) He was dating the daughter of legendary Laker owner Jerry Buss, which I’m sure made him feel like a part owner in some respects. Dr. Buss bit the bullet and ceded control to Jackson during his second tenure with the team, but Jimmy Buss wouldn’t give Jackson the power he wanted when the team reached out to him about returning for a third time and instead opted for Mike D’Antoni.

Jackson’s situation with the Lakers was a unique one because of how successful was and because he had a serious romantic relationship with one of the owners, so perhaps the best example of this distorted hierarchy involves another coach that finds himself on the Mount Rushmore of NBA coaches: Gregg Popovich.

0507-san-antonio-spurs-608
Spurs GM R.C. Buford hands Gregg Popovich his latest Coach of the Year Award.

While Pop’s schematics are top notch, his greatest skill as a coach has been cultivating a culture in the lockerroom that manifests itself on the floor. Being that selflessness and sacrifice are two major points of emphasis for the Air Force graduate, letting him decide what kind of players were brought into the organization seems incredibly logical, especially because he’s demonstrated the ability to extract efficient production out of guys that may not be all that talented. R.C. Buford is one of the best general managers in the league, but it’s clear that Popovich’s presence has always been a bit of an asterisk when it came to evaluating his performance. Until this year, that is, when Buford finally earned the Executive of the Year Award, fittingly in the same year that Pop took home his third Coach of the Year Award.

Jackson and Popovich are two of the best coaches ever and for their opinions to carry more weight with their respective organizations, organizations that they won multiple championships with, makes a lot of sense. The question is whether or not that has set the table for other high profile, yet not remotely as successful, coaches to make expanded front office roles a requirement to hire them.

We saw it this summer with Doc Rivers, who was only willing to leave the Celtics if he was given a prominent front office position, and he’s now the vice president of basketball operations as well as the Clippers’ head coach. Rivers had built himself quite a culture in Boston, but I don’t think he’s got any proprietary schematics or a specific blueprint for his kind of player that would make expanded control a necessity.

The early returns on his front office career are less than stellar. His first move in LA was trading away budding superstar Eric Bledsoe in exchange for J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley. Though Redick has been stellar for Doc’s offense when he’s been healthy, Dudley hasn’t been a key contributor for a good while now, and despite all of the buzz the moves got when they went down, the Clippers’ mid-season acquisitions — Hedo Turkoglu, Glen Davis and Danny Granger — haven’t been all that impactful.

Van Gundy is the latest head coach to make power a priority during his job search. What’s maddening about Van Gundy’s itinerary is that it likely prevented what would have been the best possible basketball marriage on the market. Van Gundy’s talks with the Golden State Warriors reportedly broke down because the team wasn’t willing to let him preside over current General Manager Bob Myers, who has done a fine job assembling a roster that could have won 55-60 games under Van Gundy’s guidance.

It makes sense that Van Gundy would make more control a stipulation during his conversations since the Pistons were willing to go all out and over him the top basketball related position, but for it to be a deal breaker for Van Gundy, so much so that he passed up an opportunity to coach a team that has all of the ingredients that his Magic teams had when he took them to the Finals in 2009 with even more subsidiary talent (and Steph freaking Curry) just so that he’d have more say so in Detroit, which is by far a tougher situation to succeed in, is puzzling.

Aside from Pop, Van Gundy and Rivers are two of the top five coaches in basketball along with Tom Thibodeau, Rick Carlisle and Erick Spoelstra, so for them to feel entitled to a salient voice on all important decisions is reasonable. But have we really reached a point where all established coaches are going to demand that they get to wear both hats – the one that gives them the power to command what happens on the floor and the one that lets them decide which players he can put on that floor – even though it’s not a universal fit?

It’s not quite letting the inmates run the asylum, but not all guards are cracked up to be wardens, either.

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