It's a tale as old as time. Somebody becomes a champion doing something a little off-kilter, a little strange, a little new---and suddenly everyone is trying to duplicate that strategy. When the Celtics united Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, the league was taken aback. When the first contemporary incarnation of the "Big Three" managed to squeeze out a title, the league took notice.
The Lakers stole an All-Star Pau Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies for chump change and Gasol's younger brother - what a scrub that guy (and yes, I know Gasol came over before the Big Three won their title but shut up for a second). LeBron James, the league's best player, joined forces with rivals Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to form the latest version of the Big Three. Chris Paul joined Blake Griffin in Los Angeles. Houston grabbed James Harden and Dwight Howard. Carmelo Anthony joined Amar'e Stoudemire and superstar Andrea Bargnani which, as we all suspected, destroyed the Knicks.
Point being: the league was gravitating towards top-heavy superstar combos and trios.
And then came along... the Spurs.
What we interact with is echoes of the ideal, approximations of the perfect thing. So, you know, floating in the ether somewhere is the ideal desk, the ideal love, the ideal sentence.
But look at this:
That's the Platonic ideal of basketball.
And that's what teams will now try to duplicate. The Spurs won a title with a slick roster of utility guys, aging stars, and one ascendant, hopeful superstar. They went for quantity over quality and aimed to overwhelm opponents with ball movement, heady passing and dribbling, and bombs away shooting.
After nearly dethroning the Heat last year (seriously they were seconds away from making Miami a one for four Finals team with LeBron), they came back with cold-hearted vengeance on their mind. They wanted to impose the ideal of basketball on the superstar league. And they did. Tremendously.
They won the damn Finals in five games and their point differential was one of the most lopsided in history. They didn't beat the Heat. They deconstructed a basketball philosophy.
Think about this: no one on the Spurs played more than 29.4 minutes per game during the regular season. Three players averaged at least 29 minutes. Nobody else exceeded 25.2 minutes. Only three guys averaged less than 10 minutes a game. This team was exceedingly deep.
For comparison's sake, let's look at the 2012-2013 Miami Heat who beat the Spurs for the title. LeBron James averaged 37.9 mpg. Wade averaged 34.7. Bosh got 33.2. Seven players failed to register at least 10 mpg. Five more failed to hit the 20 mpg mark.
And if you want a team that wasn't the Heat, let's look at the Dallas Mavericks (a team divorced from the two or three superstars model). The 2010-2011vMavs weren't all that different from this year's Spurs. But San Antonio was revolutionary. Here's the minutes breakdown.
Dirk Novitzki (unsurprisingly) got 34.3 minutes. Jason Kidd snagged 33.2. Jason Terry had 31.3 and Caron Butler gobbled up 29.9. Four players failed to hit the 10 mpg mark. Six more failed to hit at least 20 mpg.
What does all this mean?
It means the Spurs did something new. They reached deep into their bench for minutes, protecting aging superstars, bringing young players along slowly and implementing a fast-paced offensive system that was remarkably efficient.
It means the Spurs wanted guys who either had one great specialty (Danny Green's shooting, for example) or guys that could do a bunch of stuff (Boris Diaw's passing, rebounding and defense, as another example). They wanted everyone to have a niche within the system.
It means teams like the Denver Nuggets are already talking about limiting the minutes of top-players and trying to develop a more egalitarian distribution of playing time (to cultivate talent and define the niches).
It means teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers are trying to duplicate that system right now. David Griffin hired a Euroleague coach to come over here and mature this team. Blatt has explicitly said he won't run the Princeton offense just to run the Princeton offense. He said he would construct this team around the players. And right now, I think the Cavs want to be the Spurs.
They have an All-Star point guard that's capable of getting to any spot on the floor (caveat, Parker is better than Irving, at least right now. In fact most of these Spurs are better than their Cavs counterparts, right now.). They have a spark plug sixth man that plays with undeniable offensive swagger. They have a potential superstar small forward who is being touted for his athleticism and defense, even while hangnail question marks loiter around his jump shooting and assertiveness. They have a 3-point specialist who might be sneaky good on defense. They have a face-up big man that might be a sneaky good passer and ball handler (Powell, if you're wondering who the hell I'm talking about. Also, maybe Bennett). And while all of those comparisons are fledgling at best, there's an even bigger gap for Cleveland.
What they don't have is a rim protector that unlocks the system, the way Old Man River does in San Antonio. Tim Duncan draws post defenders onto the blocks, demands attention on pick-and-rolls, and anchors the defense. And he's just generally an insanely good player that has carved out a Hall of Fame legacy for himself. Who the hell on the Cavs even comes close to that description?
Which leads me to believe the Cavs might make a run at a marquee free agent like Marcin Gortat or Pau Gasol. Neither man is likely to be confused for Tim Duncan. But both Gortat and Gasol are better players than any of the big men currently on roster. Gortat offers a defined inside presence and rim protector. Gasol offers better rim protection than what they have now (he still deserves that soft label) but his polished offensive game is worlds apart from what the Cavs have now.
If neither of those pan out, the Cavs might make a run at one of the more dangerous prospects (if they're so inclined) available via trade; namely: Larry Sanders or Roy Hibbert. Both come with baggage and question marks. Both could be massive disaster or miracle heaves. It's difficult to say and let's hope that finding rim protection and a good pick-and-roll system doesn't come to a Hail Mary play like that.
And on top of that, look at this roster. Go ahead. I'll wait.
Now assume they're losing CJ Miles, Luol Deng, and Spencer Hawes. And ignore Alonzo Gee being there. He's not really on the team anymore.
Are you comfortable with only three players on that roster not registering double digit minutes? Are you feeling good about none of those guys notching 30 minutes a game?
Here's the bright side: the Cavs are much, much younger than the Spurs. Nearly everyone on the roster is under 25 (which makes me feel fucking ancient). And the upside for some of these guys is exponential (Wiggins for example). If the Cavs want to duplicate the Spurs, step-for-step, they will fail. They'll fall into the wanna-be category.
If they want to use the Spurs as a guide post to great basketball, that's acceptable. The current incarnation of the back court (Irving, Waiters, Wiggins) has the potential for true greatness, particularly the Irving-Wiggins pairing. If Blatt can install some type of defensive solvent (aka a switch and bait system) and get this team into transition---where they will clearly excel---we could be looking at a juggernaut in the East for a long, long time.
Hell, maybe the Cavs could create the next vogue system on the way there (hint: everyone needs to win three of four lotteries).