The false narrative around 'old' Spurs vs. 'young' Heat in the NBA Finals

Saturday June 8th, 2013

It would be easy to see LeBron's Heat vs. Duncan's Spurs and think the matchup is old vs. young.
John W. McDonough/SI

MIAMI -- Yes, everybody, the San Antonio Spurs are so old, even the jokes about them being old are old. The biggest problem with the jokes? The Spurs are younger than the Heat.

Yeah, that's right. The Spurs are younger than the Heat. In Game 1, the average age of a San Antonio player was 29.5; the average age of a Miami player was 30.3.

This is disturbing, mostly because it means I tried to do math. The math was pretty simple (I think): I multiplied each player's age by the number of minutes he played. So Manu Ginobili, age 35, played 30 minutes; that affects the Spurs' average age 15 times as much as 21-year-old Cory Joseph's two minutes. I'd explain more, but then the Memphis Grizzlies might hire me, and my wife doesn't want to move.

Why does this matter? Well, it puts a dagger in the argument that the Spurs are too old to win the title. If the Spurs are too old to win it, and the Heat are even older, what happens? Does the NBA just give the championship to the Knicks?

Also: It helps explain what has happened to Miami in the last few weeks.

We focus on the Heat's Big Three-ish of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, stars in their prime, and assume the Heat should dominate. But Wade isn't quite in his prime; he is 31, and his style of play has punished his body. He doesn't get to the free-throw line nearly as much as he once did, and he looks beaten up for the second straight postseason. (He has played better the last two games.)

Bosh, who is only 29, is battling an ankle injury, but he is also battling this truth: He doesn't battle on the boards like he once did. In his last year in Toronto, he averaged 10.8 rebounds per game. Since then, his season averages are 9.3, 7.9 and 6.8, in fairly steady minutes. This is partly because of he drifts out to the three-point line more than ever, putting him in bad spots for offensive rebounds. But rebounding in the NBA, year after year, takes both toughness and some bounce. For Bosh, both have declined.

So that's one problem: The core is older than it seems. The other problem is that the Heat has surrounded those three with specialists, and aging ones at that. That is what makes the Heat old. Ray Allen is 37. Mike Miller is 33. Shane Battier is 34. Udonis Haslem is 32. The only young guys in the rotation are point guards Norris Cole (24) and Mario Chalmers (27).

What effect does age have? Let's take a moment to compare the 2012-13 Miami Heat to one of the greatest teams of all-time: The 2012-13 Miami Heat.

Yes, you read that correctly.

You remember the 2012-13 Heat, don't you? Gosh, that seems like months ago. That Heat team ran off a 27-game winning streak, which seemed impossible in this era.

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What happened to those guys? What has changed? It starts with age. We like to think of seasons as finite: Your team for that season is your team, period. It doesn't change much from start to finish. But the truth is, teams peak at various times, and the calendar can't control that. The best team in mid-season is not always the best team at the end. We see this every year in the NFL.

An older team, by nature, is more likely to peak early, before the season grinds it down. And if you compare the Heat now to the Heat in mid-season, you need to start with the older guys. Especially one: Battier.

During the Heat's 27-game winning streak, Battier shot 49.6 percent from the field -- and almost all of his shots (119 of 133) were three-pointers. A lot of those shots were open, but 50 percent from three-point range over a two-month stretch is still incredible.

In the postseason, Battier is shooting a staggering 21.7 percent. That is brutal. Battier said Saturday that, "I have not had a plethora of open shots" in the postseason -- yes, he says "plethora," which is why I love him -- but also admitted that "the ones that I got, I didn't make."

There are fewer open shots in the postseason, because players are more prepared when they play the same opponent several games in a row. The advantage goes to the defense, which can focus on the offense's tendencies. So that affects the number of open shots, and since Battier, Miller and Allen are basically spot-up shooters at this point in their careers, it hurts them more. They can't create shots.

Battier's funk has been so deep that coach Erik Spoelstra has played him 18 minutes, total, in the past four games. Battier averaged 25 in the regular season. Meanwhile, Allen and Miller combined for 44 in Game 1. That is a fine trade if you look at the three as interchangeable spot-up shooters, but they aren't interchangeable.

Battier, one of the smartest players in league history and a taller player than either Allen or Miller, brings much more to the Heat besides shooting. He can make a few plays in a game, especially defensively, that Allen and Miller don't make. Those could have been the difference in Game 1.

So this is the same roster that won 27 straight games, but it is not the same team. I still think Miami will win this series, but it will be a tough slog, and James may have to carry the team.

For all the talk about star-laden Miami, the Heat ask James to do more than any champion has asked of a player in many years -- maybe ever. When Phil Jackson wanted to put a long, athletic defender on a point guard, he often turned to Scottie Pippen; Spoelstra asks James.

LeBron is leading his team in scoring, rebounding, and assists this postseason. He is not wired to try to score 40 points every night, and I admire that about him. He is clearly annoyed by the perception he needs to do more -- he is doing so much already, and when he passes to open teammates, he expects those shots to all more than they have. After all, that's how the Heat is built.

But the reality is that the Heat's best chance in this series may be for James to try to score 40 or more. He can do it, but it will take every ounce of his energy. After all, the man guarding him, Kawhi Leonard, is only 21.

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