Spurs prove once again you don't have to have best players to win title

Monday June 16th, 2014

As the San Antonio Spurs flossed the last remnants of the Miami Heat out of their teeth, I had a vision of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Joakim Noah, James Harden, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, Dwight Howard and Stephen Curry all shrugging their shoulders at precisely the same time, as if to say: Nothing we could do.

Why those nine? They all received more All-NBA votes this year than any Spur. Tony Parker was 10th in the voting. Tim Duncan was 18th. Kawhi Leonard got a single third-team vote.

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The voters were well aware that San Antonio had the best record in the league, but that's all the love they could muster. You could say the Spurs got screwed. Me, I think the voters got it right. Those nine players I mentioned are all better than anybody on the Spurs. Yet San Antonio won the title anyway.

And so now, please, let's put one of the most tired sports theories to rest.

Say it with me: You do not need one of the top five players in the world to win an NBA championship.

When people talk about building an NBA champion, they invariably say that you need one of the five best players in the world -- and, ideally, another one of the top 10. They say it over and over again. We have heard it so often, from so many people, that we accept it as a core sports truth.

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There are two problems with it. One is that it isn't really true. The other is that it isn't entirely false.

Yes, of course a team has a better chance to win the title if it has one of the best players in the league. Great players help teams win, regardless of sport, and they are more important in basketball, because there are only five players on the court, they all play offense and defense (theoretically, anyway), and there is no batting order restricting teams. If Miami wants LeBron to take the last shot, he takes it.

But the idea that a top-five player is a requirement to win a championship ... well, that is simply not true. The Spurs just proved it definitively. And it would be easy to argue that this was series was a fluke or an anomaly. But if you look closer, you will see find several other teams that proved this same point.

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In 2004, the Detroit Pistons whipped the favored Los Angeles Lakers in a five-game series that felt a lot like this one. That Lakers team had 26-year-old Kobe Bryant and 32-year-old Shaquille O'Neal in their final season together, and when the story of that series is told, people often say that the Lakers imploded, and that's why they lost. But the Lakers made the Finals, beating the defending champion Spurs along the way, and most fans assumed L.A. would roll over Detroit. The Lakers only imploded after it was clear the Pistons would beat them.

In 2011, the Dallas Mavericks won the title without placing a single player on the All-NBA first team; Dirk Nowitzki was on the second team and finished sixth in the voting. No other Maverick came close to making even third-team All-NBA.

A bunch of other similar teams in recent years have come incredibly close to winning the title without actually winning it. Last year's Spurs, of course, were one shot away from beating Miami. The 2002 Sacramento Kings took the Lakers to overtime of Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals, and the 2000 Portland Trail Blazers had a 15-point lead on the Lakers in Game 7 of the conference finals before blowing it.

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You can argue that those teams lost because they didn't have a superstar, but it's a thin argument. One shot here or there is not much of a difference. The difference last year was not the greatness of James; it was Ray Allen hitting that shot.

This should give hope to Indiana, which has a terrific team but no true MVP candidate. It should encourage Chicago if Derrick Rose only comes most of the way back and is a borderline All-Star but not an MVP. And it should encourage the Clippers, Rockets and Thunder, which all have clear superstars, and even teams like Phoenix, which is trying to build a champion but does not have a superstar at the moment.

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Depth matters in basketball, and unselfishness and teamwork and great coaching matter, too. This seems like it should be obvious, but sometimes smart basketball fans and analysts get blinded by superstars.

San Antonio proved that if you don't have one of the very best players in the league (and Tim Duncan, an all-time great, no longer qualifies), then you can smartly distribute your payroll across your roster, find pieces that fit, and build a contender. It's not easy, but it can be done.

The Spurs' championship should make it more fun to be an NBA fan, both in the broad sense (as a fan of the league) and the narrow one (as the fan of an individual team).

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An easy and lazy criticism of the NBA is that only a few teams have a chance at the title, and those are the teams with one of the top five players in the league. But the talent in the league is so deep and varied now that more teams have hope.

Since 1996, the number of players in the league has held steady; the league has added one team, Charlotte, in that 18-year span. Meanwhile, players from around the world keep joining the NBA, effectively taking the place of lesser American players. More talent will mean more viable contenders. More contenders means a better league.

Some people want to make this series a referendum on LeBron James and his "legacy," whatever that means, but if you understood what you were watching, you know this series wasn't about James at all. He averaged 28.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and four assists, and his percentages (57 from the field, 52 from three, 79 from the free-throw line) were extraordinary. The Spurs whipped Miami anyway, just as they beat Kevin Durant's Thunder in the last series. Durant and James are the two best players in the world by almost any measure. But it's a team game, and the best team won.

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