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Why you’re wrong and this NBA Finals matchup is awesome

Elliott Brown/Flickr

Elliott Brown/Flickr

It’s difficult to pin down the exact reason, but it seems to me there’s an impulsive backlash that happens in our society today, immediately and predictably, against anything that isn’t new and trendy and hype-worthy. Give us something novel, and we’re through the roof with excitement; give us something we’ve seen before, and it’s a snoozefest.

Where did this mentality come from? I’m really not sure. It’s probably because of the MTV generation or the SportsCenter generation or the Twitter generation. We might be able to blame the schools, or blame Canada, or blame it on the rain.

The NBA Finals begin tonight, with the San Antonio Spurs hosting the Miami Heat in Game 1 at 8 p.m. Central, and as I understand it, there’s a sizable contingent of fans who find themselves bored with a rematch of the same Finals they watched last June. Heat and Spurs; Spurs and Heat; yadda, yadda, yadda.

To that, I say: P’shaw. You got a problem with this Finals matchup? That’s on you. If you’re bored, then you’re boring, and I’ve got one big yawn for anyone who doesn’t enjoy seeing two generation-defining dynasties go head to head.

Here’s what’s really funny about this whole conversation – our elders would laugh hysterically at us for even bringing it up. Back in the 1980s, basketball fans prided themselves on their singular obsession with one matchup. The Lakers and Celtics were the NBA, and no one else mattered. No one, save for maybe an optimistic homer in Philadelphia or Milwaukee or Houston, expected or even wanted the monotony to end. The joy of following the league in those days was knowing the top two teams, waiting for their inevitable showdown and savoring the moment when it arrived in the late spring. Why we can’t do that today is beyond me.

About a decade ago, long after the dust had settled and all those ’80s legends were retired, Chuck Klosterman wrote a great essay on the cultural phenomenon of the Lakers and Celtics in that era, named “33” after the uniform number worn by both Larry Bird and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He argued that that one rivalry encapsulated pretty much everything interesting about America, from important discussions about race and class to what we eat for breakfast each morning:

“To say the 1980s rivalry between the Celtics and the Lakers represents America’s racial anguish is actually a short-sighted understatement. As I have grown older, it’s become clear that the Lakers-Celtics rivalry represents absolutely everything: race, religion, politics, mathematics, the reason I’m still not married, the Challenger explosion, ‘Man vs. Beast’ and everything else. There is no relationship that isn’t a Celtics-Lakers relationship.”

If you get a chance to read the piece – it’s a chapter in his book “Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs” – do so. I can’t recommend it enough. Klosterman goes into a long series of comparisons between Celtic People and Laker People – who believes in JFK conspiracy theories and who thinks Oswald acted alone, who likes David Lee Roth and who thinks Sammy Hagar’s better, and so on. It’s a lot of fun.

Sadly, an essay like that would never be written today, because rather than embrace rivalries – even one like Heat-Spurs, which may well feature two of the 10 best players ever – we run from them like the plague. It’s especially sad because Heat-Spurs, like Celtics-Lakers, features a fascinating contrast of basketball yin and yang, but it’s one that goes woefully underappreciated.

Think about the fundamental differences between the two franchises that go overlooked:

Team-building: There’s still, four years after the fact something grotesque about the way this Heat team came together. This isn’t a “Decision” rant, and it’s not an accusation of tampering or anything unethical like that, but it’s just… lazy, you know? It offends your sensibilities as a fan. We pour all these hours into understanding the trade machinations and the salary cap math, and in the end, Pat Riley just trumps all of that by brute-forcing his way into three big names.

Meanwhile, the Spurs find the diamond in the rough every time. Of course, they had to win the draft lottery in ’97 to get Tim Duncan and set the plan in motion, but think about what’s happened since then. The Spurs have made the playoffs every single year since the Duncan pick, which means in 17 years, they’ve never had a single lottery pick. They’ve never even picked higher than 20th, which the exception of the Kawhi Leonard selection, which cost them a very good player in George Hill.

Instead, the Spurs have made steal after steal – they got Manu Ginobili at No. 57, Tony Parker at 28, Tiago Splitter also at 28 and Kawhi at 15. They’ve made worthwhile players out of rejects from Cleveland (Danny Green), Charlotte (Boris Diaw) and Chicago (Marco Belinelli).

Both ways work. Which you find more compelling is a matter of taste.

Star power: If I had to describe the Heat’s makeup in one word (and hyphenated words were allowed), I’d say “All-Stars.” The three guys at the team’s core are all guaranteed to appear every year at the exhibition in mid-February – it’s like death and taxes that LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh will be named among the NBA’s 24 best. In fact, that was the whole idea behind building this nucleus – bring together three All-Star players, and the rest will take care of itself.

The Spurs, on the other hand? Even their best players lie on the fringes of the Western Conference’s 12 elites. Part of that is the depth of the conference, but part of it is the Spurs’ build isn’t conducive to making players into stars. No one pads their stats, no one publicizes themselves, no one gains acclaim as an individual. Duncan, Parker and Ginobili are in the All-Star conversation every year (and Leonard may soon be too), but it’s never a travesty if one misses the cut.

Maybe it should be. There’s a valid opinion out there that Duncan, being one of the best players ever, should be extended the same respect as Jordan and Magic and Kobe, meaning he’s an automatic All-Star every February – that whenever he’s not, it’s a major snub. But at least publicly, the Spurs don’t carry it that way. No one talks about stardom in San Antonio; no one campaigns for themselves.

Commercial appeal: According to Forbes, LeBron James makes $42 million per year from his endorsements alone, raking in money from his connections with Coke, Nike, Upper Deck, Samsung, Audemars Piguet, Dunkin Donuts and many, many others. Wade make a relatively paltry $12 million.

I think I saw Manu Ginobili on a billboard once.

Let’s move on.

Style of play: This is perhaps the most interesting contrast of them all, and here’s why – people’s perceptions of the way the Spurs and Heat play basketball don’t usually match up with reality.

When the typical fan – even an avid one! – thinks of the Heat, they think of this crazy-aggressive, fast-paced team that runs the floor in transition and dunks all over you. But surprisingly, the Heat this year haven’t been that team. They actually ranked 27th in the NBA in pace this year, faster than only the Grizzlies, Bulls and Knicks, at 91.2 possessions per contest. They’ll obviously take the transition dunk when it’s there, but it’s no longer their bread and butter. The team relies today on the superior basketball IQ and execution that LeBron and company bring to the table. Meanwhile the Spurs, who have old leaders but give a ton of minutes to younger guys like Leonard, Green and Belinelli, are actually above average with a pace factor of 95.0.

On another note – if you had to guess, with no peeking, which team shoots more threes, the Spurs or Heat? Most would say San Antonio, since they’re known for moving the ball around the perimeter and waiting for the open trey, but they’d be wrong. The Heat were sixth in the league in 3-point rate, taking 29.2 percent of their shots this year from distance, while the Spurs were 16th at 25.7.

Anyway.

I think contrast is the spice of life, especially where sports are concerned. I like this thing, and you like that one – what happens when they converge and only one can win?

Having two polar opposites go head to head in the Finals – especially when they’re the two best teams and they should be there – is the ideal outcome for any NBA season. I’ll take it once, I’ll take it twice, I’ll take it until the end of time.

Evans Clinchy