Can the Spurs teach the Heat a lesson about continuity?

Soobum Im / USA TODAY Sports

It’s never easy to have a balanced long-term perspective when a champion has just been crowned and the dust is still settling on the final moments of competition. That’s true of any sport, at any level. When the trophy is in the air and the confetti’s on the ground, nothing really matters except the here and now. But eventually, whether it takes hours or days or weeks, the parade route gets cleaned up and the mind becomes a little less cluttered, and there’s time for genuine introspection.

The Miami Heat lost the NBA Finals this week, their second such setback in four years. They were indisputably outplayed by a better team this time, and given that in six months, their entire core group will be on the wrong side of 30, there’s reason to believe the state of the team will get worse before it gets better.

There have of course been numerous calls for major change in South Florida. This year’s Heat team wasn’t good enough, so everyone’s desperate to improve it. There’s a vociferous movement for more help around LeBron James. There are calls for a “real big man” in the conventional sense, not one like Chris Bosh, and for a potent scorer who’s still got some gas left in the tank, unlike Dwyane Wade. There’s a movement to replace Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole, who couldn’t get it done in the Finals, and to fill the old role player spots vacated long ago by guys like Mike Miller.

There’s even a rumor about Carmelo Anthony that won’t go away, no matter how implausible and ridiculous it might be.

In short, there’s a lot of talk about rebuilding the Heat, which is pretty jarring considering this team has reached four straight Finals under LeBron’s leadership. In case you’re wondering, there is very little historical precedent for a team winning four conference titles and then opting for immediate upheaval. The 1987-88 Celtics didn’t do much of anything to mix it up, save for signing an aging Artis Gilmore in January for the veteran’s minimum, and the Lakers in ’85 didn’t dare mess with their roster and upset the nucleus of Magic, Kareem and Worthy.

On the face of it, it seems pretty absurd that a team with as much recent success as the Heat would rock the boat in any major way. Again, having perspective is hard, but surely the Heat brass can see the big picture – that every team goes through trials and tribulations, and the smart ones know not to overreact.

For a little guidance on the matter, the Heat should look no further than the team that put them into this tailspin in the first place – the San Antonio Spurs. At multiple inflection points in franchise history, the Spurs faced the very real possibility of taking apart their core group, but they never followed through. As a result, they’re now five-time champions.

In 1999, the Spurs very nearly fired Gregg Popovich. They had begun the lockout-shortened ’99 season with championship aspirations, but when the team started the season 6-8, there were rumblings about the front office cutting Pop loose. Avery Johnson later told ESPN that “it was really real,” and Pop was one game away from losing his job – a March 2 road contest against the Houston Rockets.

The Spurs blew out Houston, won nine straight games, finished the season 37-13 and ultimately won a championship. They haven’t considered axing Pop since.

In 2000, San Antonio almost let Tim Duncan walk in free agency. Duncan was seriously considering a move to Orlando to join forces with Grant Hill and pursue a dynasty, and when the Magic offered him a six-year contract worth $67.5 million, he had to think long and hard.

The Spurs made a last-minute push, they re-signed Duncan, and… yeah. The rest is history, as they say.

I bring up these anecdotes to point out how crazy they sound now. A decade and a half later, no one even considered that Pop could be fired or Duncan could sign somewhere besides San Antonio. Today’s Spurs have continuity like no one else – but they didn’t build that overnight. They had to work hard to earn it, and they had to resist some initial impulses. San Antonio could have fired a struggling coach or let a star walk when he sought too much money, but instead they stood tall.

The Spurs’ commitment to their nucleus eventually brought them five championships. And it’s hard to see it at this very moment, since they just got smoked, but the Heat too could someday be in that position. They still have the best player on the planet, they still have a fantastic coach, and they still have two great secondary stars flanking their MVP. All of these things, we’ve known for years – why would we forget them because of one bad week?

Perspective has always been hard to come by, but it’s perhaps even more impossible here and now. It’s difficult to take a measured look at the Heat when there’s so much criticism littering people’s tweets and blog comments. It’s also tough when the speculation about LeBron’s legacy is so relentless, which only magnifies the importance of every decision. The Miami pressure cooker is on high, and a four-time reigning Eastern Conference champion is boiling.

The Heat have spent a surprising amount of time these last four years borrowing pages from San Antonio’s playbook. There’s one move in particular they might want to consider at this juncture, and that’s the one where they block out the outside speculation and the temptation for rash changes. The Heat might not have another decade of domination ahead of them quite the way San Antonio did – but if they act too hastily now, they’ll never know what could have been.

Evans Clinchy