Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The NBA Playoffs: Youth Will Be Served, Harshly

Beware The Boban
In the third quarter of tonight's by the book dismantling of the visiting Grizzlies, the Spurs were, to put it frankly, bored. Having won the first six quarters of their series against a team they would have handled even if they were healthy, the West's #2 seed was just going through the motions, up 15 in a game they could have been up 30 in, with absolutely little concern in their body language that the road team was going to make a run.

In most other NBA arenas and in most other NBA games, this precipitates a run like thunder anticipates rain. NBA players are too good to be slept on, and guys like Zach Randolph, Vince Carter and Lance Stephenson have enough tread and guile to know how to pounce on opportunities. What usually happens here is a made bucket or two, a turnover, a three, a timeout, and a grateful announcing crew noting that there's still plenty of time left, and the Grizz are showing great heart, and maybe they can steal one.

What happened instead in San Antonio was, well, nothing. The Spurs kept moving the ball, kept defending, kept getting better looks and never seemed to lose focus, even if they lost intensity. And then, as the game got out of hand, they did something particularly Spurs-like, especially in the latter days of the Gregg Popovich era. They brought in a ridiculously old guy to replace ridiculously old guys. Andre Miller, the 40-year-old point guard who couldn't jump when he was young, and is on his 10th team if you don't count consecutive years with a franchise, and his ninth if you do, played half of the fourth quarter.

This is, in and of itself, really not important; a 2/1/2 line isn't going to get much notice ever, let alone in yet another blowout in the most lopsided first round of recent NBA playoff history. But before you dismiss this as a Tracy McGrady-esque fetish of Popovich, or just believe that San Antonio treasures the basketball elderly, think harder.

The Spurs do nothing that doesn't get them an advantage, and are the second-best team on the planet right now, assuming Stephen Curry's ankle injury isn't a long-term issue. They run beyond greybeards like Miller out there, along with the past-due core of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, because it helps them win. Hell, Kevin Martin at 33 and a SG also qualifies, along with David West at back-up 4, who is 35.

Why go old? Well, because the Spurs are basically the Borg of the NBA; they don't need any one player to go off to win. Everyone shares the ball, no one gets big minutes, everyone defends, no one racks up technical fouls or goes for the showboat moment.

Which is a lot easier to do, frankly, after you've made your money and your reputation and have had your star edges sanded off by a bunch of different places that decided they could live without you. Assuming, of course, your head was the biggest reason you got bounced.

It's a frankly fascinating basketball experiment, built around Popovich's fearlessness in managing minutes to avoid injury, and to give up short-term wins for long-term benefit. Playing Miller tonight probably doesn't matter to anyone but Miller, but it also probably makes him better in practice, which makes Patty Mills and Danny Green better, which is likely to show up in a game. Having guys like Duncan and West around not only keeps LaMarcus Aldridge fresh, but schools up Boban Marjanovic and Kyle Anderson -- and while both of those guys are young for the Spurs, they are also 27 and 22 respectively, which doesn't exactly make them guys who might still be on a college campus.

Oh, and a side benefit to all of this?

When the deep benchies come in, they don't follow the NBA rule of thumb and allow runs to cut the big lead, because they (shh!) really aren't playing to the scoreboard. They know better. They're too old to fall into that trap, and too worried about getting benched in a heartbeat, because Pops benches everyone in heartbeats.

Oh, and this same sort of thing might be happening in the Hawks-Celtics series, where the older Hawks have been torching the young Cs so far, and the Clips-Blazers, seeing how the Clips have all of the old guys there, too. It's also helping the old Mavs stay in the picture with the young Thunder. Not too many Emerging Stud Rookies or Sophs in the NBA Playoffs this year.

I don't know if the Spurs have another title in them from this approach, because the history of the NBA is that Best Five against Best Five is what decides playoff series, and they don't have that. I'm not even sure they have a better bench, because the Dubs are unfair like that.

But what I do know is that if every team was built like the Spurs, and valued players at all stages of their career, rather than when they were just young, cheap and on the rise? And managed minutes as if the coach wasn't only on the sideline for decades, but expected to be there for as long as he felt like it?

We'd have a better league.

Probably not a more marketable one, though.

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