We’re just short of 4 months from the start of the 2015-2016 NBA season and already the Cleveland Cavaliers and San Antonio Spurs are predominant favorites to win their Conferences. With apologies to the World Champion Warriors there is a solid reason these two teams will be most pundits top choices to meet in the finals.
Credit the talent on the Spurs and Cavs, their championship pedigree, team leaders and aggressive off season activity, all factors which has only served to bolster this presumption.
Yet, in review of how these teams are maneuvering through the NBA Free Agency period showcases how vastly different their approach is in their endeavors to build a Championship team. Moreover, it mirrors the identity of the two teams at their very core.
Entering a new week there are literally a handful of top tier free agent talents remaining. Obviously LeBron James is expected to resign a short term deal with Cleveland, but news there was a snag in the initial deal with Tristan Thompson and James refusal to ink a deal until it’s taken care of is a little perplexing.
James apparently indicated he wanted to wait until owner Dan Gilbert and his management team demonstrated their commitment to resigning the key cogs: Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson, and Iman Shumpert. Gilbert has basically pulled a Brinks truck up to Quicken Loans Arena and unloaded it to pay for the deals so far, with Thompson’s signing remaining a priority.
— Hoops Rumors (@HoopsRumors) July 6, 2015
Rumors became reality Monday with Mo Williams returning to Cleveland. And, speculation continues regarding other free agents targets, especially now that Manu Ginobili confirmed his return and the Spurs pulling a rabbit out of a hat maneuver to add David West for a pittance of what he could command.
Momentum is gaining on two rumors centering around a trade for Joe Johnson in exchange for Anderson Varejao and Brendan Haywood‘s highly enticing contract (teams can clear $10.5M of cap space because his contract is non guaranteed). The second is Cleveland are interested in trading for Clippers Jamal Crawford.
With the money already spent and the Cavs seemingly looking to build a team of 10 All-Stars and 5 specialists it had me wondering if LeBron is goading Gilbert into loading this team so he won’t go through another Finals like his most recent, or is simply trying to keep up with the organic process the Spurs are taking.
ESPN sources say that Cavs, in addition to Joe Johnson trade, are also exploring a Jamal Crawford-for-Brendan Haywood trade with Clippers
— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) July 6, 2015
Sources: Cavs considering trade for Joe Johnson of Nets http://t.co/HcZCj3G9ts
— Space City Scoop (@SpaceCity_Scoop) July 6, 2015
I had an interesting Twitter convo with several fans as we joked about how ridiculous the Cavaliers payroll is going to be this season. Ultimately if the Cavs can’t work out the situation with Thompson I doubt it will prevent LeBron from returning. But, it does make you question whether the hard feelings between Gilbert and James are truly buried.
As per the article included in the above Hoops Rumors tweet just bringing back Love, Thompson, Shumpert and James would have Cleveland spending well north of $100M (over $116M) and the team would be positioned to pay luxury tax of close to $75M. That doesn’t include J.R. Smith should they chose to bring him back, any rookie contracts, any additional free agents or the albatross salary of Joe Johnson. Could the Cavaliers be looking at spending upward of $150M (not including luxury tax)?
Meanwhile the Spurs won the race to nab the most coveted free agent: LaMarcus Aldridge. It’s not a typical position for the Spurs to go out and recruit as they’ve been able to draft talent generally from overseas and occasionally make moves like trading to get Kawhi Leonard who few teams recognized would be the player he became.
Landing David West Monday for $1.5M while the Cavaliers are looking at adding another $20+M salary like Joe Johnson showcases how vastly different the strategic spectrum is of the two teams.
— ESPN (@espn) July 6, 2015
Arguably it highlights how the Spurs tend to draw players who aren’t looking for their huge pay day, rather they want to join a team known for it’s chemistry and above all their single minded approach to winning. Notably the Miami Big 3 were able to draw a bunch of veterans who were Spurs-like in their playoff production but the Cavaliers GM
LeBron James David Griffin wasn’t as fortunate in the cast of veterans he brought to Cleveland. For example Shawn Marion wasn’t utilized in the finals and others like Mike Miller and James Jones had limited success.
Perhaps the best way to demonstrate the discrepancy of the teams is their captains: Tim Duncan and LeBron James. Not since Magic and Bird has there been two star athletes so polar opposite. Even their commonalities like being team captain, their teams’ driving force and the prevailing identity of their squads exist at opposing ends of the spectrum. .
Timmy D has always shied away from being in the spotlight, has taken less money so the team could spend more to bolster the squad and has won 5 times out of his 6 Finals appearances (though you’ll get an argument from me the zebra’s stole Game 6 from the Spurs in 2012-13).
This season his role will expand to mentoring Aldridge and preparing him for the passing of the torch just like David Robinson did for Duncan. He made himself available for the recruitment of Aldridge and supports the expertise of Spurs GM RC Buford and Coach Pop to know what is necessary to formulate another winning team.
Conversely, James is holding Gilbert in almost a hostage like position, refusing to sign until he gets everyone he wants added/resigned to the roster. At which point he’ll sign a one-year deal so he can continue to make more money as the spike due to the renegotiated TV contract inches closer.
I can’t say I blame James for wanting the extra funding, but the fact remains he’s 2 for 6 in Finals with 2 of those losses at the hands of Duncan’s Spurs, though we can definitely cut him some slack for the most recent loss given the state of his injury riddled team.
Perhaps that’s why James is so intent on building a super team because the more finals he loses the more it hurts his legacy. He’s also a less nurturing leader, preferring to give camera ready motivational speeches as if performing for Nike ads. In fairness his favorite part of the game is assisting on plays to his teammates.
At the same time though he has no problem calling out a teammate publicly to make a point about ineptitude, something we’ve never seen from Duncan or any Spur for that matter. Nor would we ever hear of Duncan changing a planned play call by Pops or worse
discussing it post game.
Debatably James not having a mentor like Robinson is a viable reason why he conducts himself the way he does. Unlike Duncan who spent 4 years in College at Wake Forest and had Robinson as a mentor James entered the league at 19 years old directly from high school with Eric Williams (8 year pro) his veteran.
In looking back to the press conference following Game 5 of the Finals when LeBron uttered the now famous “I’m confident because I’m the best player in the world” can you ever imagine Tim Duncan saying those words even in his prime? And yet he’d have a very valid reason if he wanted to claim he is the best power forward … ever!
Bottom line each team will enter the start of the 2015-16 season ranked as the favorites of their conferences having reached preseason via considerably different routes. It’s likely the salaries of the teams will also be significantly different, but both will feature a number of All-Stars, specialists and depth.
However the true diversity of the squads could be summed up by their captains: the gregarious, freak of nature, always ready for his close-up and modern LeBron James versus the fundamentally sound, seemingly never aging, camera shy and soft spoken Duncan.
Throughout the season arguments will be made for who is the better squad and who has the better shot at becoming Champions. But, should the season culminate with James facing Duncan for the 4th time I’m pretty sure my money would be on Timmy D and his spot light avoiding Spurs.
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