The real NBA Finals are about to begin as the two teams playing the best basketball on the planet meet in the West, starting Sunday. Forget about LeBron and Dwyane and all the others. The Spurs and the Thunder will decide the thing among themselves, and then go through the formality of whatever comes after that.
And there’s a side benefit for the Jazz, as they can sit and observe what’s going on with these teams and how they got — and are getting — as good as they are. And a benefit for Jazz fans, who in a recent unscientific survey said that the two playoff teams they found it easiest to root for, once Utah was ousted, were Oklahoma City and San Antonio, the latter despite it being the outfit that eliminated the Jazz.
A theory on that goes like this: The Thunder are a young, exciting team with star players who are palatable to folks around here because they don’t come across as jerks. Kevin Durant is about as likable a great player as there is in the league. Watching OKC come on with so much emerging talent, and that kind of leadership, is cool for everyone.
The Jazz, too, are young and the possibilities for growth are promising as Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward, Enes Kanter and Alec Burks do their offseason work. There may not be a Durant in that group, and certainly no Russell Westbrook, but Favors and Kanter could form two-thirds of a dominant front line for seasons to come. If Hayward can sharpen his perimeter shooting, he could become a valuable cog.
As for the Spurs, they play the kind of team basketball people here appreciate. They have their three big stars — Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili — who have now played 130 playoff games together, but even they play unselfishly, getting the ball where it should be at one end and, as a collective group, putting up enough resistance at the other.
“They know that if they stick with each other and the system that, often, things are going to turn [their] way,” Gregg Popovich said.
The Jazz can’t simply replicate Parker. Players like that don’t just materialize and it probably haunts Kevin O’Connor to this day that the Jazz had the opportunity to draft him back in the day, taking Raul Lopez instead.
What a mistake.
But with Favors rising at power forward and Duncan aging, who would you rather have in the low post over the next four seasons … the youngster or the veteran? Take the youngster.
Other than Parker, what San Antonio has that the Jazz so sadly lack is shooters. The Spurs lead the NBA from behind the arc and have made that a dangerous option in their efficient offense. Conversely, the Jazz, on the few occasions when they did put up bombs, looked like they were pushing the family Buick up a steep driveway. Their answer was to try to live with what they had, almost always going layup-first, and limiting 3-point attempts.
In the upper reaches of the modern NBA, that’s the equivalent of getting in a street fight and using only one arm. The Jazz have to kill their longtime tunnel vision on low-post basketball, an emphasis that marked Jerry Sloan’s more than two decades running the team, and open up the perimeter possibilities. Last time anybody checked, three points are more than two, and that capability is essential to effectively clear space on the floor to get offensive business done down low.
While getting another Parker is unreasonable — although the Jazz might be able to find a decent passing point guard who can penetrate and kick — the reasonable lesson to learn from the Spurs is this: Get a couple of shooters and freely utilize them. Dump the antiquated inclination to de-emphasize the deep shot.
The Jazz have options for acquiring that kind of talent. They have a trade exception they can use and a midlevel exception. They have expiring contracts to trade, owned by players who, in a couple of cases, duplicate the Jazz’s talent. If the ping-pong balls fall their way, they could yet end up with Golden State’s lottery pick in the draft.
O’Connor recently said: “You have to build through the draft and then add pieces. Are we going to be able to get a huge free agent? Probably not. But we have to get free agents who fit in.”
Which is to say, free agents who can dust the net from distance … like the Spurs.
Back, then, to the real NBA Finals. As energetic and exciting as the Thunder are, I’d pick the Spurs in seven, in part because they haven’t lost a game in about six months (actually, it’s six weeks) now, in part because they are so deep, and in part because they are the best-coached team in the NBA (Popovich has 116 career postseason wins).
Remarkable as it is, the Spurs are on the edge of winning their fifth NBA title. The Jazz would do well to copy them any which way they can.
GORDON MONSON hosts an afternoon-drive show on 1280 and 960 AM The Zone, a station owned by the LHM Group of Companies. LHM has no editorial control over his show. Twitter: @GordonMonson.