The NBA Finals kicked off last week with a San Antonio Spurs victory over the Miami Heat, followed by Miami tying the series at home. Much to the consternation of the NBA League office and television networks and advertisers, teams from two less than major markets are involved. Miami is the 16th largest media market and San Antonio is the 37th. It shapes up as a battle of two contrasting basketball approaches and cultures. In one corner are the well-run, well-coached, team-oriented San Antonio Spurs who represent everything that basketball fans appreciate about the fundamental values of the sport. In the other, The Evil Empire, an artificial conglomeration of heavy egos and flash who are very hard to love. This will be the most one-sided rooting contest outside of the home markets in years.
LeBron James is clearly the most talented, productive player in basketball today. He is able to dominate a game with power, speed, outside shooting, lay-ups, passing and defense. He is on his way to be part of the argument as to the greatest NBA player ever. He has been an endorsement and marketing machine since high school, but he has never engendered the same fan love as other superstars. His circus-like graceless exit from his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers brought intense criticism nationwide, as did the perception that he and other stars were artificially arranging to play together for the Heat. As gifted as he is, his advertisements don't reveal much about him as a person. It is hard to think of what he has particularly done with his profile to help those less fortunate.
Dwyane Wade, who has a much more positive public profile seems to feel disaffected and marginalized in these playoffs, which destroys the concept of selfless team play. Chris Bosh has somewhat disappeared. No one expected the Pacers to push the Heat to a final game in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Although Coach Erik Spoelstra was able to guide the team to an NBA Championship last year, he does not seem to have the dominating impact of a Phil Jackson or Gregg Popovich. The Heat have overwhelming talent and so they win most games, but it seems the most individual of team sports.
The Spurs ratify the critical sports maxim that ownership, organization, coaching, system, philosophy and stability produce consistent winning. General Manager R.C. Buford has presided over four NBA Championships since 1999. They scout brilliantly, sign players effortlessly, and Popovich has a deft hand in utilizing players and schemes to make the most out of what they have. Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan (who seemingly has a Fountain of Youth in his back yard) have been together for years and interact seamlessly. They have never once missed the playoffs in the Duncan years. The philosophy is team, not stars, and they have had amazing success. These players seem more humble and nice.
Although President Pat Riley is a gifted former coach and talented executive, rooting for the Heat is like rooting for the Yankees in the days where their payroll doubled the rest of baseball and arrogance was their hallmark. The Heat are third in payroll at $80 million and the Spurs are 20th at $59 million. The Spurs seem more like a warmer, fuzzier, "everyman's team". These Finals have the capacity to generate millions of future dollars in endorsements for the players and sponsorships for the teams involved. And so perception matters.