San Antonio Spurs would be the most-balanced NBA champion of all time

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When the Detroit Pistons won the 2004 NBA title, they were hailed as the first superstar-less champions since the 1979 Seattle SuperSonics. It was a decent attempt honor the Pistons, an ode to their teamwork and balance.

But now that we’re on the verge of the most-balance NBA champion of all time, there’s hardly a peep.

Yes, the 2014 San Antonio Spurs have no superstars. (I’d argue the 2004 Pistons had one.) San Antonio has overcome its lack of elite singular production through depth and Gregg Popovich’s masterful coaching. The Spurs’ ball movement and spacing are second to none, and their defense is among the NBA’s most-versatile. On both sides of the ball, their success is a tribute to their balance.

San Antonio being only team in NBA history without a player who averaged 30 minutes per game was a telling stat entering the playoffs. Now that the Spurs, up 3-1 on the Miami Heat entering Game 5 of the NBA Finals tonight, are on the verge of an NBA title, their place in history due their balance deserves closer inspection.

Most NBA champions – by nearly a 3-to-1 margin – have an All-NBA first teamer. The Spurs did not, though Tony Parker made the All-NBA second team.

Parker is the closest player the Spurs have to a superstar.

Tim Duncan, with his continued late-career brilliance, has solidified his place as the best power forward of all-time. But he’s no longer one of the NBA’s top players based on current ability. He didn’t even make the All-Star game this year, and he’s missed all the All-NBA teams three of the last four years, including this one.

Manu Ginobili had the lowest peak level of the famed trio, and that occurred years ago. Like Duncan, he’s still a very valuable piece. But superstar, even by the most liberal of definitions? No way.

Kawhi Leonard could get there some day – again by the term’s widest scope – and his recent scoring binge suggests he’s closer than most think. But he’s not there yet. Though he led San Antonio in win shares, his total (7.7) would be the lowest to ever lead an NBA champion – and that includes lockout-shortened seasons and other years with few than 82 games, when there were fewer wins to divvy up.

No, the only contender is Parker, who, in addition to representing the Spurs on the All-NBA teams, was their only All-Star this season. But that’s just the bare minimum. Every NBA champion in a season with an All-Star Game had a player in it.

To better judge balance, I created a stat called Balance Rating.

Balance Rating is the standard deviation of the win shares of the top 10 players plus standard deviation of the win shares of the top nine players plus standard deviation of the win shares of the top eight players… all the way to top two. As opposed to just using standard deviation, this method emphasizes the place of teams’ top players.

The LOWER the Balance Rating, the more balanced a team is.

Here are the Balance Ratings for every NBA champion plus the 2014 Spurs:

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Year Team Balance Rating
2014 SAS 8.8
1989 DET 12.8
1978 WSB 16
1990 DET 16.6
1979 SEA 17
1974 BOS 17.2
1968 BOS 18.1
1977 POR 19.5
1948 BLB 19.9
1999 SAS 21
1951 ROC 21.4
2005 SAS 21.6
2010 LAL 21.6
1988 LAL 22.1
1969 BOS 22.3
1957 BOS 22.4
2004 DET 22.8
1976 BOS 23.1
1981 BOS 24
1966 BOS 24.3
2011 DAL 24.5
1995 HOU 24.5
2008 BOS 25
1973 NYK 26.8
2007 SAS 27.4
1961 BOS 28
1985 LAL 28.2
1958 STL 29.1
1963 BOS 29.2
1959 BOS 29.4
1955 SYR 29.8
1982 LAL 30.4
1975 GSW 30.4
1954 MNL 30.7
1984 BOS 31
1960 BOS 31.4
2002 LAL 31.9
2009 LAL 32.7
1983 PHI 35
1962 BOS 35
1994 HOU 35.5
1972 LAL 35.6
1986 BOS 35.7
1980 LAL 36.2
2006 MIA 36.5
1987 LAL 37.1
1953 MNL 37.7
1970 NYK 38
2012 MIA 38.1
1998 CHI 38.9
1956 PHW 38.9
1952 MNL 40.5
2001 LAL 40.6
1964 BOS 42.6
1965 BOS 43.1
2003 SAS 43.5
1997 CHI 45.2
1993 CHI 45.3
1992 CHI 46.5
2000 LAL 48.3
1947 PHW 49.4
1996 CHI 50
2013 MIA 51.5
1991 CHI 55.1
1971 MIL 59.8
1967 PHI 62.6
1950 MNL 62.7
1949 MNL 66.3

The Bad Boys deserve more credit for their teamwork. Between their 1989 and 1990 championships, the Pistons had only one All-NBA team player – Joe Dumars, who made the 1990 third team. That means the 1989 Pistons were the only champion since the NBA added an all-league third team with no All-NBA players. (The 1978 Washington Bullets and 1979 Sonics did it, but there were just two All-NBA teams then.)

By the time he won those titles, Isiah Thomas had suppressed some of his individual skills to empower his teammates. That made the Pistons better, even if he was not quite as efficient in the regular season.

But Thomas elevated his game in the playoffs, which differentiates those Pistons from these Spurs.

The Spurs are who they are. They share the ball, defend on a string and take turns doing it. Stylistically and strategically, this is the same team that finished with the NBA’s best regular-season record. San Antonio no longer turns to Duncan, Parker or Ginobili to carry the team in pressure situations as the Pistons did with Thomas. The Spurs just keep playing their beautiful balanced game and watch where it takes them.

If it wins the championship, San Antonio will not be remember as a superstar-less champion, because Duncan, Parker and Ginobili were so excellent in their primes. Those peak years, which have already come and gone, would get conflated with this title.

But, in 2014, the Spurs are a team without a superstar.

They should get credit for it.

LeBron James, Cavaliers hope to even series with Pacers

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — LeBron James has been in this playoff position before, just not in the first round.

With Cleveland down 2-1 to the Indiana Pacers in the first round, James was asked if Game 4 in Indianapolis Sunday was a must win.

“It’s the postseason,” said James, who is 10-0 in his career in first-round playoff series with Cleveland and Miami. “Every game is a must win. You want to come in and play well and win no matter what. No matter if you have home-court advantage or if you’re starting on the road, that’s the mindset you have to have. I felt like (Friday) was a must win. We didn’t win, obviously, but it’s the same mindset on Sunday.”

James, who scored 28 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and delivered eight assists in a 92-90 road loss Friday night, rejected what he felt were reporters’ attempts to ask if the other players needed to do more.

“You guys think I’m going to throw my teammates under the bus? I’m not about that,” James said. “Guys just, we have to be better, including myself. Had six turnovers (Friday). I was horrible in the third quarter, couldn’t make a shot. If I had made some better plays in the third quarter, the lead doesn’t skip.”

The Pacers cut a 17-point halftime deficit to six points in the third quarter and finally took their first lead in the fourth quarter.

“We know we all gotta play better as a collective group, no matter who it is,” James said. “We got production to start the game and in the second half there wasn’t much production. We still had a chance to win. We’ve got to regroup and figure how we can be better in Game 4.”

Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said the Cavaliers were limited because George Hill‘s back “locked up” in the second half. Hill played only nine minutes in the second half, scoring two of his 13 points. Lue used James and Jordan Clarkson rather than backup point guard Jose Calderon in the fourth quarter. If Hill can’t go Sunday, Lue said he will likely start Calderon.

Hill had an MRI on Saturday, but the results weren’t back. He is listed as questionable for Game 4 with back spasms. Hill was hurt during Game 1 when Trevor Booker set a back screen and felt stiffness before Game 2, but played 20 minutes.

For the Pacers, Bojan Bogdanovic was the difference maker, scoring 15 of his team-high 30 points in the fourth quarter. Bogdanovic struggled shooting the first two games of the series.

Bogdanovic, who made 7 of 9 3-pointers, kept his focus after two quick fouls in the first quarter and had to leave briefly in the fourth when he picked up his fifth foul. The seven 3-pointers tied a franchise playoff record, also held by Reggie Miller twice, Chuck Person and Paul George.

“I thought it was going to be another poor performance from myself, but in the second half I started hitting shots and started feeling (much) better and I think a did a great job (Friday night),” the Croatian forward said.

Bogdanovic said he was most pleased with his defense against James.

“Everybody thought before this season that I cannot play defense,” he said. “I don’t say that I am playing great defense, but I am working hard at trying to make it tough for each offensive player that I am guarding.”

Bogdanovic said he tries to push James so he catches the ball far from the basket.

“Against those type of players you just try to stay aggressive on them,” Bogdanovic said.

Pacers coach Nate McMillan was impressed with his ability to produce both ways.

“You’re taking a pounding if you’re on the defensive end of the floor if you’re guarding LeBron,” McMillan said. “But offensively he found some energy. He got some good looks and he knocked them down.”

The Pacers came back to win eight times during the regular season after being down 15 or more points.

“We’ve been resilient,” guard Victor Oladipo said. “We made an adjustment in the second half and it helped us. But it’s only one game; I’m looking forward to Sunday.”

Rumor: Portland coach Terry Stotts could lose job after being swept out of playoffs

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Regular season: Terry Stotts was mentioned as a Coach of the Year candidate after leading the Portland Trail Blazers to 49 wins and the three seed in the West, led by a top 10 defense.

Playoffs: Portland was swept out of the postseason in the first round by Anthony Davis.

The latter part of that is going to lead to some real soul searching and changes coming to the Trail Blazers. That could include Stotts losing his job, reports Marc Stein of the New York Times.

There is plenty of blame to go around for Portland’s quick exit from the postseason, Stein is right that it’s not all on Stott’s shoulders. In fact, I would argue most of it is not.

However, this is the third time in four years Portland is out in the first round, and it leads to the question “what is it about their style that makes them so defendable and beatable in the playoffs?” This is a little like Toronto in recent years, where despite a lot of talent they were predictable and therefore defendable in the postseason. How much of that falls on Stotts vs. the roster he has to coach?

After a period of reflection in Portland, there are going to be changes in the wake of this sweep. Stotts’ job will be part of that discussion, no matter how good a job he did. The question for Blazers management is, if not Stotts then who is next? Who are they getting that’s better?

That said, if Stotts were to be let go he would hand on his feet very quickly.

After Ricky Rubio’s triple-double, Russell Westbrook promises to “shut that s*** off”

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Ricky Rubio outplayed Russell Westbrook Saturday night in Utah and now the Jazz are up 2-1 in that series.

Rubio did his damage from the midrange — he was 5-of-5 between the key and the arc — on his way to 26 points, to go with 11 rebounds and 10 assists. All series the Thunder have dared Rubio to shoot and to beat them, Saturday he did. It was a stark contrast to Westbrook’s 14 points on 17 shots Saturday with eight turnovers.

When asked about Rubio’s big night postgame, Westbrook was looking ahead to Game 4 and using a little NSFW language (hat tip to Ben Golliver of SI, who loves him some playoff podium video).

There you have it, a personal guarantee.

Rubio struggled some in Game 1, taking 18 shots and mostly the ones the Thunder wanted him to. However, after that he has been better at getting to his spots and taking the shots in rhythm, and it’s worked — he’s averaging 20.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 8 assists per game this series. OKC has been focused on making life difficult for rookie Donovan Mitchell (with limited success) and it’s freed up Rubio to make plays.

More than just slowing the Spanish point guard, Westbrook and the Thunder need to figure out how to get their offense back on track against a Jazz defense that was best in the NBA once Gobert got healthy last season. Oklahoma City lost Game 2 when their big three — Westbrook, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony — went 0-of-15 in the fourth quarter. In Game 3, OKC averaged 100 points per 100 possessions (well below their season average of 110.2) and Westbrook shot 29.4 percent. Do that again in Game 4 and it will not matter what Rubio shoots, what matters is the Thunder could be looking at a 3-1 deficit. The Thunder need to even this series before it heads back to Oklahoma City.

Gregg Popovich will not coach Game 4 following death of his wife, Erin

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San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich will not be on the sidelines again for Game 4 Sunday following the death of his wife, Erin, to a lengthy illness.

Ettore Messina will again coach the Spurs.

Popovich also missed Game 3. His San Antonio Spurs are down 3-0 to the Golden State Warriors in the first-round matchup. None of that matters compared to the loss of a woman he loved and was married to for four decades.

Erin Popovich’s passing has cast a pall over the series, especially with Warriors coach Steve Kerr being very close to the Popovichs dating back to his playing days with the Spurs.

The reaction and sadness about Erin’s passing has reached well beyond this series.

Our thoughts are with the Popovich family in this difficult time.