Who’s more improved for this year’s NBA Finals: The Heat or Spurs?

June 3, 2014

(AP Photo/Kevin C. Cox, Pool)

Yesterday, we looked at a few nuggets from the history of NBA Finals rematches, including how the teams return players who combined to play almost 90 percent of the available minutes in last year’s series. Today, I wanted to look at the players who are no longer on the respective rosters.

First each team discarded some spare parts. Nando De Colo and Tracy McGrady were garbage time-only players. (There was a surprising amount of mop-up duty required, as Games 2 through 4 of the 2013 Finals had a combined margin of 71 points for the winner. The 2013 series was exceptionally close in aggregate, especially in Games 6 and 7, but 4 of the 7 games were decided by double digits.)  Each team lost a backup big man unlikely to play a significant role here. Joel Anthony’s 15 minutes of emergency duty probably won’t be missed, and given all the effort Gregg Popovich has put into playing lineups with one traditional bigs in matchups with smaller, ultra-athletic teams, there simply wouldn’t be many minutes for DeJuan Blair either.

The 51 total minutes these players got is not the story. Instead the loss of Mike Miller (152 minutes) for Miami and the possible addition by subtraction of Gary Neal (171 minutes) for the Spurs could affect this series. Miller was a huge asset for the Heat, whereas Neal was something of a drag on the Spurs:


The above numbers show Neal shot the ball decently, but his turnovers and inability to create for others from a guard position hurt San Antonio greatly. On the other hand, Miller didn’t shoot much, but was totally deadly, and Miami’s offense purred when he was on the floor.

At first glance, removing these two players from the series appears to benefit San Antonio. The next question to ask is who the players likely to make up these minutes?

For the Spurs, Paddy Patty Mills is the obvious candidate to get more of the backup guard minutes. Further this likely represents an upgrade in production for the Spurs, as Mills has been a far more productive player this postseason than Neal was last year in roughly similar roles:

Player Season G MP eFG% TRB% AST% STL% BLK% USG% ORtg DRtg WS
Patrick Mills 2013-14 81 1527 56.5% 6.2 15.3 2.3 0.4 22.6 115 104 5.6
Gary Neal 2012-13 68 1484 48.7% 5.6 13.5 1.0 0.1 21.7 99 106 1.9

Additionally, Mills greater quickness and ballhandling ability bodes well against Miami’s trap heavy schemes, where Neal struggled to make plays if he was run off of his preferred catch-and-shoot looks. Another candidate for those minutes is Marco Belinelli, but Marco seems to have gotten himself into Popovich’s doghouse with his poor play on both ends of the floor during this playoff run.

Conversely, the Heat are not likely to replace Miller’s production. He was just that effective in his limited minutes, shooting 61.1 percent (!) from three-point range over the seven games. Rashard Lewis was a useful curveball in the Indiana series, but San Antonio can adjust to an undersized stretch four much more readily than could the one-speed Pacers. Though Norris Cole has been praised for his improved play this postseason, from a statistical standpoint he was just as good if not better last year. Ray Allen seems unlikely as he is virtually duplicating his performance in last year’s postseason, and asking him to coax any more minutes out of his 38-year-old legs seems unwise. Of course, an identical Ray Allen performance would be more than acceptable to Heat supporters:


While on paper these slight roster changes appear to indicate an advantage to San Antonio. Of course this doesn’t account for the effects of age on Duncan, Parker, Ginobili, Wade, Battier or Allen, not does it capture the improvement from Kawhi Leonard or the likelihood that Chris Bosh is a more effective scorer in this Finals than last. But it does match the general sentiment that Miami is a little worse than they were last year and San Antonio is a little bit better.

Seth Partnow lives in Anchorage, Alaska, with his wife, daughter and dog. He blogs about the NBA and related topics at WhereOffenseHappens.com. His work can also be found at Hickory-High.com and ESPN’s ClipperBlog.com, where he is a regular contributor. Seth can be reached on twitter @WhrOffnsHppns.

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