MIAMI – When Miami Heat President Pat Riley pulled off the greatest free agent coup in NBA history in the summer of 2010 — using his charm and a bag full of championship rings to lure a two-time most valuable player, a former NBA Finals MVP and an all-star big man, all in their primes — the general reaction among league executives, coaches and players mostly ranged somewhere between fear and resentment.
But the acquisitions earned the respect of Gregg Popovich, the San Antonio Spurs coach and vice president of basketball operations, who was the first executive to reach out to Riley and offer his congratulations.
“He put together a team fairly, within the rules, that is a monster. So why wouldn’t he get credit for that? Why wouldn’t you congratulate him for that?” Popovich said Wednesday, the day before his team and Miami meet in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. “He put together a hell of a team. And so I called him to thank him because I respect him so much — not to thank him but to congratulate him.”
Popovich then laughed to himself and said, “That’s the last thing I do is thank him for doing that.”
Riley probably should’ve thanked Popovich because he had established a system built around three superstars in Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili that resulted in three championships between 2003 and 2007. But when Riley merged LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, the Heat essentially injected steroids into the Big Three concept, with Miami morphing into a swollen monument to excess, like many of the tanned bodies parading along South Beach.
James, Wade and Bosh have made three consecutive trips to the NBA Finals since joining forces, but there has always been a level of unease and tension with an arranged marriage of championship mercenaries. Any slippage immediately leads to speculation about a breakup or calls for the need to make changes, conjecture that is only silenced with success.
“It's just different,” said Wade, a two-time NBA champion. “Obviously being in San Antonio, the media spotlight isn’t as bright as it is being in certain places like a Miami.”
Having observed the endless scrutiny surrounding James since he landed in Miami, Duncan wasn’t going to dispute Wade. “I’m definitely glad I don’t have that kind of pressure on me,” said Duncan, a three-time Finals MVP. “Absolutely.”
Even though the Spurs have endured a six-year gap between Finals runs, their foundation continues to be built around the same three stars, all organically drafted and developed by the organization — though their roles have changed over time, with Parker, the 2007 Finals MVP, replacing Duncan at the forefront of their fourth drive to a title together.
“Every year I felt like we’re a good enough team to have the opportunity. Then it depends on a lot of stuff. You have to have a little bit of luck, and you have to stay healthy. So a lot of factors come into play,” said Parker, who won his first title at age 21. “That’s why it makes it even more special now to be back in the Finals after six years. You appreciate it even more.”
Instead of panicking after several playoff shortcomings — including a first-round elimination as a No. 1 seed two years ago — San Antonio tinkered with the complementary parts until finding a mix that worked. The Spurs drafted Tiago Splitter, traded for Kawhi Leonard and turned other teams’ scraps into serviceable role players.
“It’s incredible. It’s remarkable. They just show the resilience of a franchise,” Wade said.
Popovich said the franchise’s commitment to Duncan, Parker and Ginobili and the sustained success of the union is “a total function of who those three guys are. What if they were jerks? What if they were selfish? What if one of them was, you know, unintelligent? If, if, if. But the way it works out, all three of them are highly intelligent. They all have great character. . . . I think it’s just a matter of being really, really fortunate to have three people who understand that and who commit to a system and a philosophy for that length of time.”
The Spurs beat James and Cleveland for their last title, with the Cavaliers becoming just the eighth franchise in NBA history to get swept in the Finals. James is now hoping to join Bill Russell and Michael Jordan as the only players to repeat as regular season MVP, Finals MVP and champion. James is also seeking revenge for the worst playoff loss of his career against the team that inevitably forced him to get better and join a more talented team.
“I have something in me that they took in ’07: beat us on our home floor, celebrated on our home floor. I won’t forget that. You shouldn’t as a competitor. You should never forget that,” James said. “It’s the same group of guys for the most part. The same Big Three and Coach Pop. And I look forward to the challenge once again.”
The Spurs, Heat or Lakers have been in every NBA Finals since 1999. Now, two will meet with the Larry O’Brien trophy on the line.
“That mutual respect and the consistency of culture,” Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Both franchises thought at some point we would have met in the Finals. And we haven’t.”