It was fun to air the NBA Finals on 101 ESPN, and it was amazing to see San Antonio completely dismantle Miami in the final three games of the series. The Spurs were far and away the better team, and I hope they get the credit they deserve for an incredible history of success.
In the NBA, San Antonio is even with the Lakers in the last 16 seasons with its five championships. In that time, the only other teams to win titles have been Miami (with three), Detroit, Dallas and Boston. Tim Duncan is one of the most dominant athletes of our time. He was the centerpiece of his first title in 1999 and has led different incarnations of the Spurs to titles five times, the latest coming seven years after their last. Duncan is the first player to start for NBA champions in three different decades, joining John Salley (who played for three different teams in his three decades) as the only players to play for champions in three different decades.
We’ve gotten the question before in “The Fast Lane”: Are the Spurs the NBA’s equivalent of the Cardinals in MLB? Sure, both franchises are in small markets and do a lot of winning. Since the start of the 2000-01 season, the Spurs have made the playoffs in 14 straight years and won four titles. And since the start of the 2000 baseball season, the Cardinals have made the postseason 10 times in 14 years. In that time, the Spurs have been in the Finals five times and won it all on four occasions, while the Cardinals have been to the World Series four times in that span and won two.
The difference between the two franchises is that the Spurs play on a relatively level playing field with everyone else because of the NBA salary cap. San Antonio has been able to keep its nucleus together. Tony Parker joined the team in 2001 and was followed by Manu Ginobili a year later. Because of the cap, other teams haven’t been able to come in and overwhelm Spurs players with even more riches. Things are somewhat equal financially, and those players have preferred to stay together.
The Cardinals have just one player left from their 2004 World Series team: Yadier Molina. The 2004 Cardinal nucleus, their “MV3” of Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds, was broken up after the 2007 season, when Rolen was traded to Toronto and Edmonds to San Diego. Without a salary cap, the Cardinals have had to make choices and watch their version of Tim Duncan – Pujols – walk away two seasons ago. In the Cardinals’ great stretch, they haven’t been able to keep players like Jeff Suppan, Jeff Weaver, Edgar Renteria, Kyle Lohse and Carlos Beltran because other teams could and did have the ability to financially overwhelm them. The Cardinals also had manager Tony La Russa retire after their 2011 title, yet still have gone to a NLCS and another World Series since.
The true test for the Spurs will come in the next couple of years, when they have to start replacing their core. How will they do when Duncan, Parker and Ginobili aren’t there anymore, and when coach Gregg Popovich retires? That’s really the only time we’ll be able to evaluate the Spurs vs. the Cardinals. Obviously, the Miami Heat were built another way. They worked around the NBA cap to sign LeBron James and Chris Bosh, and add them to Dwayne Wade. Free agents are older when they switch teams, and the shelf life is going to be shorter.
In the mid-to late-2000s, baseball’s Yankees spent ridiculous amounts of money on veterans Mark Teixeira, C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Johnny Damon and others. Obviously, many of those players have reached the end of the line, and the Yankees are struggling. And for Miami, the same thing applies. This season, and for most of the postseason, Wade looked like a player who can’t be a key component of a champion anymore. Bosh was ridiculously inconsistent during the Finals. Supporting players like Norris Cole and Mario Chalmers never stepped up, and Shane Battier is going to retire.
Without question, franchises can buy championships, but the shelf life of those teams is finite. We’ve seen it with the Yankees, and it seems like the Heat have reached the end of their four-year run of dominance.
The Spurs are the champions of the NBA and have clearly done a wonderful job of keeping their core together. That league, however, allows for smaller-market teams to compete with and be better than large-market teams. For 16 seasons, the Spurs have set the standard in their league, playing better consistently for that time period than the bigger-market Knicks, Lakers, Bulls, 76ers and Celtics. How they survive after the core is gone is the question.
The most impressive organizational run of the last 15 or years has happened right here in St. Louis. To stay at or near the top of the only sport without a salary cap while playing in a small market, surviving the departure of their nucleus and dealing with the retirement of a manager, puts the Cardinals at the top. There are comparisons to be made between the Spurs and the Cardinals, but the way the Cardinals have had to do it is even more extraordinary.