Handicapping the NBA Finals MVP Race
Three days ago, nearly all of the basketball community felt like the NBA Finals would be going the distance, just as it did last year between the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs. Two teams that seemed evenly matched on paper - our algorithms had the Spurs as the favorites at 57.63 percent - figured to engage in another epic series. Yet here we are, with the Spurs having wiped the American Airlines Arena floor with the home team in Games 3 and 4, standing on the brink of their fifth championship of the Tim Duncan-Gregg Popovich era.
The odds aren’t great for the Heat, as no team has ever come back from a 3-1 deficit in the Finals; the teams that go up 3-1 have gone on to win the championship all 31 times it has happened, and the numberFire algorithms give Miami about a 9 percent chance of coming back to win. Doom is all but certain for the Heat. That leaves the media with a tough choice: figuring out who on the team that embodies teamwork as much as anyone in recent memory is going to hoist the Bill Russell NBA Finals MVP trophy.
This iteration of the Spurs has lived out every letter of Popovich’s “good to great” mantra, and every made basket seems like it can be credited to the smart pass that led to the pass that resulted in an assist. For the series, San Antonio is outpacing Miami, 33 to 11, in secondary (or hockey) assists, per NBA.com's player tracking. To wit, the Spurs have thrown 1,417 passes in the four games of the series to the Heat’s 1,050, for an average of 91.75 more passes per game for San Antonio.
In Games 3 and 4, the Spurs threw, on average, 104 more passes per game. It’s been beautiful to watch, as each Spur catches the ball and seems ready to touch it on to the next man before even looking up. While that makes it difficult to dish out credit, that doesn’t stop us from speculating who will be named MVP when the Spurs inevitably wrap things up. Unless LeBron James pulls a Jerry West and steals the award, look for one of these Spurs to raise the trophy.
Tony Parker always seems to be forgotten when the discussion of who the best point guard in the NBA comes up, but the 2007 Finals MVP has been the among the creme de la creme at the position for the better part of the decade. Part of the problem is that Parker rarely has to do the heavy lifting for a team with a beautiful, flowing offensive system, and the fact that Parker is willing to do whatever Pop asks of him.
TP did plenty of distributing early in the series, assisting on 35.6 and 38 percent of baskets while he was on the floor in the first two games, respectively, and averaging better than 6 assists per game in the series’ first three with an assist rate of 28.8. In fact, as the Spurs torched Miami with their record shooting in the first half of Game 3, Parker was more or less silent offensively, making exactly zero shots as the Spurs started the game 19 for 21 from the field.
But the floor general has long been an expert in reading the flow of the game, and he was more than ready to attack in Game 4. Parker scored 19 points on an array of mid-range Js, brazen forays to the rim and, of course, his trademark teardrop floater. Parker was so aggressive, with his usage rate jumping to 29 percent, that he didn’t pick up his first assist of the game until well after he’d made his eighth and final field goal of the night. Talk about giving the team whatever it needs.
Parker is the top scorer for San Antonio in the series and has done so efficiently (56.7 true shooting percentage). He’s been the man with the ball in his hands more than anyone (25.3 percent usage rate), so it would more than make sense to hand him his second Finals MVP award.
The People’s Choice
Since last postseason, everyone has been ready to anoint Kawhi Leonard as the next great Spur. He has all the qualities, from his seemingly emotionless demeanor to his versatile game on both ends. He embodied the Spurs’ dominance on South Beach, going absolutely bonkers offensively in Game 3 and keeping it going with another absurd two-way effort in Game 4.
For the second straight game, Leonard led the Spurs in scoring in a super-efficient manner; he had a 68.2 true shooting percentage in Game 4, factoring in 2s, 3s and free throws. He had three steals on Thursday, setting the tone for the game by deflecting an interior pass from Chris Bosh to Dwyane Wade on the game’s first possession, and punctuated it in the fourth quarter by embarrassing Wade by taking the ball right out of his hands. Add in three blocks, and it’s safe to say Leonard had his massive paws all over the two blowouts in Miami.
Kawhi will need a strong Game 5 (as well as Games 6 and 7, if necessary) if he wants to take home MVP honors, as he has two subpar games on his resume this year. He was a non-factor offensively in the first two games of the series, averaging 9 points and posting a plus-4 net rating while struggling defensively, even fouling out of the Spurs’ Game 2 loss. If Leonard’s performance as the Spurs’ attempt to close out the series is as loud as his massive putback dunk from Game 4, his transition from supporting actor to full-fledged centerpiece will happen even sooner than anyone anticipated.
The Sentimental Pick
One of these days, Duncan is going to retire. He might be a machine, but eventually he’s going to be taken out of commission. But for now, he keeps on functioning at a high level as the main hub of a Spurs defense that has taken the Heat off its game all series. The Big Fundamental set the record for most career playoff double-doubles on Thursday, surpassing Magic Johnson as he recorded the 158th 10 and 10 in his illustrious career.
While that might sound more like the case for a lifetime achievement award, Duncan has been vital in 2014. He’s putting up 15 and 10 through four games while playing 33 minutes per game, fourth-most on the team and four minutes more than he averaged in the regular season. While Timmy has only blocked two shots in the series, he's to the defense what Parker is to the offense, and is always in perfect position to help out around the rim. For the whole postseason, Duncan is facing 9.5 shot attempts at the rim and allowing scores on just half of them, according to SportsVU data.
Offensively, Duncan has set the tone for the Spurs’ paint dominance. Timmy has taken 32 of his 41 field goal attempts in the series at the rim, and he’s shooting 68.75 percent from there. He set the tone in Game 1, going 9 for 10 in the lane on his way to 21 points and 10 boards. He’s slowed down a little bit, but not enough to lessen his impact. A fourth Finals MVP would possibly be one last accolade on Duncan’s career, and would be the perfect note for him to walk away on.
(But please, seriously, don’t retire, Tim.)
After the Spurs were a cramp away from going to Miami down 2-0, Popovich made the first roster adjustment of the Finals by inserting Boris Diaw into the starting lineup, and, boy, has it paid off. Diaw is a robust plus-60 when he’s on the court during the series, and plus-35 in his two starts, while posting the second-highest net rating of all Spurs regulars behind the indomitable Manu Ginobili, at plus-24.5 to Manu's plus-33.
Diaw has embodied everything about the Spurs that has fans and analysts alike drooling over these past two games. In his two starts, he’s thrown 138 passes on his 162 touches, second only to Parker in those two categories. The big man has been like an extra point guard on the floor, as LeBron described him after Game 4, and seems to look to find an open man every time he touches the ball. He’s assisting on 22.1 percent of baskets while he’s on the floor, third among Spurs regulars, and he’s led the team in assists (12 total) in the two games he’s started.
Diaw’s defensive versatility has paid off in spades. With Miami’s smallish lineups rendering the Duncan-Tiago Splitter pairing ineffective, Diaw has been called upon to play alongside one of those two bigs for much of time on the floor. And he’s been brilliant on the whole, guarding everyone from LeBron to D-Wade. In Game 4, he found himself matched up with Wade for long stretches and punished him on both ends, stifling him defensively while working him in the post on offense in a virtuoso performance that nearly resulted in a triple-double (8 points, 9 rebounds, 9 assists).
The Diaw-as-MVP idea is, on some levels, laughable. BoBo could be described as “basketball fat” - seemingly out of shape for an NBA player, yet he’s proven himself to be among the nimblest and quickest players on the floor in a series filled with Hall of Famers and standout athletes. Diaw was cut from the Bobcats (now Hornets) during the worst season in NBA history, and he’s been in and out of Pop’s rotation since being signed in 2012. But in this series, Diaw’s move into the starting five triggered two unexpected blowouts, and he’s been one of the Spurs-iest Spurs through four games.
In a series that’s caught nearly everyone by surprise, it would only be fitting to have a Finals MVP that no one saw coming.