This appears on the NBA Philippines site.
To copy or to innovate?
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, why are some successful and others unsuccessful?
by rick olivares
When the San Antonio Spurs carted home their fifth Larry O’Brien Trophy, they were universally celebrated for their unselfish team play and how they were a “team” in the truest sense of the word. When they finally triumphed, some celebrated them and took a shot at the vanquished Miami Heat by saying that a super team is vastly superior to a Big Three.
In fairness to the Miami Heat, the Big Three may take center stage but during their two-year title reign, they had a team to backstop them. Wasn’t the acquisition of Ray Allen, Mike Miller, and Chris Andersen supposed to be a tipping point in their quest to win and repeat?
Moving on from that, there remains a question to be answered, “In order to win a NBA title, does one build a team like San Antonio – acquire fundamentally sound players of good character; athletes who are complete packages in terms of speed, size, and outside shooting?”
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then the NBA is guilty to a point of having copy cats. So why not?
Except that San Antonio was not built in a day and certainly not in one NBA Draft. It took years of patience while adding the pieces. For sure anyone trying to copy what the Spurs built through the draft, free agent signings, bringing in European and role players will need some patience, money, and a lot of luck (not necessarily in that order).
NBA history has shown us that when a team is successful, opposing general managers and coaching staffs study the winners’ route to the top.
When Earvin Johnson won a title in his rookie year with the Los Angeles Lakers, teams tried to emulate by looking for tall point guards.
The Boston Celtics took in the 6’4” Dennis Johnson who first made a name for himself as a slam dunking shooting guard for the Seattle Supersonics and the Phoenix Suns. Once DJ got to Boston, he reinvented his role into a point guard on offense and a defensive guard in the opposite end.
The exciting and high scoring Denver Nuggets of the mid-1980’s also used a tall court general in 6’3” Lafayette Lever.
Another “stratagem” that caught the fancy of a few teams was when the Houston Rockets of 1986 reached the NBA Finals on account of its Twin Towers of 7’4” Ralph Sampson and 6’11” Akeem Olajuwon.
A few squads looked to field their own fir trees.
The New York Knicks fielded Bill Cartwright and Patrick Ewing to disastrous results but the Boston Celtics won a title with Kevin McHale starting alongside Robert Parish in 1986 (McHale was previously coming off the bench as the Sixth Man).
While Larry Bird is most commonly associated with the point forward position, it gained a lot of traction in Milwaukee in the early 1980s when Paul Pressey and Marques Johnson played that role.
That position was refined by Bird and a few years later, by Scottie Pippen, then with the Chicago Bulls.
Speaking of the Bulls, after their successful run, a few other teams tried to run the triangle offense. Tim Floyd, who replaced Phil Jackson in Chicago tried to run it to unspectacular results. The Bulls went 49-190 and Floyd was sent packing.
Even Jackson’s disciples, Jim Cleamons with the Dallas Mavericks, and Kurt Rambis with the Minnesota Timberwolves, were also unsuccessful, and both were sent packing.
In this off-season, we see teams scrambling to rebuild there teams. Houston has been enticing Carmelo Anthony and if they prove to be successful, they will have their own Big Three in James Harden, Dwight Howard, and Anthony.
Some are trying to build well-balanced lineups such as Golden State.
So why are the copycats unable to succeed?
1. Some tandems click; some don’t. The Twin Towers combo did not initially work until Tim Duncan joined David Robinson in San Antonio. Imagine if the pairing took place when both players were coming up together and are trying to make a name for themselves. In this case, Robinson was older and he knew his days were close to done.
2. It takes the right circumstances for things to happen. When Boston formed its second Big Three with Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, one of their biggest motivations was to prove they could be not only winners but champions. They had previously failed a lot and they sure sacrificed some to win a title in Beantown.
3. Others prove to be impatient. Imagine if Oklahoma City was able to hold on to James Harden. That would have been their own Big Three there.
4. Some systems such as the Triangle Offense take time to and maturity of the players to learn. In Phil Jackson’s instance, it took him a couple of years to get it to work with Chicago. Once he learned how to install it better then it clicked right away when he went to the LA Lakers. Critics of the triangle will say that the Zen Master has top players in those two clubs. But look at it this way, did those teams – with those same players – win anything before Jackson’s arrival? I think not.
But if you ask me, there’s no sure fire formula. Teams win in many different ways. It’s all in the moment as a lot of factors come together – a balance of heady vets and talented newbies, players understanding their role in the scheme of things, a system they can call their own, and a very good coach.
The be-medalled coach who can command respect? One in the vein of a Phil Jackson, Greg Popovich or Pat Riley? Right now, there are only two other coaches there who have won something and that’s Miami’s Erik Spoelstra and Los Angeles’ Glenn Rivers. It is definitely not an easy part of the puzzle to acquire.
But having a top-notch coach certainly is pointing your team in the right direction.