In the Zone: 2013 NBA FInals preview

Could this be one of the most epic NBA FInals matchups we've seen in recent memory?

Tyler Fulghum, Sports Director, tylerf@kmiz.com
POSTED: 01:36 PM CDT Jun 06, 2013 
2013 NBA Finals
COLUMBIA, Mo. -

The 2013 NBA Finals are on ABC17.

LeBron James.

Tim Duncan.

Dwyane Wade.

Tony Parker.

Spoelstra and Riley.

Gregg Popovich.

What’s not to love?

1) What does Popovich do with LeBron James?

The first time Popovich’s team matched up with LeBron it was 2007.  LeBron was only 22 years old, four years into his NBA career.  He was also a Cleveland Cavalier.  Not kidding, this is the starting lineup he walked out on to the court with against a two-time NBA champion organization:

PG Daniel “Boobie” Gibson (rookie, 4.6 ppg in regular season)

SG Larry Hughes/Sasha Pavlovic (Hughes averaged 14.9 ppg, but shot 40.0% from the field and a career-worst 67% from the free throw line.  Pavlovic averaged a career-high 9.0 ppg that season)

PF Drew Gooden (11.1 ppg, 8.5 rpg and a “sweet” neck-tuft-mullet thing going on for the former Beaker)

C Zydrunas Ilgauskas (11.9 ppg, 7.7 rpg as a 31-year old, Lithuanian, 7-foot-3 center trying to guard Tim Duncan in his prime)

Michael Jordan might have trouble winning the Chicago Public League title with that collection of “talent.”  He’s definitely not knocking off the Monstars and saving the planet.

Needless to say, the Cavs were overmatched and swept faster than David Stern could veto a Chris Paul trade.  It was the last time the Spurs appeared in the NBA Finals.

In that series, the Spurs went ahead and let LeBron shoot perimeter jumpers.  They worked underneath screens and clogged the paint.  They stuck Bruce Bowen on him to harass him and do nothing else.  Fabricio Oberto and Francisco Elson, essentially, had 12 free shots at him in the paint each game, because it wouldn’t matter if they fouled out or not.

Fast forward seven years and LeBron James has four league MVPs, one Finals MVP, two Olympic gold medals, and a game he estimates to be roughly “40 or 50 times better” than it was in 2007.

Let’s compare some numbers on James from then and now:

Regular Season
2006-07: 27.3 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 6.0 apg, 47.6% FG, 31.9% 3-PT, 69.8% FT, 24.5 PER
2012-13: 26.8 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 7.3 apg, 56.5% FG, 40.6% 3-PT, 75.3% FT, 31.6 PER

Playoffs
2006-07: 25.1 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 8.0 apg, 41.6% FG, 28.0% 3-PT, 75.5% FT, 23.9 PER
2012-13: 26.2 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 6.4 apg, 51.4% FG, 38.7% 3-PT, 77.2% FT, 28.7 PER

Clearly (and you didn’t need me to tell you this), LeBron is much better now than he was then.  The most obvious improvement has come with his jump shot.  He no longer is a liability chucking perimeter jumpers.

Statistically, he is on par shooting a three these days with his teammate Ray Allen; the same Ray Allen who has made more three point field goals than anyone else in NBA history.

What these numbers do NOT show is how much better James is as a defender, too.  LeBron is unequivocally the best perimeter defender in the NBA, while also being the league’s most versatile.  Ask Paul George what it’s like to be covered by LeBron.

So, what’s Coach Pop supposed to do with LeBron?

Ironically, even though James is superior in terms of his scoring efficiency, even though James now has legitimate range out to 25-30 feet, Popovich might be wise to just let LeBron fill it up and cut off the rest of his teammates.

The Heat were 18-8 this season when LeBron scored 30+ points in a game.

The Heat were 14-1 this season when LeBron registered 10+ assists in a game.

If he’s getting Wade, Chris Bosh, Allen, Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier, etc. going in this series, Popovich is probably going to have a lot of long, sleepless nights.

Good luck, Kawhi Leonard.

2) Which Dwyane Wade will we see in this series?  The one who looked like a shell of his former self for much of the Eastern Conference Finals, or the one who scored 21 points and pulled down a game high nine rebounds (including six offensive) in the series clinching Game 7 win?

It’s probably going to be something in between.

San Antonio, however, does not have the size/strength/girth in the lane to affect Wade as much Indiana did.

This much is clear: If the Heat want to be serious about the future, Wade is going to need to develop that “getting-older-perimeter” game that Michael and Kobe Bryant added after ten years in the league.  He can no longer be effective on his 31-year old knees solely barreling into the paint and attacking the rim with reckless abandon.  He’s got to add a consistent jumper out to the three-point line like LeBron did.

3) Chris Bosh has never been happier to match up with Tim Duncan in his life; anybody but Roy Hibbert, who made his life miserable for two weeks in the last round.

4) Where does Tim Duncan fit on the list of all-time greatest NBA players?  He's never going to get the love that he deserves because of his flair for…the fundamentals.

He's nowhere near the most athletic player to ever play the game.  He's nowhere near the most graceful.  But if all you did was look at his numbers and not that boring 15-foot bank shot, you'd see this:

4 NBA Championships, 3 NBA Finals MVPs
14x NBA All Star, 2-time NBA MVP, 8x 1st team NBA All-Defense

Those are all nice, shiny accomplishments on a mantle to tell us how good Duncan's career has been.  I'm, however, going to go a little deeper into the numbers with some basketball analytics. 

"Win shares" is an advanced metric that was originally designed by Bill James for the game of baseball.  In layman's terms, the purpose of this statistic is to determine how many of the team's total wins, one player's performance on the field is responsible.  Basically, how many wins can a team attribute to one man's talent.

Dean Oliver adopted the theory of "win shares" and developed a unique formula for the game of basketball.  Here is a link to the formula with a detailed description of how to calculate the number and what it truly means.

Take a look at the all-time playoff win shares leaders in NBA history:

Michael Jordan39.76
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar35.56
Magic Johnson32.63
TIM DUNCAN32.16
Wilt Chamberlain31.46
Shaquille O'Neal31.08
LeBRON JAMES28.29
KOBE BRYANT28.26
Bill Russell27.76
Julius Erving (NBA/ABA)26.89

*In fairness to guys on the list like Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, some statistics (namely blocks and turnovers) that are vital to calculating the "win shares" total were not officially kept as statistics when they played.  Those players had to have estimated inputs so we can never know how accurate their numbers are or not. 

What this essentially says is Tim Duncan's play over the entirety of his career in the NBA playoffs has given the San Antonio Spurs 32 postseason victories.  Since Duncan was drafted by the Spurs in 1997 the Spurs have made the playoffs every single season he's been on the team (they've also never won less than 50 regular season games) and won 130 postseason contests. 

Duncan can claim 32 of those wins, or 24.6 percent -- nearly 1/4, himself.  You could almost play four on five with Tim Duncan on your team and still win games.  

What "win shares," or any other stat for that matter, can't measure is how Duncan's presence has elevated the performance or numbers posted by his teammates, and vice versa.  Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are likely going to the Hall of Fame.  Can we for sure say that if they had instead been drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks or Atlanta Hawks? 

In fairness, it's asinine to assume their talent has benefitted in Duncan in his career.  It was, after all, Parker who won the NBA Finals MVP in 2007 and who is now widely considered the best player on the team in 2013.  But you get the point

5) So what's going to happen in this series?  I'm copping out.  I'm superstitious and I have a vested interest here.  We all know who I WANT to win, so I don't think I can fairly predict who will without flame-tinted glasses. 

But Vegas…has no allegiances, and they're on my side. 

In all seriousness, I expect this series to be the ultimate basketball experience.  There is far too much greatness in talent and competitive spirit on both benches for this to be anything less than one of the most epic NBA Finals in recent memory.  Enjoy.  I know I will all series long on ABC17.