Three is a massive guiding number to success in the National Basketball Association. Popularized in recent times by the Boston Celtics’ “Big Three,” NBA squads have splurged to accumulate star players, dreaming of the championship trophies waiting to be handed to them because of their overwhelming superstar power. It can help, of course, when two of your “Big Three” are among the game’s best but still take a backseat to your other wheel; it’s what took the Miami Heat to nearly perfectly balanced levels of basketball in the 2012-2013 regular season, not to mention another championship.
But long before it become trendy in the last few years, the San Antonio Spurs, in a hushed style that is typical of them, started a “Big Three.” Just as Michael Jordan’s primetime was ending, the Spurs, a team that never even made the NBA Finals before, drafted in 1997 a 6’11” forward named Tim Duncan from Wake Forest University; a year later he was the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player. Five days later they selected a 22-year old guard from Argentina, one who wouldn’t even play in an NBA game until nearly three years later, before averaging more than 15 points a game in the playoffs. And then two years after winning their first championship, the Spurs drafted a 19-year old from Belgium who would later become one of the premier point guards in the league, and would win a Finals MVP. The big man and two foreign men – they were selected without a ton of flair, but have been with San Antonio through a time when every two years it almost seemed like it was a given to hand them the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy. When the Spurs needed championship class, their “Big Three” came up huge and led San Antonio to victory every time in basketball’s biggest stage.
And there lays the issue: Most teams’ championship success live and die by the combined prowess of their “Big Three.” The Miami Heat, the New York Knicks, the Boston Celtics, the Los Angeles Lakers, the Los Angeles Clippers – they rely on a few bright spots to drive them to victory, far more than the team as a whole. And in these NBA Finals when it counted the most, Tim Duncan proved for the millionth time that he’s a champion; but his other two wheels, Parker and Ginobili, faltered when desperation-desperation time came around – in what may have been the last semi-youthful and championship-level season for the San Antonio “Big Three.”
Tony Parker was a sparkplug for the Spurs at numerous points in the series and is still playing at a high level, don’t get me wrong. At age 31, Parker arguably had the best season of his career, posting a Win Share of 9.3, had an assist percentage of 40.4 percent, and scored 20.3 points per game this season. At the same time in the Finals, Parker converted the knock down buzzer beater, off-balance, and against LeBron James, that put Game 1 to bed, and he drove and cut to the basket, shot, and assisted to put the Spurs ahead in pivotal situations in the series. It was Parker who notched a steal and five straight points that nearly gave the Spurs the NBA title in Game 6, not anyone else on San Antonio. But when San Antonio was behind the eight ball in Game 7, Parker was a non-factor. When the Spurs needed a rupture of offense in Game 7, Parker was a non-factor. And when the Spurs were down by only two points in the final 50 seconds of Game 7, Parker was a non-factor. He, instead, was on the bench for the final minutes of the season, for reasons that Gregg Popovich refuses to explain. Parker, the Spurs’ best player this season, failed in the biggest moments of San Antonio’s last real chance at the trophy.
Manu Ginobili, of course, was too old and banged up to do much. The Argentine guard has played less than 100 games over the last two years, scoring fewer points in the last two seasons over 94 games than he did in 80 games in his age-33 season in 2010-2011. He scored double digits only three times in the 2013 Finals, turning the ball over eight costly times in Game 6. The often recognized bench depth that Ginobili gives the Spurs was simply not present in the last series of the season, taking a backseat to the less talented Danny Green and Gary Neil. The last piece of the Spurs’ “Big Three” didn’t do this that often before, indicating, along with his numbers the last two seasons, that he is likely plummeting to the end of his career.
But Tim Duncan didn’t fail in the final moments of the 2013 NBA Finals. Duncan will forever be remembered for missing – twice – a simple tip-in in the waning minute of Game 7 that would have tied the battle, and he failed San Antonio when they just needed some scoring to counterbalance LeBron James taking over Miami’s fourth quarter push in Game 6; but most of the fault shouldn’t splatter on Duncan. He played like a champion in the Finals, putting up 25 first half points in Game 6, playing his best basketball when his team needed to close out the series. And it was Duncan that was the Spurs’ best player in Game 7 when Green, Neil, Parker, and everyone else besides Kawhi Leonard, were asleep.
The burden of the failure falls on the rest of Duncan’s team. In Game 6 when they had a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter, fingers inches away from a championship, they were unable to put the basketball in the basket, didn’t hit free throws at the end, didn’t grab rebounds in the concluding seconds, and they did not have any lasting impact in Game 7. Shooting for both teams Thursday night was weak, but Miami was silently in control of the game from the end of the first quarter on, demonstrating punishing defense and knocking down jumpers with ease. When they needed to, the Heat went to James, or Dwayne Wade, or Mario Chalmers, or Shane Battier for offense. San Antonio could only rely on Duncan and Leonard, watching in vain as they had no viable working options to replace the poor shooting Green. Duncan, however, was present, putting in a real Game 7 effort, while most of his teammates still didn’t produce in the biggest game of the year, not even the other two of the “Big Three.”
The problem is that “Big Three,” though. While the Heat’s “Big Three” is right in the middle of their prime, among others, San Antonio’s trio is in the tail-end of its career. Ginobili is 35 and plays like it, scoring under 13 points a game and recording fewer and fewer minutes. Parker is still relatively young and playing like one of the better point guards in the game, but Duncan, they key from the beginning, is 37, slowing down, and can only do so much. In each of the last three campaigns, he recorded his fewest rebounds since the lockout-shortened 1998-1999 season. More notably, however, Duncan started less than 70 games the last two years. The “Big Three” is essentially the “Big Two” now, as Ginobili has become less and less important, and it will soon be just Parker.
“Big Three” matters in the NBA, a league that power packs. The Spurs may have young talent waiting to bloom (Leonard and Tiago Splitter, possibly Green and Neal) but they have no guarantees; their “Big Three” was their assurance. Playing without superstars on your NBA team can only get you so far. Playoffs? Sure, with eight spots that’s easy. A championship? You need multiple MVP candidates to do that in today’s NBA world. It was Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili; now it’s older Duncan, Parker, and bench Ginobili. This is the best team of the era, but the NBA doesn’t reward rings for consistency. It gives its gold, instead, to the Miami Heat type: a gaggle of superstars that could lead a team to the playoffs on their own, but win NBA titles together. The San Antonio Spurs realize they weren’t that different; but in San Antonio, that was a decade ago. They can only wonder, Is our “Big Three” big anymore? Did we waste the last season of greatness from them? As the Spurs witnessed the footage of 6’8”, 6’10”, and 6’4” superstars raise the NBA trophy for the second straight year, they saw what the entire basketball world once saw in them: A “Big Three” in its prime.
But in San Antonio, that was a decade ago.