The NBA Finals, in most accounts, are billed as the epic showdown of Jason Kidd versus Tim Duncan, the league’s best point guard going up against the league’s best power forward. If it were really those two players who were going to decide the championship, you would be wise to bet the house, the car, the kids, and all that crap you bought on eBay on the Spurs—recent NBA history shows that a great big man is better to have than a great play-maker. In the 40-odd seasons they’ve amassed between them, not one of this era’s premier point guards—Jason Kidd, John Stockton, Gary Payton—has won a championship, despite playing on some pretty good teams. The last NBA champions to have a virtuoso at the point were the 1990 Pistons with Isaiah Thomas, and even they were feared at least as much for their interior muscle.
Fortunately for the Nets, however, this series is not likely to be decided by the biggest stars. (I’ll explain why in a second.) Instead, the onus is going to be pushed onto each team’s second-best player—whoever gets the greatest production from their No. 2 option has the best chance to win.
And that puts the Spurs in a serious fix. For a team that dispatched Shaq and Kobe with such apparent ease, San Antonio has an alarmingly one-dimensional attack. Duncan is a marvelous player, of course, but in Game 6 of the last series, the Dirk Nowitzki-less Mavericks showed that the entire Spurs offense can be brought to a standstill by triple-teaming its star. Dallas gave the Spurs all the open looks they wanted on the perimeter, and they could not knock them down—at least not until Steve Kerr emerged from cryogenic storage.
After Duncan, the Spurs’ most formidable offensive threat is slippery, second-year point guard Tony Parker, who is wonderful to watch but whose jump shot needs major therapy. Parker’s preferred mode of attack is dashing into the lane for a runner or a layup, but that doesn’t work so well when the paint is clogged with big men hanging all over Duncan. The Spurs’ best outside shooter is Bruce Bowen, who has buried an astonishing 47 percent of his threes in the postseason. But Bowen is a defensive specialist, not an offensive-minded player, and he has exactly one shot in his arsenal: the three-pointer from the deep corner. And, of course, he can’t even hit free throws.
No Spurs supporting player, in fact, can be counted on to produce points. Argentine rookie Manu Ginobili has shown flashes of brilliance but also rookie nerves. If the Nets clamp down on Duncan and dare the Spurs to beat them from outside, like the Mavs did, is there a San Antonio veteran who is going to make them pay? Does Kerr have another miracle left in his wobbly knees? Might Danny Ferry break loose from the deep, loveless dungeon he’s played himself into?
The Nets, on the other hand, would like nothing better than to see three Spurs try to cover Jason Kidd. He would slice ‘em and dice ‘em in every way imaginable. The New Jersey point guard has had an extraordinary season—in addition to all his usual play-making brilliance and relentless speedball tactics, he led the team in scoring during the regular season and has notched his per-game average above 20 for the playoffs. He’s a more powerful force than even Isaiah was in his day.
Despite his improved shooting, however, Kidd is still not a game-breaking scorer, the kind of player who can nail a half-dozen buckets in a row with defenders draped all over him. And it is those types of performances that loom large in playoff games. Which is why the development of Kenyon Martin is critical to the Nets’ success. Martin’s superhuman performance in the futile Game 4 against the Lakers last year suggested the greatness he was capable of, and he made big strides this season. K-Mart is not always reassuring to watch on the court. He has a knack for never scoring the same way twice, as though each basket is a freakish bit of good fortune. Though he’s a refined and artful practitioner of the slam dunk, his jump shots look goofy—but damned if they don’t go in with growing regularity. Against the Pistons, he hit an 18-foot shot off the glass that defied basic laws of geometry.
With K-Mart emerging, it hardly matters that Richard Jefferson vanishes for long stretches, or that Kerry Kittles saves his silkiest moves for midseason games against the Cavaliers. The Nets thought that acquiring Dikembe Mutombo in the offseason was all they needed to put them over the top, but Mutombo, at most, will play a bit part. K-Mart, the legitimate second option that the Spurs don’t have, provides the edge.
At the beginning of the playoffs, I was considering writing a piece that suggested abandoning the Eastern Conference half of the draw. The West looked completely stacked with the Kings and the Mavs and a Lakers team that seems ready to zoom into the passing lane when it had to. Meanwhile, the Nets seemed a classic near-great team, the NBA’s answer to the Atlanta Braves and the Buffalo Bills. But some years, near-great is all you have to be, and looking at the Duncan-centric Spurs, this seems like one of those years.