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Spurs and Cavs

   by Scott Spreitzer - 06/09/2007

If you're serious about handicapping NBA games next season and in the coming years, it's vital that you pay attention to what's going on in this year's championship round between the Cleveland Cavaliers and San Antonio Spurs.

Of course, I could have said that the last several seasons. The same types of teams with the same strengths and weaponry keep playing for championships in this league. What's amazing is how few franchises understand what's going on.

You'll recall two weeks ago I talked about how a San Antonio/Detroit series would likely look very similar to a San Antonio/Cleveland series. You could look back at the Spurs/Pistons matchup from two years ago to preview either possibility. Since then, Cleveland rallied to defeat Detroit using what is largely a San Antonio model for playoff basketball, (Cleveland's head coach used to be a San Antonio assistant). I'm writing this as game-two of the Finals is about to tip-off. If you watched game one, you know that game was basically a replay of many slow paced, defensive minded, low scoring playoff bouts we've seen over the years.

There's a reason for this!

Let's go over a few of the keys that have clearly been separating contenders from pretenders at the professional level in recent seasons.

*DEFENSE: It's amazing how the emphasis of the media is on offensive stars, the emphasis on draft day is on offensive stars, the emphasis on trade analysis is on offensive stars, the emphasis on European players joining the league is about offensive stars, but that DEFENSE WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS!

This is true in all sports, both regarding media hype and reality. You've got to shut people down to win championships. It's just too much of a burden on your own offense to have to outscore opponents time and time again under playoff pressure. The Indianapolis Colts couldn't win a Super Bowl until they focused more on defense (and running the clock on offense to keep their defense fresh). March Madness continues to be a showcase for teams that play team defense rather than teams that make Dick Vitale yell about "dipsy-doo dunkeroos". How many NBA playoff games have you watched in the last 20 years that never had a chance to go Over their posted totals? It's about defense! (In full disclosure, I wagered on and released the OVER in game two due to the situation the teams were in.)

*REBOUNDING: We can run through the same list from above regarding the emphasis on drafts, trades, and imports. Winning teams are strong on the boards. You might have trouble finding a single championship caliber team in the history of the league that wasn't strong on the boards. This is critical on both sides of the floor. Defensive rebounds end your opponent's possession. Offensive rebounds give you a chance to salvage one of your own possessions. If you're doing that, and your opponents aren't, it's going to have a huge impact in a tight halfcourt game.

*INSIDE/OUTSIDE THREATS: The best teams have a variety of ways to score. Typically, there's an inside threat that demands double teams and outside threats in the form of perimeter shooters. In some cases, there are slashers like Dwyane Wade (last year), LeBron James (this year), and to a lesser extent Manu Ginobili, who are dangerous from either spot. You've got to be dangerous in both locations to threaten for a championship. Ideally, you want multiple options from outside so that defenses can't possibly cover all the bases. In the current championship series, San Antonio is better suited in that regard because they've got a lot of guys who can hit a trey. Cleveland lacks that, and needs James to carry a huge individual burden. Note that Cleveland didn't move past Detroit in the Eastern finals until Gibson started hitting some threes.

Now, these are obviously the characteristics of teams capable of winning championships. Turn it around, and if teams DON’T have these characteristics they can't win a championship. That's as clear as can be in our lifetime watching this sport. For some reason, the focus is on star power and celebrity rather than the fundamentals when it comes to building franchises for many of the league's 30 teams.

As handicappers/bettors, it's vital that you ignore the irrelevant stuff and focus on the right stuff. We've got to study team defensive stats, (field goal percentage, points allowed per game, points allowed per possession, steals, blocked shots, etc.). We’ve got to study rebounding stats at the individual and team level. If a key rebounder gets hurt, teams often take a bigger step backward than the public and oddsmakers expect. And, we've got to study offensive balance in terms of weaponry. A team that only has inside threats will get bogged down in playoff style basketball. A team that only has outside threats won’t be able to sustain the necessary percentage it takes to win four games in a string of sequential series (as Golden State proved again this year).

Picking NBA ATS winners can be made easier when you're studying the league from these perspectives. The public isn't, and the lines are largely based on public perceptions. Frankly, I've talked to enough oddsmakers to know that they're not looking at the games this way either.

This will be my last NBA article until November. In the meantime, I'll be evaluating the upcoming draft, and any offseason trades in light of what it really takes to build winners in this league. If you do so, your won-lost percentage will reach new heights next season.

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