The Heat/Pacers semifinal series is more than just seven games to determine who will go to the Eastern Conference finals. It is also a battle between the two premier teambuilding models employed by NBA front offices today: Superteam versus Draft and Develop.
The Indiana Pacers used the Draft and Develop model to build a gritty team of talented but unheralded players, and this past Friday, they took a 2-1 lead on the mighty Miami Heat in their Eastern conference semifinal series. Their performance personified Pacers basketball. Their talented guards, Paul George, George Hill and Darren Collison, were stroking their outside shots and bearing down on defense, rendering Mario Chalmers and -- surprisingly -- Dwayne Wade useless. Meanwhile, Indiana's bigs were exposing Chris Bosh's absence, as well as Joel Anthony and Ronny Turiaf's inadequacies as limited offensive players. Roy Hibbert's 19 points and 18 boards led the way, while David West outmuscled LeBron for rebounds and kept his men focused on the task at hand. The final score told a sordid tale -- 95-74 in favor of Indiana -- and critics of the superteam raised their glasses in celebration. Ding dong, the witches were dead. All hail the Draft and Develop model, which produced tough, durable teams that were built to last.
But then Sunday happened, and suddenly all those "Built to Last" people were sitting on their hands, chewing their bottom lips self-consciously. The Pacers, who in the first half of the game, looked strong enough to take a two game lead against a wounded Heat team, were reminded of what a Superteam can do when their backs are against the wall. LeBron delivered a performance for the ages, pouring in 40 points, 18 rebounds and 9 assists. D-Wade contributed 30 points, 9 rebounds and 6 assists. And the team that Larry Bird built could neither stop them, nor produce enough points in the second half to make the game competitive. The Pacers shot 39% from the field, and were unable to find anyone to either slow LeBron and/or D-Wade down, or score the ball down the stretch to keep the Pacers in the game -- despite the fact that the only points that he Heat scored during the half came from LeBron, D-Wade or Udonis Haslem. In the end, the Heat prevailed, and the Pacers were left to nurse their wounds, and prepare for a pivotal game five in Miami. Nothing was answered definitely, and we, as fans, were left with more questions about the series than answers -- an unsettling feeling in this high-tech, unlimited-information-at-the-tip-of-our-fingers age.
Indeed, people look to playoff series like the Heat versus the Pacers to answer questions that probably cannot -- and likely will not -- be definitively resolved. Questions like: are constructing Superteams composed of 2-3 top shelf all stars and middling role players the best way to compete for a championship? Or are the best teams composed of high-quality players most of whom who played four full years of college (Darren Collison, George Hill, David West, Tyler Hansbrough, Roy Hibbert), and who all commit to building something fantastic for the future? But still other questions remain. Can a team that has two-to-three elite scorers really survive when the rest of the team provides roughly 25 points total. Or conversely, can a without a single elite scorer win on heart and pride, if not superior skill and acumen?
It is frustrating this series will not provide us with an answer that will truly satisfy our hearts and minds. In all likelihood this series will go a full seven games, and the victor will triumph by the slimmest of margins. And when someone does win this series, the events that transpired will not provide the definitive data we need to put the Superteam model to bed, or alternatively, crown Draft and Develop as the new king. On the contrary, we will be forced to reconcile that we don't have enough data to either prove or disprove that teams like the Miami Heat, New York Knicks, or, to an extent, the Chicago Bulls are the future of the NBA, or whether teams like the Thunder, Grizzlies or Spurs will rise to the top. In fact, we may be forced to come to a more dire conclusion: that the 2011 lockout, in many ways, helped to create that mythical parity between large market Superteams, and smaller, traditional Draft and Developers. This is a fantastic series, not just because of what's taking place on the court, but also what it took to get these very teams on the court in the first place.
And in the end, it probably won't even matter, because no one's going to beat the Spurs.