In the 2014 NBA Finals, the Miami Heat are yet again facing the San Antonio Spurs. Leading up to the championship series, much of the talk surrounding the teams was about their history: one team looking to complete a very rare three-peat, while the other is trying overcome a devastating loss in 2013 while solidifying themselves as arguably the greatest NBA franchise of the 21st Century thus far.
This is the narrative that we've listened to ever since the Heat and the Spurs made it to this point. Yet what sometimes gets lost in the mix is what got these guys here:
Veteran leadership, and a whole lot of it.
Both Miami and San Antonio don't lack in a whole lot of areas, but one place they definitely excel in is headship. It's the type of characteristic that you can't ever have too much of, and it's certainly something that every team values enormously. Just ask the Indiana Pacers.
More specifically, where these veterans really shine is off the bench. Miami -- the oldest team in the NBA -- has a variety of "been there, done that" players that play smaller minutes, including Ray Allen, Udonis Haslem, Rashard Lewis and sometimes even Shane Battier (depending on the rotation). San Antonio has a plethora of guys that are the same: Manu Ginobili (who could be the greatest sixth man ever), Boris Diaw, etc. Each understands their role and expectations, a skill that's not always easy to find in the Association and a main component to the Spurs being up 1-0.
Across the country and back in Portland, there's obviously a tremendous amount to be happy about upon reflection of last year: two All-NBA performers, a starting unit that made tremendous strides as a group and some young players starting to understand their identity as players. But even above these things, Portland gained some valuable playoff experience -- something that is irreplaceable, and the ingredient it took for Miami and San Antonio to get to the point they're currently at.
One thing that Portland couldn't seem to shake, though, was their lack of bench play. With only a couple guys coming off the bench with more than a few years of experience, and a unit that was clearly outmatched by San Antonio, Portland was overwhelmed in that area more often than not.
Much of the conversation and finger-pointing following the end of the season was at Mo Williams, arguably Portland's most polarizing player. The on-court production was definitely inconsistent: from the imminent "What the heck were you thinking, Mo?" moments to hitting one of the biggest threes of the postseason. These inconsistencies on the court were obviously frustrating for all, but it was his off the court impact that may have been the greatest.
In Game Four of their series against Houston, Portland was down 10 points at halftime. They were also coming off a home loss in Game Three, and were at severe risk of blowing the two-game advantage they'd built on the road. Jason Quick captured the moment back in April, describing how, at halftime, Williams was the guy that called everyone out (himself included) at their lack of energy. He knew it wasn't who the team was, and he certainly knew it wasn't the type of play that was going to get Portland back into the game.
Aldridge described it as "dramatic." Lillard called it a "challenge." But whatever it was, it was the unseen turning point of a roller coaster ride of a series back into Portland's favor.
This story isn't necessarily a vote in favor of bringing Williams back onto the team. It'll be a hard decision for the Blazers, especially when you factor in the fact that he wants a longer-term deal as his final contract of his NBA career. What it is a vote for, though, is making sure that whoever Portland gets as their sixth man needs to be a veteran, backcourt player or otherwise.
When things aren't going great in the biggest moments of the seasons, you need a guy who can step up and challenge a team, and one that's been through it before and can command a certain amount of attention. Williams was a perfect fit for that: guys after Game Four said that Mo never was one to yell like he did that day. But when he did raise his voice, it caused the team to listen.
Portland needs to continue to have that voice, whether it be Mo's or not.
To take it even a step further, it may not even just be about getting a veteran this offseason. The X-Factor may be getting the type of guy with a chip on his shoulder. Take Miami just a couple years ago: losers in the Finals to Dallas in the first year of the Big Three, the Heat played harder than ever to win their franchise's second championship. And we all know what the Spurs have done this year after a devastating loss in last year's Finals. This type of underdog mentality is one of the biggest reasons Portland made it as deep into the season as they did, causing the embrace of the "Spirit of ‘77" mantra. Getting a vet that has that type of background could be critically important during the offseason, and would be an obvious fit with the personnel already locked up for next season.
Who that player is specifically is yet to be determined. There really aren't a whole lot of free agent guards that fit these criteria outside of Mo Williams, other than maybe Kirk Hinrich or DJ Augustin, but both of those guys are even a stretch.
Knowing how thin the backcourt options are, it may not even be out of the realm of possibility to think of bringing in a frontcourt player to fill that veteran role. Obviously, trades are an option as well. Whatever path they take, it seems like that's the most formidable destination.
If there's one thing we can learn from the teams in the NBA Finals, it's that having veteran leadership is monumental to success. Additionally, both Miami and San Antonio had to go through some adversity to get to where they are now -- something Portland got a taste of in April and May. Knowing this, whoever the sixth man in Portland is next season needs to bring some of that veteran saavy.
Portland doesn't need to get any younger this offseason.
Especially not when you want to put "conference finals" in the discussion as the next step.