With LeBron James and Gregg Popovich both just a single series victory away from meeting in the 2013 NBA Finals, fans around the league could be in for an intriguing matchup between the NBA's best player and its most revered head coach.
Whether or not that happens depends on the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs clearing one final hurdle in their respective conference finals. But before we get to the chances of both teams advancing, it's worth taking a moment to prove that both men are, in fact, the best at what they do.
The case for James is a strong one. He's got four of the past five MVP trophies on a shelf in his house (or wherever he keeps them) and just polished off a 2012-13 regular season for the ages. His status as the league's best player is so undisputed, so utterly unquestionable, that it feels a little ridiculous to even go over his credentials.
If you can't agree that James is the NBA's best player, you should probably make sure you don't have some kind of cranial bruising. Also, we can't be friends.
It's slightly more difficult to argue that Popovich is the NBA's best coach, but only because there are so many immeasurable factors that go into being good at his job. There are no points per game or defensive efficiency ratings that apply to individual coaches. And it's even trickier to pin down his value as a motivator, a teacher and a maker of in-game adjustments.
Everyone who's watched him run the Spurs since he took over in 1996 has some sense of how effective he is in all of those capacities, but without being intimately involved, it's hard to be sure just how much better he is than his peers.
Fortunately, an important group of Pop's peers—all 30 of the NBA's general managers—tell us every year that he's a cut above the rest.
In each of the past two annual GM polls, Popovich has been named the league's best overall coach. Before the 2012-13 season, he earned 80 percent of the vote. More specifically, the same pool of general managers named him the league's best motivator and the best in-game tactician.
And those four championship rings don't hurt his case, either.
So, now that we're all in agreement that James and Popovich are each at the top of their respective fields, it's time to address the likelihood of their meeting in the NBA Finals.
Obviously, the Spurs are in line to get there. They've got a 3-0 lead on the Memphis Grizzlies in the Western Conference finals, and unless the Grizz are going to become the first team in league history to come back from that deficit, it's safe to pencil the Spurs into the finals.
Seeing as we're on the topic of the Spurs' insurmountable lead, now might be a good time to laud Popovich for helping them get there. Apologies for another diversion, but Pop deserves his due.
San Antonio has amassed its lead in true Popovich-ian style. The Spurs have attacked the Grizzlies' vaunted defense with precise pick-and-roll sets, a whole bunch of corner threes and a mechanical devotion to the fundamentals of sound team defense. Pop's fingerprints are everywhere on this disciplined team, and sometimes they even come close to ending up around his players' necks.
When Popovich benched his entire starting five after just seven sloppy minutes in Game 3 against the Grizzlies on May 25, he proved just how uniquely powerful (and effective) he is as a coach. First of all, no other coach in the league would have dared to do what he did. These days, players don't stand for disrespect.
But Popovich was able to make such a bold move because his players already have such unconditional respect for him. And not only did he charge into territory that would have been fatal for any other coach in the league; he got the result he wanted. The Spurs' starters got the message, sorted themselves out and won the game.
Getting back to the issue at hand, the Spurs are a lock for the finals. And part of the reason for that is because Popovich has expertly guided them to this point.
The Heat have a tougher challenge ahead of them.
Indiana has proved to be a worthy foe with the kind of size, defensive tenacity and fearless approach that has already made the Heat look more vulnerable than they have at any point this season.
But Miami still has the world's best player in James, the knowledge that it has beaten the feisty Pacers before (in last year's conference semifinals) and a supporting cast that is bound to knock down some of the open shots it has missed so far. It'll be a fight, but the Heat are still a favorite to advance to the finals.
If that happens, it'll be an exciting challenge for Popovich. But it won't be an unexpected one.
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Gregg Popovich trolls the universe, rests Parker, Ginobili, Duncan, Green vs. Heat: http://t.co/CTVWsftR11/29/2012, 11:19:55 PM
Remember, the Spurs swallowed a hefty $250,000 fine for resting Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green in a Nov. 29 game in Miami. Popovich was behind the move, and it's clear in hindsight that he wasn't just trying to rest his best players.
He was hoping to avoid showing the Heat his hand before they met at the final table.
And because the Heat did the same thing in a game in San Antonio a few months after that, we don't really know how these teams are going to match up if they do end up in the finals together.
Popovich's experience against James in the finals is limited to a meeting between his Spurs and LBJ's Cleveland Cavaliers in 2007. That was a very different version of James, though, and it seems unlikely that the schemes Popovich employed to slow down the Cavs' uninventive isolation sets will be helpful this time around.
James is a better player now, and he's surrounded by a vastly superior cast of reserves.
It's hard to know how the Heat and Spurs will attack each other if they meet in the NBA Finals. But whatever strategies we see, the matchup is sure to be an exciting one. And that's because the principle parties—James and Popovich—are the very best at what they do.
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