That focused foresight allows us to start looking ahead at potential storylines. Which off-the-court angles, which narrative threads, would help make this year's finals unforgettable?
Obviously, the most important function of each finals matchup is to declare one team Champion. But as an impartial viewer, the spectacle is nearly as important.
Here are three potential storylines to look forward to in the finals:
LeBron James vs. Tim Duncan: Legacy Definition
Two of the top 15 players ever, let loose on the same court, battling for a legacy-defining championship?
Count me in.
Fair or not, we tend to define players' careers, at least in large part, by the amount of Championships they've won. How many times have you heard about MJ's six or Kobe's five or Russell's (unfathomable) 11? How many times have you heard of Barkley's zero?
Another ring wouldn't just give Duncan one for the thumb; it would put him an elite category of five-time winners. We saw Kobe Bryant join that club just two years ago, joining a post-three-point line band that includes Jordan, Horry, Rodman, Pippen, and a host of other consummate winners.
LeBron, meanwhile, is carving out an even loftier resume—trying to win league MVP and Finals MVP in back-to-back seasons. A Duncan championship might secure him a spot among the game's all-time top 10. But a LeBron Championship would give him further momentum toward the game's all-time top one.
Watching these two basketball titans go at it—even in their disparate ages—would be something to tell your grandkids about. Their first fInals meeting was a boring mismatch (Duncan's Spurs swept LeBron's out-of-their-league Cavs for the title), but this one would be different. Much different.
You can mark my words on that one.
George Hill vs. Kawhi Leonard: Draft-Night Swap
Wait, what? A point guard vs. small forward matchup? This writer doesn't know what the hell he's talking about! I think I'll call him stupid in the comments!!
Au contraire, hypothetical jerk I just made up (though based on real people). The Hill-Leonard matchup would rarely, if ever, come to fruition on the court. What makes them such an interesting pairing is their history together.
George Hill was a Spur back in the day, backing up Tony Parker in an expanded version of Cory Joseph's current role. If that seems too insignificant for a player like Hill, that's because it is. And everybody knew it.
Greg Popovich—though he lamented shopping one of his favorite players—knew he didn't need another great point guard, and opted to see what he could get for him on the market. They found a partner in the Pacers, who offered to swap their 2011 first round pick, 15th overall, for Hill. The Spurs agreed, but only on one condition: The player they wanted had to fall to 15. Then, and only then, would the trade be completed.
That player? Kawhi Leonard.
Hill and Leonard were swapped for one another on draft night that year, and the rest, as they say, is history. It's one of the most successful two-way trades of our generation; both teams got exactly what they needed. San Antonio received a two-way wing player who could shoot and defend, while Indiana got a versatile point guard capable of running their show.
Seeing such a great trade partook between such great organizations come full circle in the finals would be poetic in every sense.
Pacers vs. Grizzlies: Trolling David Stern
This one comes with an obvious disclaimer: Memphis is down three games to zero against San Antonio, rendering their hopes of advancing slim-to-none. But as of today, this is still a potential storyline, and man would it be a funny one.
Indiana and Memphis are doppelgangers of one another; they both like to scrap, they both like to play defense, and they both struggle—for long periods of time—to put the ball in the basket.
If they met in the finals, basketball purists would rejoice. Finally, defense is officially back in the NBA!
But casual fans wouldn't care a lick. Two (relatively) small market cities? No superstars with shoe deals or car commercials? First one to 85 wins? Count me OUT.
Grizzlies-Pacers equals very low ratings; very low ratings make David Stern angry; and unlike with the Hulk, I absolutely do want to see David Stern when he gets angry.
Am I a bad person for thinking that? Probably. Doesn't make it any less true.