There's more than just a championship at stake for the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs.
Winning another title will mean a great deal for either franchise. San Antonio is looking for its fourth of the Big Three era while Miami is seeking to claim its second in as many years.
That's only part of what these teams are playing for. Neither the Heat nor the Spurs are playing strictly for another banner.
Beyond the Larry O'Brien trophy and the gleaming rings that come with it, there's more. Careers hang in the balance, legacies are on the line, and framework for both Miami and San Antonio's future will be forged by the outcome.
Move Over Kobe Bryant
San Antonio's Big Three is competing for their fourth ring as an assembly. Tim Duncan, however, is searching for his fifth, and all the glory that comes with it.
Already the greatest power forward to ever play the game, Duncan hasn't emerged as the greatest player of his era. No matter how much it's debated, Kobe Bryant just won't go away.
Procuring a fifth ring doesn't necessarily thrust him past Bryant, but it advances the conversation even further in his favor. Five championships is ridiculous. Absolutely absurd. But in a good way.
Should he be able to tie Bryant in rings, he might edge him out as the greatest superstar of their era.
The Ability to Go Out on Top
Win or lose, Duncan could retire upon season's end. That's just how it is with 37-year-olds.
Should Duncan win, he's presented with a unique opportunity—retiring on his own terms.
Not to say that he needs to walk away now. He's still playing like a stud. Envisioning him finishing out his current contract after another championship isn't insane.
If he returns, he won't be returning to prove anything. He won't be chasing a championship that has eluded him for the better part of a decade or attempting to solidify his status as one of the greats. He'll be playing because he wants to, because he can. No strings attached.
A fifth championship then ensures he can leave the game on top, on his terms, whenever that may be.
Could this be Manu Ginobili's swan song?
He has struggled to find his touch on the offensive end in the playoffs, connecting on just 38.3 percent of his field-goal attempts. His contributions in other areas of the game—playmaking, defense, etc.—remain valuable commodities, but his struggles have left him showing his age (35).
Set to explore unrestricted free agency this summer, Ginobili could be playing his final few games in a Spurs uniform. Retirement is an option, and so is signing with another team for a bigger payday.
Imagining Ginobili in a different uniform seems crazy, and it just might be. Logic dictates that he will inevitably return to the Spurs. But logic is sometimes complicated. These finals can simplify his impending offseason nuptials.
A stellar performance over the course of the series makes Ginobili an asset, win or lose. It also makes whatever decision the Spurs are forced to make less convoluted. If he can still play and have a championship-caliber impact, there wouldn't be as much pressure for the Spurs to finally distance themselves from this regime.
Winning makes it even easier. It could be easier for the Spurs and him to part ways knowing they're fresh off another championship campaign, it could make his decision to return to the NBA at all a no-brainer, or his performance in conjunction with that ring could continue to render him indispensable.
Either way, how the finals pan out will have a direct impact on Ginobili's future with the Spurs and the NBA in general, or lack thereof.
Every year we're left wondering if this is it for the Spurs. Every. Single. Year.
It's sickening, really. San Antonio has constructed quite the resume, rarely receiving the respect and recognition it deserves.
Falling to the Oklahoma City Thunder last year only created further doubt. The Spurs were done. It was over.
He made good on his promise. Then he made another one. Rather, he made a declaration. He wanted Duncan to go out winner, like David Robinson.
Winning now affords Duncan the opportunity to leave on top. Of course, he could still return. The choice would be up to him.
Which is just how Parker wants it.
Hey, I Can Do This
Tony Parker is an elite point guard. Let's get that out of the way now.
Is he a top-three player in the NBA? Jalen Rose says yes. Everyone who isn't inebriated and/or attempting to put Parker's postseason performance in a hyperbolic perspective says no.
Being a realist hardly diminishes what Parker has been able to accomplish, though. He's putting up 23 points, 7.2 assists and 1.2 steals per game on 47.5 percent shooting during the playoffs, making him just the seventh player in NBA history to sustain such marks through a minimum of 10 postseason contests.
Monsieur Parker's performance becomes even more important when put in the traditional San Antonio perspective.
Ginboili is a free agent upon season's end and Duncan's future with the Spurs will always be questioned on account of him being, well, old. At some point the Spurs are going to have to rebuild without Timmy or Manu. When that time comes, Parker wants to be able to say "I carried us to a championship. I can still do this."
There's no better to way to prove that, even at 31, he's worth building around then by leading the Spurs to a championship.
Chris Bosh has been absolutely awful as of late.
Against the Indiana Pacers, Bosh mustered up just 11 points and 4.3 rebounds on 37.7 percent shooting. Throughout the rest of the playoffs, he hasn't been much better, tallying an underwhelming 12.3 points and 6.6 rebounds on 45.7 percent shooting.
Now he borders on overpaid.
The Heat aren't paying Bosh $17.5 million this season to average a mere 12 points and six boards when he's needed most. Continuing his stretch of ineptitude will then make his $19-plus-million salary seem like a contractual burden Miami wouldn't want to bear.
Forget about his eight All-Star selections (seven appearances), failure to show up now means Bosh runs the risk of his superstar status being ripped out from under him.
Playing at the level he was brought in to play at and helping Miami win its second consecutive title would quell any and all such cries—for now.
Who Is the Real Dwyane Wade?
Wade has been counted out before. Recently as last year, in fact.
Every time he's been thought to have succumbed to his knees and his age, he's bounced back. This time, he hasn't. Not yet, at least.
His Game 7 performance against the Pacers was promising; his Game 6 disaster was not. Thus far, Wade is averaging a career-playoff low 14.1 points per game on 44.7 percent shooting. There will be moments when he resembles the sidekick James signed on to play with, then there are times when he looks absolutely lost.
Given his injury history, doubters will never cease to exist. Questions about his knee will always surface. Inquiries into his ability to remain a star will continue to be lodged.
Time and time again, though, Wade has rose above such scrutiny. Never once has he closed out the season not worthy of being considered a star; never once were we left wondering if this was indeed the end of Wade the superstar as we know it.
This year could see much of the same. Wade could render his cynics mistaken, his detractors fools once again.
Or he could continue down his current path, the one-way road that appears to end in his demise.
James left the Cleveland Cavaliers to win championships, to build a dynasty.
Now one title away from laying the second piece of groundwork for that dynasty, James is also one more failure away from tarnishing his legacy.
There's an innate tendency to sensationalize every obstacle James faces. Such is the perils of being the greatest player on the planet. And such is the danger of ambitious aspirations.
One title isn't enough to justify leaving Cleveland for James. Not when he admitted he wanted more, when he left the Cavs for a situation that was supposed to yield unprecedented results.
A loss opens James up to Big Three-old question: Did he make a mistake coming to South Beach?
Said query seems ridiculous. And to an extent, it is. He's not ring-less. He won a title only last season.
Again, that's not enough.
Falling to the Spurs will bring Miami's dynamic under fire. How much longer is the Heat's championship window open? Are Bosh and Wade suited to be dynasty-caliber sidekicks? Should James spurn Miami the way he did Cleveland (spoiler)?
Obtaining a second championship isn't a cure-all. Those questions will still be waiting for James next summer when he explores free agency.
Winning merely diminishes the urgency behind answering them. James won't have to face questions about his future because his plan will still be in motion. Whereas a loss throws a wrench in his scheme, another title keeps his dream alive and well.
Far more alive than it would be should the Heat lose anyway.
Let's be real: The Heat are a delicate team. They're not weak or collectively inept, but the standard they're held to is an inherent flaw.
James joined Bosh and Wade to build a dynasty, and they have one chance to get it right. It took them eight years to stand side-by-side-by-side, so there is no "down the road." There is only now. To successfully build their dynasty, the Heat must continue to win now.
Which star has the most at stake leading into the NBA Finals?
Losing now complicates matters. Even if the Heat come back and win a title in 2014, James is still faced with an agonizing decision.
Does he leave Miami having failed to build his dynasty, or does he return to (potentially) play alongside an aging and frail Wade, and whatever is left of Bosh?
Any year that culminates in an absence of a championship is a massive blow for James. Time is not on his side. It's easy for him to commit to a team that has successfully formed or is on the cusp of actualizing a dynasty. It's difficult to devote himself to one that hasn't lived up to the lofty expectations it set for itself.
Falling to the Spurs increases the likelihood James leaves next summer. Believe that. James' dynasty aspirations will have been thwarted once again and he'll be left to wallow in uncertainty. He didn't come to Miami to face the unknown. He came to win championships.
The fewer championships he wins throughout his first four years in South leading into the summer of 2014, the more likely it is that his talents seek the shelter of another team.
*All stats in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference unless otherwise attributed.