Ranking the Juiciest Storylines of 2013 NBA Finals
The 2013 NBA Finals is one of the rare championship series where both broadcasters and hoops heads should be ecstatic about the matchup.
The Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs separated themselves from all conference foes with dominant regular-season efforts and postseason success. Both teams deserve to be in this position, and neither will let this championship chance slip away without a fight.
But the intrigue of this matchup extends beyond the limits of the 2012-13 season.
It's the homegrown veterans squaring off with the manufactured superteam, the younger-than-you'd-think Spurs waging war with the more-experienced-than-you'd-think Heat. It tests the merits of a team sitting on a decade-plus of excellence and another championship-or-bust group seeking an endless supply of instant gratification.
The legacies of both clubs and the stars that brought them to this position are on the line, along with the most coveted reward in the basketball world: the Larry O'Brien NBA Championship Trophy.
There's an absurd amount of compelling storylines making this can't-miss TV: on-court strategy, health, rust vs. rest, two coaching icons, Hall of Fame players and historical significance at each and every turn.
But five juicy storylines rise above the rest; five storylines that can determine not only the outcome of this series, but also the fates of these two franchises for years to come.
5. Is Kawhi Leonard the Next Breakthrough Star of This Postseason?
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No word has played a more prominent role in these playoffs than expectations.
Some (Chicago Bulls, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Lakers) have been decimated by injury. Others (Indiana Pacers, Golden State Warriors, Memphis Grizzlies) have risen to previously unimaginable heights.
The 2013 postseason isn't the first to witness the birth of budding superstars, but the overwhelming effects of those MVPs in training have reverberated throughout the NBA landscape.
And both Miami and San Antonio have had firsthand encounters with the overwhelming effects of those rising stars. If not for a crushing Game 1 collapse, Stephen Curry could have shot the Spurs right out of the title hunt. The Heat are still feeling the physical toll that up-and-comers (or already-arrivers) Paul George and Roy Hibbert placed on them in the Eastern Conference Finals.
So who's to say that the finals won't yield yet another name into the superstar ranks?
Spurs sophomore Kawhi Leonard is already knocking on the door (13.0 points and 8.0 rebounds per game in the postseason), but a head-to-head matchup with reigning MVP LeBron James could provide the prominent pedestal to rip the door from its hinges.
Leonard fits George's physical profile (6'7", 225 pounds) and, like the first-year All-Star, spreads his production both across the box score and to both ends of the floor. Stopping (OK, slowing) James will be priority No. 1 for Leonard, but the San Diego State product says he's up for the challenge.
4. How Will Erik Spoelstra Handle His Rotation?
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There were some tweaks along the way, but by and large, Erik Spoelstra had solidified his nine-man rotation over Miami's 66-win season.
James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were afforded however many minutes they could handle, Norris Cole and Mario Chalmers split the point guard duties, Udonis Haslem and Chris Andersen served as the hustlers, and Ray Allen and Shane Battier mastered the floor-spacer role.
But then something happened that forced Spoelstra to rethink his minutes allocation. A lot of somethings, actually.
Wade suffered a bruised right knee during the Heat's 27-game winning streak and has struggled to rediscover his pre-injury rhythm. Bosh struggled against Indiana's size in the Eastern Conference Finals (11.0 points, 37.7 field-goal percentage, 4.3 rebounds in 31.6 minutes per game).
Allen (36.5 percent three-point shooting) and Battier (23.0) saw their perimeter success rates stumble in the postseason. While Allen has made some minor strides (39.1 percent in his last five games), Battier hasn't been so lucky (2-of-15 last round).
It's too late to make drastic personnel changes, so Spoelstra's forced to hope that Wade's healthy enough to contribute and Bosh can find his confidence.
But will the coach gamble on Mike Miller's back holding up if Battier continues to struggle as he did in Games 6 and 7 against Indiana? Will he lean heavier on Andersen to match San Antonio's size, or opt for the smaller, more polished Haslem?
Gregg Popovich's in-game adjustments have made him a coaching legend. How will Spoelstra manipulate his roster to, at least, keep pace or, at best, stay one step ahead of his sideline adversary?
3. How Does Gregg Popovich Deal with LeBron James?
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As good as Popovich is at maximizing his team's talent and molding his system to the situation at hand, there's only so much a coach can do to affect a player like James.
Sometimes you'll see a coach allow the opposition's star player to get his numbers and just focus his team's effort in limiting the production of the supporting staff. But that's a dangerous game to play with James, as he's just as likely to shift momentum with his passing as he is with his scoring.
Popovich doesn't have a lot of options to throw at James. Leonard will get the first crack, and James' former Cleveland Cavaliers teammate, Danny Green, will surely serve in spot duty on the King.
After that, though, there isn't that much else that Popovich can do. Stephen Jackson isn't on the roster (probably for good reason), meaning Leonard and Green are headed for some long nights in the very near future.
The problem with that is both players play a prominent role in San Antonio's offense. Leonard is a comfortable shooter from the corner and the most athletically equipped wing to attack Miami's interior. Green can shoot it from anywhere on the floor (43.1 playoff three-point percentage) and can create off the dribble when needed.
Indiana provided a blueprint to at least slowing down the MVP: denying penetration lanes, meeting him at the rim without fouling and helping on his drives without losing sight of Miami's shooters. But the Spurs don't have the same number of stoppers on the perimeter or rim protectors as the Pacers.
You used to force James to beat you from the perimeter. Then he unleashed a 40.6 three-point percentage this season.
Miami has tremendous shooting depth, but Popovich might be forced to gamble on those shooters missing their looks.
2. Can Miami Keep Tony Parker out of the Paint?
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Tony Parker finished sixth in the MVP voting this season. If not for an ankle injury that nearly cost him the month of March, he could have easily cracked the top three.
That's not a slight of the players who finished above him, just a testament to the tremendous impact that he had on his team.
Popovich affords his players a lot of freedom on the offensive end. It's largely a read-and-react system built heavily around their ability to read defenses and know their progressions.
Such a free-wheeling scheme needs a competent driver behind the wheel. But competency alone doesn't afford a player such a lofty finish in the award voting, and it certainly doesn't carry a team into the NBA Finals.
Parker doesn't just make the Spurs offense work, he makes it one of the elite unites in the game today.
He can create offense on his own but becomes a nightmare coming off screens. He consistently displays the ability to make the correct read, whether that's driving all the way to the basket, hoisting from mid-range, looking back to the screener or kicking the ball out to any one of San Antonio's sharpshooters.
Miami's excellent at swarming the basketball, but it's vulnerable on the inside, particularly when the Birdman is sitting on the bench.
Spoelstra has a number of players he put on Parker, but each one of them presents a potential problem.
Cole and Chalmers have the quickness to keep pace, but both can get caught gambling on poor reads. Wade would be an ideal candidate if not for his aforementioned bad wheel. James has the size to block Parker's vision, but the Heat can't overexert him at that end of the floor.
1. Can Either Talented Trio Withstand a Finals Loss?
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Both Miami and San Antonio have their own Big Threes, but neither team has a true Big Three.
Trust me, it makes sense.
Miami's star-studded trio has largely been reduced to a solo act with Wade and Bosh both struggling, but James has been so dominant that the Heat are back in the finals for the third straight season. Parker and Duncan have swapped roles in San Antonio, but Manu Ginobili has been a sub-39 percent shooter in the postseason.
Winning cures all ills, and even with Ginobili's impending free agency, it's unlikely that the 2013 champions will shake up their roster before next season.
But what would a series loss mean for the other side?
The Heat are already facing a potential disaster in the summer of 2014, so a second finals loss in three seasons could force them to take a proactive approach at maintaining relevance beyond next season. James has a home in South Beach for as long as he wants, but would Miami be tempted to at least listen to offers for either Wade or Bosh over the summer?
The Spurs are already getting set for their own roster shakeup with Parker, Duncan and Ginobili all on the wrong side of 30.
Parker's under contract for two more years, and Duncan could be, too, if he exercises a $10.3 million player option in 2014-15.
Ginobili certainly won't be getting the $14-plus million salary he's working on this year, but how much would San Antonio be willing to invest in a 35-year-old coming off one of the worst statistical seasons of his career? I'm guessing he'd love to bring another championship ring with him to the negotiating table.