Michael Jordan and Joe Montana never lost the big one. They played in six NBA Finals and four Super Bowls, respectively, and their teams finished a combined 10-0. When it comes to legacy, perfection is unassailable. How can anyone argue that, say, Magic Johnson (who went 5-4 in the Finals) or Tom Brady (3-2 in Super Bowls) are superior champions?
LeBron James vs. Tim Duncan, a matchup of arguably two of the best 10 players ever, falls into this same dynamic. The two will face off in the Finals for the second time, with Duncan looking to bring his championship series record to 5-0 as James tries to avenge his 2007 loss to the San Antonio Spurs and even his personal NBA Finals record at 2-2.
Duncan's pedigree is unquestioned. One blemish on his resume—especially losing a Finals few expected him to reach at age 37—won't change anything.
Paul Flannery, with a sentence in a column for SB Nation perfectly summed up how the viewing public sees the future Hall of Famer.
James, on the other hand, needs this.
"Tim Duncan is so freaking good that there has never been an interesting debate about him." – @Pflanns. Spot on. Timmy: The Big Unassailable— Jared Wade (@Jared_Wade) May 31, 2013
His reputation as a regular season maestro, playoff waffler is already entrenched. His Cleveland Cavaliers days created that mainstream view. It was cemented when his Miami Heat "big three" Voltron/Frankenstein's monster creation lost to the Dallas Mavericks in the Finals in its first year.
His utter dominance since and the ring James won last season have helped allay the criticism. But if he loses against the Spurs, falling to a 1-3 record in the Finals, LeBron will—to borrow a phrase from former Miami resident Desi Arnez's iconic character Ricky Ricardo—have a lot of explaining to do.
Fortunately for James, that isn't going to happen.
He will do what he couldn't in 2007: beat the Spurs in the Finals. There are at least four reasons why he will get it done this time around.
LeBron James Has Improved His Shot Selection
In Cleveland, LeBron took a ton of jump shots. Threes, mid-range pull-ups, catch-and-shoots. You name it, he launched it.
In 2009-10, he shot 484 mid-range jumpers and 387 three-pointers, according to NBA.com/Stats. Compare that total (871 shots) to the 657 field goal attempts he put up in the paint. That means he took 57.0 percent of his shots outside of the paint.
In Miami, he has become much more discerning.
Last season, James barely took any three-pointers. He realized it wasn't a strength and concentrated on getting closer to the rim. The result: 576 shots in the paint, 444 mid-range jumpers and 149 three-pointers. In all, he took just 50.7 percent of his shots outside of the paint, a huge drop in just one season.
This year, as the Heat spread its offense even further, he took more threes, but his overall percentage of shots taken outside the paint has continued to drop. With 403 mid-range looks, 254 threes and a whopping 697 shots in the lane, only 48.5 percent of his looks came from outside the paint.
Moreover, the threes that he did reincorporate were by and large great looks. The Heat's spacing-based attack got him open behind the arc more often than he ever was in Cleveland. The results are night and day: he made 33.3 percent of his three-pointers in 2009-10, 40.6 percent in 2012-13.
He has improved as a long-range shooter some in recent years, but the huge spike in his make rate is more a byproduct of learning what a good shot is. Or, perhaps more fairly, being on a team where good shots are plentiful rather than being on one where he had to create everything and take the best bad shot available.
For the competition, this is deadly.
LeBron James now takes almost only good shots. In the past, teams could hope he would settle and miss too many tough looks. That is a foolish prayer in 2013.
LeBron James Has Learned How to Play in the Post
Footage from actual NBA games during the past two years also illustrates how proficient James has become with his back to the basket, but here we see Hakeem Olajuwon teaching James how to reverse pivot to face up after catching an entry pass.
That is such a basic, cornerstone of the big man offensive arsenal that it is flabbergasting to see James struggle with it. At least compared to Olajuwon, who was 48 at the time, shows LeBron how it is done. His move is fluid, quick and second nature. (See the 20-second mark of this clip.)
James, on the other hand, just doesn't have the muscle memory. He is the best athlete on the planet, so he doesn't look like, say, Matt Bonner trying to pull off the same motion. But there is a hesitancy, a concentration that he needs to conjure that you would not expect of someone who at the time had two NBA MVP trophies.
According to MySynergySports, this season, post ups accounted for 12.4 percent of the plays James finished (possessions on which he took a shot, recorded an assist or turned the ball over). In the half court, the only actions he spent more time in were isolations (23.9 percent) and leading the pick-and-roll (17.2 percent).
The Heat have come to rely on James' ability to score and create out of the post. When he went down low against the Indiana Pacers in Game 3, they had no answer. He carved up his Eastern Conference finals foes, and that should gravely concern the Spurs.
They can put Kawhi Leonard on him, but as he did against Paul George, James will have the size and strength advantage. Plus, the Spurs don't have Roy Hibbert to protect the rim.
Look for James to dominate San Antonio in the post.
Erik Spoelstra Runs a Phenomenal Offense
Ducks' coach Chip Kelly instituted a spread offense that powered the rise of his school into a national powerhouse. Spoelstra wanted to do something similar, and he created a system that he has come to define with two adjectives "pace and space."
Instead of simply handing the ball to James and Dwyane Wade and letting them create in a traditional scheme—not an unreasonable plan—he rid the floor of big men and put shooters along the three-point arc. That way, the lane wasn't bogged down. That way, the pick-and-roll talents of James and Wade could come to the forefront. That way, there would be room for such dynamic ball handlers to make stuff happen.
If a defense tries to take away their individual scoring, it doesn't matter. Because if the opposition sags into the paint to prevent James and Wade from scoring inside, there will always be someone open from three-point range. And if all those guys can knock down their looks ("space"), then the defense can't prevent Miami from getting a high-quality shot.
Highlighting the other aspect ("pace") is a natural conclusion. There is nothing more fearsome, more unstoppable than a 2-on-1 fast break run by James and Wade. The quicker they get the ball up the court, the quicker the defense is at their mercy.
In 2007, Mike Brown's Cavaliers ran a simple, stagnant offense that asked James to do everything.
He was almost good enough to make that work.
But they fell short, as did the Heat in 2011.
Spoelstra refused to settle for the status quo style of doing things and instead reinvented his core strategy. It has paid off remarkably. Now, the Heat run arguably the most potent offense in the NBA, and it is led by the sport's best player.
The 2013 Miami Heat Have More Talent Than the 2007 Cavaliers Did
Zydrunas Ilgausakas, Anderson Varejao and Mo Williams all had their positive attributes as NBA players. But those were the best three players James played with in Ohio. (Carlos Boozer was also a Cavalier teammate, but he bolted to Utah after LeBron's rookie season.)
When James and the Cavs got swept by the mighty Spurs in 2007, it shocked nobody. Larry Hughes was playing 36 minutes per game in the playoffs.
Cleveland's roster was simply not an impressive collection, so when Gregg Popovich found a way to take an offensively immature James out of his rhythm, there was nobody else to score.
James shot miserably in the 2007 Finals. His most accurate night was a 9-of-21 Game 2 when he scored 25 points. That was the most he would total in any of the four games.
Still, James kept his team close. The Cavaliers lost Games 3 and 4 by a combined four points.
He simply wasn't quite good enough—on his own—to overcome the talent disparity of the two rosters.
Now, he won't have to.
Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh struggled badly in Miami's first six games against the Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals. So did Ray Allen. But they all showed up in Game 7.
I have a feeling that will be the case again in the Finals.
James' teammates may not be as productive now as they were in the regular season, but the roster is full of players whose resumes speak for themselves.
LeBron is a more complete and astute basketball player than he was in 2007. But as much as he has improved, the roster he plays on has improved even more.
When James beats the Spurs this time, it will be him who gets the glory. It will be his legacy that sheds some of the tarnish it has collected in the past.
But as is always the game in this sport, the biggest reason James will beat the Spurs this time around is because he plays on the better team.