All these years and championships later, Tim Duncan and LeBron James still have something to chase.
Contending for championships is hardly new for the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat superstars. Most of their careers have been spent trying to build upon one individual and collective accolade after another.
One championship wasn't enough. Two wasn't enough. There needed to be more. Their respective reigns are never able to stop with what they already have. Both players are left wanting, left hunting for more.
Roughly one year after squaring off against each other in the NBA Finals, James and Duncan are back, playing for what they've always been playing for and, in some cases, even obtained.
What would it mean to each of these veterans, these seasoned winners, to emerge victorious yet again?
More than some might think.
Reaching and winning the NBA Finals was routine for Timmy and the Spurs at one point. Each and every one of his four championships was special, another highly regarded credential for him to include on his Hall of Fame resume.
But a fifth title would be so much sweeter than any of the other four.
The first one is always special, and Duncan's was no different. Along with David Robinson, he and the Spurs steamrolled their competition in 1999, losing only two games in four rounds of action, dismantling the No. 8-seeded New York Knicks en route to the first title of their Duncan era.
Lockout-truncated campaigns, like 1998-99, will always come with an asterisk. Abbreviated seasons and compacted schedules don't bring out the best in teams. Younger fans need only look to 2011-12 and all the ugly basketball it offered.
Still, this was Duncan's first title. It meant something. All of them, again, mean something.
None of the other four stand to have the same impact as a fifth, though.
Whom did Duncan and the Spurs beat previously? Defeating the wildly shocking Knicks was a formality in 1999. Taking down a clearly inferior New Jersey Nets team in 2003 was expected. The shellacking they dealt James' Cleveland Cavaliers in 2007 was something most saw coming.
Unseating the Detroit Pistons in 2005 marked their most trying challenge. The Pistons were the reigning champs and pushed the Spurs to seven games.
Thing is, not one of these teams posed as great of a threat as Miami does now. Not one of them came laced with extensive repercussions.
This is the first time the Spurs have ever made back-to-back Finals appearances. More to the point, the Heat are the only team to ever beat them at this stage of the season.
It was James and friends who ruined Duncan's perfect 4-0 Finals record. It was them who basically stole The Big Fundamental's fifth ring from his outstretched fingers by way of late-game miracles and San Antonio's uncharacteristic last-minute letdowns.
Through 17 years of action, Duncan has never been one to get caught up in legacy talk or place more stake in matchups and championship quests than there needs to be. Yet there he was after winning his sixth Western Conference title, guaranteeing victory in ways so unusual, so supercilious, you were compelled to check his body for strings that Lance Stephenson was somehow manipulating.
"It's unbelievable to regain that focus after that devastating loss that we had last year," he said, per ESPN. "But we're back here. We're excited about it. We've got four more to win. We'll do it this time."
Duncan, serene and stoic as ever, isn't immunized against the desire for revenge. This is new for him and the Spurs in a way. Never before have they faced an opponent who bested them in the NBA Finals. He wants to put an end to this foreign feeling and win.
And then maybe retire.
Although Duncan has one year left on his contract after this one, winning a fifth title provides him with a unique, sought-after, potentially can't-miss opportunity. Win another ring, and he can walk away from the game on top, his legacy secure, his place in history as the NBA's best power forward ever obvious and irrefutable.
The idea of watching an NBA without Duncan feels weird—wrong, even. But retirement will be an option if he wins. It will even be an option should he lose if you believe what George Karl said on SportsCenter's "Second Half NBA Storylines to Watch" segment in February.
"You know over the weekend, that was the whispers that I got," he said, via Project Spurs' Paul Garcia. "I got a couple of phone calls, one from San Antonio that said that Tim Duncan's thinking this is going to be his last year."
When (Duncan and Ginobili) retire, it will be weird. It will create a big hole in the locker room. I hope it will be as late as possible. I know they both have another year of contract. I know they will play next year, and we’ll see after that. They are healthy. Popovich takes care of players’ bodies and maybe they will want to continue after that. In any case, I hope to play as long as possible with them.
April isn't June. Life with four championships doesn't compare to the aftereffects of winning five. No one, not even Duncan, can say with absolute certainty how he will or won't feel after winning yet another title.
Clarity is provided if and only if he nabs that fifth ring. And if it's that fifth ring that drives him out of the NBA for good, it's impossible for one of his other four to mean more.
Another year, another opportunity to debate and dissect James' legacy.
There is an unprecedented fluidness to evaluating James. Legacies and reputations have always been built gradually, but year-by-year perception changes dramatically for the King.
Michael Jordan never faced this annual sink-or-swim notion. Nor has Kobe Bryant. James has. Maybe it's because he left the Cleveland Cavaliers to forge a superteam in Miami, or because there's never been another player bound more tightly to Jordan's conquests.
Whatever the reasons, James' standing is constantly in jeopardy somehow, in some way.
Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal summed up this continuously ongoing link between Jordan and James perfectly:
LeBron is LeBron. Michael Jordan is Michael Jordan.
They don't have to be the same player, but that doesn't mean the world is going to stop comparing them at any point. Ultimately, LeBron is competing for the right to be considered the No. 1 standout in the history of basketball, a status he still has a chance to attain.
For every NBA Finals appearance James makes, for every title he wins, he's actually playing for something else—the right to be considered the greatest of all time.
It's something he knows and understands, and even embraces. And there is no escaping it.
Beyond this, there's the mere significance a third straight title holds for everyone. James and the Heat have an opportunity to complete their dynasty, the one they set out to build and subsequently promised nigh four years ago.
Two championships in four years—complete with four straight finals berths—would be considered dynastic by some. Three titles in four years expels doubt.
There will be no denying that James' Heat successfully created a dynasty if they win three in a row. That's the definition of a dynasty, after all—turning implausibly sustained excellence into reality.
Think of all that goes into it. Targets have been placed on Miami's back since 2010 and have only grown in size and prominence with each passing season.
Teams aren't supposed to win this much or this often. The Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal-led Lakers weren't. The Duncan-chiefed Spurs haven't.
The James-piloted Heat could.
Combine the pressure-packed dynasty opportunity at hand with the innate legacy deliberation that always takes place, and James, for the fourth straight year, finds himself facing the most important NBA Finals of his career.
Different Players, Same Stakes
Failing to win a fifth title this year won't adversely impact Duncan's legacy or tarnish any of the other four he's already won. James, on the other hand, will always have detractors who use every folly and foible to denounce his greatness.
Both players are in the same position, facing the same stakes regardless.
James and Duncan have been here before. They've won before. But they've never had the chance to win like this before.
"We will not take this for granted, at all," James told ESPN's Doris Burke after Game 6 against the Indiana Pacers (via Bleacher Report's Josh Martin).
No, James won't take this opportunity for granted. Nor will Duncan.
Winning five titles immortalizes Duncan and possibly brings his illustrious career to a hard-to-accept, storybook ending.
Snagging a third consecutive championship reaffirms James' infamous decision, scrubbing his character of what few blemishes still linger.
For both players, winning a championship now means more than it ever has before.
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