If you ask LeBron James, Tim Duncan or even Gregg Popovich what hangs in the balance when the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat meet in a hotly anticipated NBA Finals rematch, you probably won't hear a lot of talk about "history" or "legacy."
Actually, if you ask Pop, you'll be lucky to get more than a derisive, yet somehow delightful, stone-faced glare.
Keep being you, Pop.
The point, though, is that these two teams are completely focused on the here and now. They've spent an entire year zeroing in on this moment, and they aren't going to cloud their thoughts with big-picture concerns.
That sort of myopic approach is necessary for optimum Finals focus, but isolating this single moment—without appreciating its context in the greater NBA narrative—hides what's really at stake.
LeBron's Ever-Growing Legacy
We have to start with the biggest name.
James is the brightest star in these NBA Finals, and he might wind up being viewed as the greatest player ever...if he can secure this ring and a few more.
James is still building his history, and he's at a different stage than guys like Duncan—or even Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili. See, LBJ is still in the process of carving out space for himself among the all-time greats. His legacy is in progress.
This is his chance to win a third Finals MVP, a feat that would move him into a tie for second place on the all-time list behind Michael Jordan. Obviously, King James will have to win a ring to get that Finals MVP award (Jerry West, who pulled off the feat in 1969, is the only player to collect that trophy despite losing in the championship round), but if he can pull it off, it'll be his third straight award.
Only Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal have captured three consecutive Finals MVPs, so LeBron would put himself in some pretty elite company with that achievement.
With his third championship victory, James, perhaps most importantly, would improve his Finals mark to 3-2. Getting into the black is great, and three rings would be a remarkable achievement for him. But he'd still be just halfway to Jordan's total of six and two behind both Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson.
James, though, is still just 29 years old. A Finals victory would be a landmark achievement, but it would serve mostly as yet another milestone in his still-unfinished journey.
Erik Spoelstra, Meet "Legitimacy"
There's no all-time greatness at stake for Erik Spoelstra just yet, but you get the feeling it'll be impossible for critics to deny his qualifications if the Heat win yet another ring.
Spoelstra had to make some tough decisions this past year, like giving up his preferred small-ball approach in the interest of conventional "two-big" lineups for long stretches. He did that because the energy required to play small was taking too great a toll on his starters, and the move has worked to preserve the energy of Miami's core.
That was a monumental move—almost as monumental as Spoelstra's inspired, incredibly bold decision to go small in the first place.
Coach Spo's guidance allowed the Heat to survive despite Dwyane Wade missing 28 games this season, and he worked his typical mix-and-match magic to replace declining players like Shane Battier with Rashard Lewis in the playoffs.
Simply put, you'd be hard-pressed to find an instance in recent seasons where Spoelstra was outthought or out-coached.
Some will never give him full credit for this, his fourth consecutive Finals trip, because of the talent on the roster. But a third straight championship ring would make those doubts seem silly.
The Spurs are as worthy a foe as there is, and Spoelstra could join Phil Jackson, Red Auerbach and John Kundla as the only coaches to snare three championships in a row if the Heat are successful.
One Last Ride
There's not much at stake for Duncan in these Finals—unless you consider unquestioned status as the best player of his generation a big deal.
A win against the Heat would give Timmy his fifth championship ring, tying him with Bryant, Magic and George Mikan. A fourth Finals MVP would move him into sole possession of second place behind Jordan on the all-time list.
There'll be some who insist Bryant is still Duncan's superior, but remember that the Black Mamba had Shaq leading the Los Angeles Lakers for his first three rings. Duncan won four as the Spurs' best player. And while San Antonio doesn't go to Duncan with the frequency it once did, one need only look back at the way it fed the ancient power forward over and over down the stretch of Game 6 against the Oklahoma City Thunder to know he can still be a go-to option.
Duncan is still the Spurs' most important, most meaningful contributor—both on the court and in the way he sets a ridiculously professional and focused tone. A fifth ring as a franchise's key figure would elevate Duncan above all of his temporal peers.
Plus, he'd get some personal satisfaction out of the deal, per a sideline interview with TNT's David Aldridge after clinching the West (via J.A. Adande of ESPN.com):
"It's unbelievable to regain that focus after that devastating loss that we had last year," Duncan said. "But we're back here. We're excited about it. We've got four more to win. We'll do it this time. We're happy it's the Heat again. We've got that bad taste in our mouths still."
The Most to Gain
Popovich is without equal among today's NBA head coaches. You hear the occasional praise for Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle as one of the league's best, but proclamations like that always come with the caveat that everyone else is just fighting for second place behind Pop and his unparalleled, ridiculously long track record of success.
Another ring, Pop's fifth, would put him right alongside the greatest coaches to ever walk a sideline. Thumb jewelry would tie him with Pat Riley and John Kundla for third place on the all-time titles list among head coaches.
Sure, his remarkable achievements to this point have been made easier by Duncan's constant presence, but the Spurs have become a system under Pop. Duncan is a key cog in that system, but there's a sense that no piece's absence would be fatal.
So, yes, these Spurs are not the same old Spurs. They long ago stopped relying on Duncan all the time, and now they've even shown they're not dependent on Parker, their most important player the past few seasons. They won't have the best player on the court in the Finals -- that distinction belongs to LeBron James -- but they got a dry run in beating the league's MVP in Durant.
They beat stars without having stars of their own—at least not in the conventional sense.
That's a testament to Popovich's utter brilliance as a coach and motivator.
Beating Miami would be a culmination of his best coaching job ever. Remember, San Antonio redefined the concept of minute management this year, resting stars on back-to-backs routinely and holding veterans like Duncan, Parker and Ginobili under 30 minutes per game.
The Spurs were the only team in the league without a player averaging at least 30 minutes. They started 30 different lineups and they filled in gaps with dirt-cheap reserves nobody else wanted. Popovich masterminded all of that.
And at this point, it seems like overkill to talk about Pop's brilliant adjustments. But we can throw him a bone for going small against the Thunder in order to neutralize Serge Ibaka's paint presence. Of course Pop figured out how to out-scheme the Thunder. That's what he does.
Pop has been conducting a full-on coaching clinic for almost two decades, but this year's performance was his most impressive. After a crushing defeat last year, he rallied the troops, kept everyone focused and won more regular-season games than any team in the league—despite not really taking the regular season all that seriously.
If San Antonio beats the Heat in this year's rematch, Pop's season will go down as one of the greatest ever. And he'll put himself, without question, in a category alongside Jackson and Auerbach.
The Finals are always captivating theater on their own because we're guaranteed to see two fantastic teams, big stars and a little history.
But this one is going to be special. One superstar, Duncan, is trying to put a cap on his legacy. Another, James, is out to build on his growing resume of excellence.
And two phenomenal coaches will be in control of the proceedings.
If the Spurs prevail, we'll see the crowning achievement of one of the greatest runs of sustained success in professional sports. If the Heat win, we'll watch as James takes another step toward the top of the mountain by beating his most fearsome foe yet.
Whoever comes out on top, we'll get historical greatness.
I'd call that a win-win situation.
*All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated.
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