Pressure is a familiar bedfellow for LeBron James and Tim Duncan.
Nary a year goes by without them facing questions and being pressed for answers that have more to do with their future than the present. And there's no place better than the NBA Finals to realize their performances have lasting repercussions.
When the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs square off for a second straight year, James and Duncan will both be playing for rings and crowns—among other things.
It's those "other things" that make these finals so climactic, so important, so vital to stakes that extend well beyond the reach of one best-of-seven series.
LeBron's Fluid Legacy
What James is forced to endure on a yearly basis is unfair.
There's no justice in a superstar's legacy being so touch-and-go and largely predicated on remaining flawless. Each and every time he doesn't win an NBA title, his season is a failure, leaving his legacy to precariously totter on the edge of misperceived greatness.
Nothing is different about this year's NBA Finals. Common logic suggests it should be. It posits that two consecutive titles and four successive finals appearances creates some sense of permanence, safeguarding James against knee-jerk reckoning and reflexive assessments.
Individual stability isn't a luxury James enjoys, though. It can't be, nor will it ever be. Not for someone who continues to make headway in the greatest-of-all-time conversation.
Part of this is James' fault. Very few players are so openly focused on legacy. Where many are consumed by the moment and immersed in day-to-day, season-to-season laurels, he is fixated on the big picture and the legend he'll leave behind.
Ask him what his primary motivation is, and he'll parrot the same, uncompromising answer:
Most of what James is up against, though, is involuntary—the result of being seen as someone talented enough to rival Michael Jordan and many other all-time greats. There is this intrinsic need to stage that discussion, which elevates the importance of every accolade, individual or collective, James has the opportunity to snag.
This year, he can win his third straight title, something Jordan did twice. He can bring himself within three championships of catching Jordan's six and Magic Johnson's and Kobe Bryant's five. And after failing to win league MVP—as if missing out on such a difficult feat can be considered failure—James has the chance to make some postseason MVP history, as Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes writes:
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.
All of this is ancillary to what winning a third championship gives him the opportunity to do.
Jordan never won four straight titles. If James wins in 2014, he has the chance to go for four consecutive championships, joining ranks that don't include any modern-day legends—not Magic, not Kobe, not MJ.
"Any time I hear my name or our team in the same breath with legends and great teams and franchises, it's so humbling," James said of Jordan, via USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt. "It's like—I really don't know."
Only he does know. For a player who obsesses over the big picture and his place in history, he knows more than anyone that these finals are another pivotal stepping stone that can help get him where he seeks to go.
Duncan's Storybook Ending
Duncan's last hurrah is imminent. It could be this season or next season, but it's coming. Soon.
Perhaps four to seven games from now.
The Big Fundamental hasn't spoken of this postseason run as his last. Teammate Tony Parker actually told basket-infos.com (transcription via HoopsHype) in April that he believes Duncan will be back no matter what next 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.
Not even Parker can promise Duncan's return if he wins a fifth championship. He hasn't won since 2007, which qualifies as the longest such drought of his career. If he ends it, he can walk away on top and end his career on his own terms, just like former teammate David Robinson did in 2003.
Passing on that chance wouldn't be easy. Duncan has already defied the laws of time by remaining dominant and relatively injury free nearly two decades into his career. The mental and physical upkeep of such success is intricate and demanding. At 38, the smart money would be on him retiring, foregoing an attempt to do something he and the Spurs have never done before—win back-to-back championships.
Beyond his potential storybook ending, Duncan, not unlike James, has a legacy to think about.
Although his reputation has never been so readily tied to one season or series, Duncan isn't playing with house money. If he had nothing left to achieve, he wouldn't still be playing.
There's still something driving him. It's that fifth championship, of course, but more than that, it's what a fifth ring would do: make him the face of a fading generation.
Let's defer to Bleacher Report's Stephen Babb on this:
The more open question is who signifies the generation after MJ.
The conventional response is Kobe Bryant, winner of five titles and one of the greatest all-around scorers ever to touch a basketball. And we know that LeBron James is the man right now and for the foreseeable future.
However, there's a strong argument to be made that Duncan is really the bridge between MJ and LeBron—that, even more than Kobe, Duncan has risen to the top of his generation.
Lose to the Heat again, and arguments will still in exist in Duncan's favor.
Win, and the case for Duncan as the "bridge between" Jordan and James becomes stronger, potentially matchless.
The End vs. Continuation
Downplaying the significance of this year's NBA Finals for Duncan and James isn't possible.
Both have legacies at stake. Both have something more than a ring to play for.
Really, there has never been a more important finals to either player. This is their most important appearance yet.
But it's more important for Duncan.
Regardless of how it's sliced and dissected, this year's title quest is a continuation for James. He's only 29. His Airness didn't win a third ring until he was 29. Should James lose, he won't be far behind or necessarily behind at all. There is still plenty of basketball left for him to play.
Time isn't on Duncan's side. For him, there might not be a tomorrow.
Taking home a fifth ring now allows him to hang up his kicks for good in ideal fashion. Players dream about this opportunity. Most don't sniff it. Duncan will.
The end is always greater than a continuation, and Duncan is swiftly approaching the end whether he wins or loses. Winning just brings him to his final destination sooner.
Winning threatens to disband the Spurs immediately.
Once Duncan goes, the Spurs of the last 17 seasons go with him. Maybe coach Gregg Popovich and Hall of Fame candidate Manu Ginobili stick around after he leaves, but it won't be for much longer. Duncan's fifth ring has that power—that chilling, unsettling power.
"One of these days, it will be like the middle of the third quarter or something like that, and I’ll see him walking toward the exit," Popovich told reporters of Duncan in May, per Spurs Nation's Jeff McDonald. "It will be like it just hit him, like, ‘I’m done.’ As soon as he does that, I’ll be 10 steps behind. Because I’m not stupid."
Nor are we.
Duncan doesn't have to abruptly walk toward the exit when he leaves. His departure can be both gradual and imminent.
He could leave immediately after these finals.
And if he does, he's taking an entire generation's worth of sustained excellence with him.