LeBron James and Tim Duncan are such a basketball yin and yang that it feels as if there is something larger at stake than a mere NBA title in the Finals—or even their respective places in the roll call of all-time title winners.
This is Mr. Global Icon vs. Mr. Virgin Islands. Fashionista vs. Functionista. Acrobatics vs. Fundamentals. Prepster vs. College grad. And, of course, East vs. West. They are the ultimate proof that opposites do attract, even if their only point of contact is a battleground where they will decide whose particular leanings prove to be the best.
No matter what happens, though, Duncan possesses something James never will: a one-team legacy.
If you don't think that has a certain cache inside the NBA, then you don't think the way those inside the NBA do. No matter how great a player may be, when he wears more than one uniform in his pursuit of a championship, he loses something irredeemable.
Fair or otherwise, single-team champions Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Isiah Thomas are seen in a different light than Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O'Neal, all of whom won championships in two different places.
(Champions Hakeem Olajuwon and Michael Jordan are given a pass for trying to squeeze out another year or two by playing elsewhere because there were no championship hopes attached to their moves, but even their legacies are tainted, however slightly, by that change in allegiance.)
As for the others, the difference in hue may not be great enough to change how their individual talents are measured, but, indeed, there is another element reserved for those who stuck it out in one place: respect.
For Duncan and James, that difference in respect is amplified by the fact that—unlike some of the aforementioned superstars—they had the choice of deciding whether to stay or go. It's easy now to see that Duncan made the right choice, but the difference between his success in San Antonio and LeBron's in Cleveland before they made their respective decisions wasn't all that stark.
Duncan had a championship ring in a lockout-shortened season and three playoff appearances in as many tries when he weighed staying or going; James had five playoff appearances in seven seasons, including a trip to the Finals.
"A guy stays in one place because he trusts," one Western Conference vice president said. "He trusts that people eventually will help put the right pieces around him. LeBron left Cleveland because he didn't trust that would happen. Is that fair that he landed in Cleveland first? No, but he still pays a price for having left. LeBron is one of the all-time greats, but Tim is a legacy player in San Antonio."
To hear it told now, at some point James was inclined to stay in Cleveland that summer of 2010 just as Duncan, 10 years earlier, was leaning hard toward leaving San Antonio for Orlando. James asked his eventual Heat teammate Chris Bosh to join him in Ohio, but when Bosh resisted, James abandoned hope that he could ever recruit anyone.
The Magic's plan in 2000 wasn't all that different than the Heat's when they landed James and Bosh 10 years later to go with incumbent superstar Dwyane Wade: clear cap space to land a couple of superstars at the same time. Orlando's primary targets were Duncan, Detroit's Grant Hill and Toronto's Tracy McGrady.
The big difference is that the players weren't orchestrating what would happen. Duncan and Hill, who was on crutches from ankle surgery, met in Orlando to meet with the Magic. "It wasn't like we were buddies," Hill said of Duncan. "We really weren't that close. I played against him once in college, and I may have had one conversation with him when he was trying to choose an agent. That was it."
But the Orlando visit was a hit. Magic general manager John Gabriel took them to Disney World, where he arranged a clever three-word laser-light appeal on the Epcot Center ball to both players: "Grant Us Tim." Gabriel also arranged to have them meet Tiger Woods on the golf course, with Woods promising to switch his allegiance from the Lakers to the Magic if they switched theirs.
What was supposed to be a one-day visit stretched to three, and the Spurs became genuinely concerned that their cornerstone power forward might be on his way to Florida, especially after their first attempt to woo Duncan fell flat.
The Spurs had found a high-rise condo in downtown San Antonio and flew in a chef, whose work Duncan was particularly fond of, to create an intimate dinner for Tim and his soon-to-be wife Amy, but the evening was a bit of a bust because Duncan was distracted by trying to keep tabs on his sick father, Bill.
Florida would put him a short flight away from both his father and his beloved birthplace, the Virgin Islands, as well as from North Carolina, where his two sisters lived. He already had lost his mother, Ione, to breast cancer when he was 14. His father would die in 2002, and even now, Duncan still feels a jab at the mere mention of him.
Only an offhanded remark at dinner with then-Magic coach Doc Rivers prevented it from being a done deal.
"Tim was almost there," Hill says. "We were at the dinner table, and he asked if wives and girlfriends can fly with the team. Doc was like, 'No.' You could just see the look on Tim and Amy's faces."
Duncan would return to San Antonio and, after talking with teammate David Robinson and coach Gregg Popovich, decide to stay. Neither the announcement nor the entire process caused much of a stir beyond NBA circles.
Duncan, asked why his free agency never created the ruckus James' did 10 years later, said, "The San Antonio Spurs don't make a big deal about anything. And it's only a big deal if you make it a big deal."
That, of course, is what James chose to do. Between the public airing—for years—of all the places he'd consider playing, the dance card of teams allowed the privilege of flying to Cleveland to bend their knee and that self-glorifying grandiosity called "The Decision," James led the entire basketball world around by its nose for months, if not years.
Ultimately, the entire ordeal led to the championships he obviously feared he'd never win in Cleveland. And now he is on the brink of doing something a very select few have: winning three titles in a row.
Some would say his move to Miami, whether he completes that task or not, already is an unqualified success. They are the ones who subscribe to the theory, "By any means necessary." Others—those who always will revere Duncan more, no matter what the final count in championships is—will suggest James failed the minute he chose to leave Cleveland.
Those are the people who believe that results are not everything, that the choices made to achieve them are just as important. They do not believe the ends justify the means. Those are the people who'd like to see Duncan rewarded one more time for his loyalty.
Maybe that's why it feels as if something larger is at stake than a mere title.
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @RicBucher.