NBA Finals Offers Rare Look at Duel Among Some of NBA's All-Time Greats

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NBA Finals Offers Rare Look at Duel Among Some of NBA's All-Time Greats
John G. Mabanglo/Associated Press

SAN ANTONIO — When you're near the end of your career, others try to put it in context. That was the point of asking Ray Allen, the Heat's 38-year-old marvel who shattered the Spurs' 2013 championship dreams, if he'd considered where he fits among the NBA's all-time two guards.

"No, because that is all subjective," Allen recently told Bleacher Report. "It's all based on whose talk show you're on, who is hosting the conversation, and it's all generational."

He noted how the rising generation will only have seen Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.

"They wouldn't have seen MJ, just like I didn't see Dr. J.," Allen said. "But everybody in their 40s and 50s, they are huge Dr. J fans—that's all they talk about. I didn't get a lot of footage of him, I didn't see him play live."

But, as Allen acknowledged, "It's always a great conversation."

Then he took this particular conversation to an unexpected place, which seems like a proper point to start, as we attempt to fully appreciate the star power of the 2014 NBA Finals.

"That's why I think the '50 Greatest' list (from 1996) needs to be revised," Allen said. "And you can't say the top 100 greatest. No. Just revise it. Now you have to take a panel and take the egos out of play, and you say, up till now, who are the 50 greatest players to play in the NBA? You've got to restructure it, because you're saying the 50 greatest. And there are some guys who played in the league a long time ago who may not make the list, because Allen Iverson is going to be on the list, Tim Duncan...."

James, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Dwyane Wade and Kevin Garnett would also be givens. Gary Payton, Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, Reggie Miller, Paul Pierce, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, Kevin Durant (already) and, yes, Allen would be among those warranting careful consideration.

Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

So there would be plenty of additions, subtractions and arguments.

"And it's OK," Allen said "It's just the sign of the times, just how the generations change. The players in the current generation always set the bar. And if you want a true list that's not political, that's not biased, let's do it now."

But first, before we have a conversation about separating the all-time greats, let's do something else.

Let's have a great celebration of all of those who will participate in this series. Let's reflect on how fortunate we are, as basketball fans and observers.

We get this exceptional NBA Finals not once, but twice.

An NBA Finals between two of the model franchises of the past two decades, with owners (Micky Arison and Peter Holt) who understand the line between managing and meddling, with leaders (Pat Riley and Gregg Popovich) who have created cultures of accountability and excellence, with stars who have consistently allowed themselves to be coached and with veterans who recognize the value of their supporting roles.

An NBA Finals with three players (Duncan, James, Wade) who would already make anyone's top-50 cut, and another (Allen) whose omission would require a lengthy explanation, since he has arguably performed the sport's most critical skill at the highest level in history.

That doesn't include two Spurs (Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili) who are the most decorated players in the history of France and Argentina, respectively, and undoubtedly among the top 10 foreign-born players in NBA history. Nor does it include Chris Bosh, who, by age 30, is already a nine-time All-Star, which is more appearances than 20 of the NBA's official "50 Greatest."

LM Otero/Associated Press

Sure, every NBA Finals has had its share of star power because—in a true chicken-and-egg conundrum—reaching that round is how so many on the "top 50" list made their names; and without star power, no team in the modern era could survive three playoff rounds. But it's been since 1997 and '98 (Pippen, Jordan, Karl Malone, John Stockton) that four official "top 50" members competed for the championship.

And, even if you had an extreme bias toward the current age and considered Duncan, Iverson, O'Neal, Bryant, Kidd, Nowitzki, James, Wade, Allen, Pierce, Garnett, Allen and Howard as locks for a revised "top 50" list, no NBA Finals since 1998 has had more than four actual or projected "top 50" candidates.

To scroll through just a few of the series:

In 2011, James, Wade, (late-career) Kidd and Nowitzki.

In 2010 and 2008, Bryant, Allen, Pierce and Garnett.

In 2006, Wade and Nowitzki.

In 2003, Duncan and Kidd.

In 2002, O'Neal, Bryant and Kidd.

In 2001, O'Neal, Bryant and Iverson.

In 1999?

There were just two, since Knicks center Patrick Ewing was sidelined against the Spurs.

James wasn't yet a freshman in high school, about to play his first season for the St. Vincent-St. Mary varsity.

Wednesday, he remembered the series well.

DAVID ZALUBOWSKI/Associated Press

"I thought it was weird because it wasn't a full NBA season, and I had gotten used to watching full NBA seasons," James said. "And that's (when) I started to—I love the game, but that's when I really started to get serious with it. So to see, you know, Tim Duncan out there and David Robinson, it was like, win one for David Robinson. But Tim Duncan was definitely the premiere player out there on the floor, and I think it was huge.

I think it was great when you can as a kid, you watch somebody celebrate and win a championship, you hope that you can put yourself in their shoes. Not knowing that I would face him in the Finals years later or even—this is my third time facing him, so I think it's pretty cool."

It is.

It speaks to Duncan's greatness that he has remained relevant so long that, at this stage, he's not regarded as NBA historical fossil but, rather, major NBA Finals factor.

"Personally I've changed my game a whole lot as I've gotten older, our team has changed, our front office has changed our team and Pop has changed our offense a whole lot and all that," Duncan said. "So the credit goes to them and how they put our team together."

Duncan's flexibility is something James not only admires, but intends to emulate.

"When Timmy D first started they were more of an inside‑out team," James said. "I think our league was more inside‑out. You would work the ball in the post, and if you were doubled, you would kick it out and it was a repost, and they had the team to do it David and Timmy. I think our league has transformed into a pick‑and‑roll [league], an outside‑in and if you have the luxury of being able to throw it down in the post, it's like an extra bonus. For them, they have a Hall of Famer to be able to throw it down to when games can get erratic with pick‑and‑roll and spread offenses."

It speaks to James' greatness that he has continued to evolve, as a leader, a person and a player, even while under the hottest spotlight the sport has ever shined.

"I've changed my game since I've got to Miami in the sense that I was probably 75‑85 percent pick‑and‑rolls in Cleveland and after that it was isolation," James said. "Now I'm a third of pick‑and‑rolls‑‑ no, I would say 40 percent post‑ups, 40 percent pick‑and‑rolls, and not even as much isos. I would sprinkle it in, and I've changed my game since then and I will change my game. You have to. Father Time is undefeated. So me high flying and doing the things that I'm able to do now at 29, at 36 maybe I wouldn't be able to do it. I will change my game again, if I want to continue to be helpful to a team."

Michael Conroy/Associated Press

It speaks to Allen's greatness—in terms of preparation and professionalism—that he is still so helpful at age 38 and has no definite plans to retire, with many around him expecting him to continue with the Heat for as long as James does.

It speaks to Wade's greatness that he has continued to play a role in championships all while dealing with achy knees. And now, he's ready to contribute more this time around, after a grueling season-long program has paid off.

Now, he's ready to take on a team that has defined organizational greatness in this era.

"It's just great to be able to be in this same breath, you know, as a franchise that myself and other guys grew up kind of watching and they're still up there with us being in the league now a decade plus," Wade said. "Unbelievable what they have been able to accomplish."

So, breathe it in.

Four all-timers by any accounting, plus quite a few more who are more than worthy of the moment.

An unbelievable two weeks are ahead.

 

Ethan Skolnick covers the Heat for Bleacher Report.

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