The San Antonio Spurs have never prided themselves on their star power.
Though they have always been able to claim their fair share of elite talents, the Spurs have always been more focused on promoting an atmosphere that emphasizes depth and teamwork over superstar heroism.
But in the NBA Finals, currently tied at one game apiece with the Miami Heat, teamwork and depth alone simply won't be enough to complete San Antonio's drive for a fifth title.
From Tony Parker to Tim Duncan, the squad has its stars. And while both will have to contribute in full for the team to win the championship, only one can hoist the esteemed Finals MVP award should the Spurs come out on top.
However, on a team that constantly draws the most out of each of its players, a well-defined MVP for the series is anything but obvious.
The Case for Tim Duncan
For the past few seasons, the torch has fallen into Tony Parker's hands.
As Duncan inches towards retirement, the veteran point guard has stepped up and filled his shoes as the face of the franchise and its best player.
As the lone Spur selected to an All-NBA team, Parker undoubtedly deserves the nod as the team's best regular-season player.
That said, he is not necessarily the most important player in this particular series.
Duncan will go down in history as an all-time great, and his performances in the multiple championships that the Spurs have won will hold tremendous weight in the minds of NBA historians. With three Finals MVP awards, and a performance in the 2007 championship that many will argue warranted a fourth accolade, Duncan has effectively marked the Finals as his personal territory.
With the end to his storied career looming overhead, Duncan will want to make a splash in his final few years, and after missing the opportunity to further his legacy last year, the current series presents an unparalleled opportunity.
While Parker may have proven that he is the better player, the Spurs' current roster arguably makes Duncan more valuable.
While Parker has a duo of reserves in Patty Mills and Cory Joseph capable of playing big minutes at the point guard position, the Spurs' depth in the frontcourt is extremely limited. Though Tiago Splitter and Boris Diaw have proven themselves as legitimate contributors, Duncan hardly has someone like Manu Ginobili who can fill his shoes from a star power perspective.
Parker, on the other hand, has Ginobili, among others, who can score and orchestrate should Parker have a bad game.
Duncan's rebounding, scoring, leadership and unrivaled tenacity lie miles ahead of any other big man on the Spurs roster. Even at 38 years of age, Duncan continues to execute wonderfully, both as an offensive weapon and on his ability to supplement others.
His vigilance on the boards, especially his keen eye on the offensive glass, has been monumental in ensuring that the team can draw second chances against the Heat's rigid defense. His contributions on the boards against Oklahoma City were pivotal in deciding the series, and against Miami, a team whose rebounding assets—from James to Bosh to Chris Anderson—are stronger than that of the Thunder, Duncan's ability to maintain aggression is an oft-overlooked key to the series.
Additionally, the series has demonstrated that running the offense through Duncan is the ideal path down the stretch, with the disparity in the fourth quarter offensive production between the first two games can be tied to Duncan's contributions in each.
He came alive in the final minutes of Game 1, performing in a throwback manner that lit up the AT&T Center. The end of Game 2, however, featured far less of Duncan, whose best moments came in the opening quarter—the period in which the Spurs enjoyed their greatest success,
Overall, Duncan's success and the team's success have shown an apparent correlation, and whether that's due to matchups or pure excellence on behalf of the Big Fundamental, it is evident that his play will, in part, dictate the prosperity that the team will enjoy.
The Case for Tony Parker
As mentioned before, Tony Parker is the team's top dog.
Even with Duncan returning to familiar territory, Parker can claim his fair share of Finals experience. He has been to four and nearly captured his second Finals MVP award last year.
Currently continuing his trip to the top, Parker's 2013-14 regular-season campaign was reminiscent of his previous two, in which he entered the upper echelon of NBA guards.
For much of the playoffs, the Spurs have relied on him as a backbone. Especially evident in the Western Conference semifinals against the Portland Trail Blazers, Parker's play can often set the tone for the rest of the team.
As a scorer, Parker can often be unstoppable. Whether it's his mid-range jumper or inside finishing ability, the dynamic guard can leave his mark on the scoreboard and in the stat sheets. His playmaking skills have also been monumental throughout the season and will continue to be during the Finals, and his overall leadership as a floor general can never be overstated.
But it's his matchup that might make him the team's most valuable player against Miami. While LeBron James and Dwyane Wade headline the team, Bosh could be a difficult foe for Tim Duncan. Parker, meanwhile, is squaring off against Mario Chalmers at the 1.
Even when Parker draws a different defender, he undoubtedly has the ability to maintain the upper hand at the point guard position, and if he can exploit the Heat's weakness there, it could lead to their undoing.
In fact, his role as "LeBron's defensive focus" increases his value as it allows him to go head to head with the league's best player as he looks to not only show Miami the importance of having a talented point guard, but that their star power in James has a black and silver parallel.
For much of the season and much of the playoffs, the squad has ridden on the shoulders of Parker, and even with Duncan entering familiar terrain, it is anything but unreasonable to expect the Spurs point guard to assume the role of team MVP.
Even with Parker's track record as the backbone for this Spurs team, the scale tips in favor of Duncan.
San Antonio showed in its Finals-clinching victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder that it can win without Parker.
Granted the Spurs won't be able to do that on a recurring basis, but the outcome of that game proved that even without their starting point guard manning the reins, San Antonio is not entirely powerless. The depth of San Antonio's backcourt, as well as the star power that Manu Ginobili contributes, ensures that Parker's absence, though obviously influential, does not spell doom for the team.
A game without Duncan, however, may have different effects. As the team's leading post scorer, rebounder and post defender—although Splitter is making strides on that end—Duncan leaves an impact that goes unparalleled within the Spurs' roster.
A strong night from him, as seen in Game 1, can provide the team with the confidence and composure to produce down the stretch, as he maintains his status as a leader both with his skills and his intangibles.
Game 2 featured its ups and downs, but the distinct trend that the fluctuation had in comparison to Duncan's contributions speaks numbers regarding his unmatched importance in this squad.
Parker will be important, no doubt, but it will take more than strong play from his end to bring another banner to San Antonio. Duncan will have to continue to play in a manner that belies his age and lead his team as he has many times before.