Heat Down but Not Out, Thanks to Game's Best Big Man...LeBron James

Ric BucherNBA Senior WriterJune 11, 2014

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

It's a testament to the Miami Heat that though the San Antonio Spurs won Game 3 convincingly and enjoy a 2-1 lead in the NBA Finals, there is no sense that the Spurs have a firm grasp on the series. That, in large part, is because the Heat have the best big man in the series: LeBron James.

It is symmetrically sweet that James holds that status after meeting and working with Hakeem Olajuwon, who started the dramatic transformation of just what the best big man in an NBA Finals does.

The only way it could've been sweeter is if Tim Duncan, James' current nemesis and the evolutionary link between the two, had picked up James at the airport and driven him to Olajuwon's house for those tutoring sessions.

If all of that is too far from your concept of NBA lineage, this may not be the story for you. Granted, I don't know that anyone ever has drawn a line between these three before, but I can't claim the idea. A former player who has a number of championship rings to his name and prefers to remain anonymous first posed it. It intrigued me, as unconventional thinking often does.

Watching James guard Duncan—quite well—at times and find various ways to set up a mid-post base camp and run the Heat's offense from it made it worth exploring. So I ran the notion past Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak. "It makes sense," he said. "The game has clearly changed."

There are other big men, of course, who are links in this champion big-man chain that stretches from The Dream to The King—Rasheed Wallace, Kevin Garnett, Pau Gasol—and several years in which unique talents diverted the evolution—Michael Jordan from 1996-98, Shaquille O'Neal from 2000-02. But, Olajuwon, Duncan and James were/are not only the undisputed linchpins to their teams, but they have also done the most to alter exactly how a title-winning team's most dominant big man operates.

The successful runs by O'Neal and Jordan—who arguably represented his team's best post-up option despite being a shooting guard—don't mar the theory in Kupchak's eyes. "Every now and then a Shaq will come along and not fit the mold for how the game is being played and it doesn't really matter," he said. "For players like MJ and Shaq, it doesn't really matter how the game is evolving. They just do it differently."

Hakeem Olajuwon's footwork and body control in the paint changed the way big men were evaluated in the NBA.
Hakeem Olajuwon's footwork and body control in the paint changed the way big men were evaluated in the NBA.Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

That shouldn't be regarded as a slight to Olajuwon, Duncan or James. Olajuwon will go down as one of the game's all-time great centers, just as Duncan is destined to be remembered as the league's greatest power forward. James, similarly, is well on his way to the same lofty distinction as a small forward. There's nothing wrong with that, other than they are antiquated labels and don't do full justice to their impact. Olajuwon played the game differently than any championship-caliber center before him. Duncan has split time between power forward and center for years now and along the way expanded the ways and locations in which a big man operates. James has taken all of that to another level, making the entire frontcourt his personal playground.

The common denominator: They all became champions as soon as, and not before, they perfected their skills as a big man through which their team could play.

Olajuwon is credited as the first center comfortable enough to face the basket, attack off the dribble and do it all well enough to lead the Rockets to a title. Duncan, with his combination of ball-handling, mid-range shooting, post play and screen setting—not an Olajuwon strength—rewrote the operation manual, turning power forward from a largely lunch-pail position to the frontcourt throne. James seems to play wherever and in whatever capacity he chooses.

That all three are so different reflects just how much the game has changed over the last two decades; and why suggesting one is better than the other is little more than identifying your favorite ice cream and making a case for why it's the best ice cream of all time.

Sam Cassell, who started his playing career as Olajuwon's teammate and is now an assistant coach with the Washington Wizards, co-signed both the Olajuwon-Duncan-James champion big-man evolution theory as well as the idea that James became a champion by accepting his place in it.

LeBron James has increasingly taken to directing the Heat's offense while playing in the low post.
LeBron James has increasingly taken to directing the Heat's offense while playing in the low post.Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

"He's learning how to make the game easy for both himself and his team," Cassell said.

How successfully James continues down that path will determine both his chance of challenging Jordan's reign as the modern-day champion and when he hands off the champion big-man baton. Duncan's incredible longevity can be credited to the fact that his hands, footwork and grasp of angles around the rim have allowed him to flourish long after his speed and agility left him. As much as James has expanded outward all that can be done from the power position, being effective still demands having the same below-the-free-throw-line fundamentals that Olajuwon and Duncan had.

Or, perhaps, James will move back outside and rely on his ever-improving long-range jumper when his athleticism begins to wane. For that to happen and James to continue winning titles, though, he will have to be paired with another dominant big man. Whatever size he might happen to be.    

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @RicBucher.