Three-peats are nothing new for the NBA.
The Los Angeles Lakers of the Kobe Bryant-Shaquille O'Neal vintage put one together. The Chicago Bulls did it twice in an eight-year span, with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen leading the way. So, too, did Bill Russell's Boston Celtics during their run of eight straight titles.
Heck, the Minneapolis Lakers set the standard for excellence when George Mikan and head coach John Kundla combined to beat the New York Knicks (twice) and Syracuse Nationals in consecutive Finals.
The Miami Heat missed out on joining this elite group, and not by a narrow margin, if their "Gentlemen's Sweep" at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs in the 2014 NBA Finals was any indication.
But these two juggernauts will have a legitimate shot next season at pulling off a sort of three-peat that the Association has never seen: back-to-back-to-back championship series between the same two teams. And it's that chance to witness history that should have basketball fans pulling for another meeting between the sands of South Beach and the memories of the Alamo City.
This year's Miami-San Antonio series was the 13th rematch in Finals history and the fifth since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976.
But only two of those instances have seen the distinct possibility of a "three-match" (calling the U.S. patent office now...) go by the wayside, with one of the two participants falling just one round short of rounding out history.
In 1959, the St. Louis Hawks fell to the Lakers in the Western Division Finals in six games, thereby depriving the NBA of a third straight showdown between Bob Pettit and Bill Russell.
Twenty-seven years later, another historic rivalry—Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird—would see a "three-match" cut short by Ralph Sampson's miraculous buzzer-beater, though his Houston Rockets were already well on their way to winning that series thanks to a 3-1 lead over the Lakers heading into Game 5.
It will be no easy feat for the Heat and Spurs to find each other on the Finals stage once again in 2015. Both will be fighting uphill battles against forces largely beyond their control next season.
The Struggle Ahead for the Spurs
The Spurs will once again have to contend with a loaded Western Conference before they can so much as envision another shot at the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
Oklahoma City may well have stopped the Spurs short of a Finals rematch if it had a healthy Serge Ibaka, and the Thunder will have two picks in the first round of next week's NBA draft with which to play around.
The Portland Trail Blazers and Dallas Mavericks both have room for improvement—the former by internal growth, the latter through external additions.
The Denver Nuggets, Lakers and New Orleans Pelicans are all counting on better injury luck to boost them back into the playoffs as well.
The Spurs won't exactly be standing pat, either. Kawhi Leonard will be eligible for an extension. Boris Diaw, Patty Mills and Matt Bonner are bound for free agency come July 1.
Leonard is under contract for next season, whether he gets that new deal or not. Diaw seems like a lock to stay as well given his comfort level in San Antonio, his affinity for the Spurs' style of play and his close companionship with fellow Frenchman Tony Parker, as noted in Jonathan Abrams' profile for Grantland.
Mills might not be so keen to leave his fate to sentimentality. His rise from chunky cheerleader last season to sweet-shooting backup this season to playoff hero in recent weeks portends a big bump in Mills' next payday should he choose to pursue beaucoup bucks elsewhere.
But both Mills and Bonner are replaceable—the former by Cory Joseph, who proved no slouch in limited minutes as San Antonio's third-string point guard, and the latter by Diaw.
Of greater concern for the Spurs is the longevity of their aging Big Three. Tim Duncan (38) and Manu Ginobili (37 in July) could opt to ride off into the sunset with their latest championship, though ESPN's Marc Stein reports that the Spurs expect those two to return.
Even if they do, can San Antonio count on them to sustain their excellence through another long, grueling run to the Finals?
Duncan's size and skill will always allow him to be productive, but he loses another step or two with each passing year. Ginobili, on the other hand, looked done after the 2013 Finals, only to perform like his old self—and surprisingly so—throughout the 2014 playoffs. What are the odds that the wily Argentine staves off another decline, that he still has the legs to serve up a facial on Chris Bosh?
As for Tony Parker, he'll have his own war to wage against the combined creep of Father Time and Mother Nature. He turned 32 last month and required particularly careful tending this season amid the wear and tear incurred by three straight runs deep into the postseason and two summers spent carrying France through international competition.
Still, if all of those guys return, the Spurs can count on the continuity that they've built up over more than a decade with their core—and over the last three years with their sparkling supporting cast—to carry them through.
Miami's Mountain to Climb
The Heat won't be so lucky. Of their roster from this past season, only Norris Cole is guaranteed to return.
Shane Battier's already retired. Ray Allen could follow suit soon enough. Udonis Haslem spent the 2013-14 season playing like someone who probably should, too. Haslem, though, has an option for next season, as does Chris Andersen.
Of course, these considerations are all small potatoes compared to the decisions facing LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. All three will have until the end of business on June 29 to exercise the early-termination options in their respective contracts and dip back into free agency.
At present, not a one of them seems to have made up his mind one way or another. According to ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst, James' next "Decision"—perhaps the most important of the three—won't be made until after his family vacation, a powwow with his inner circle, a meeting with Miami's brass, a chat with Carmelo Anthony and a "confab" with Wade and Bosh.
The Heat are the favorites; this is not in question. But there is a window of doubt due to the way the season ended, Wade's health and some bitterness James harbors that Micky Arison put the brakes on spending over the past year.
Wade could be the fly in the ointment for all involved. He's owed nearly $43 million over the next two years—a sum he isn't likely to live up to with the Heat, much less find anywhere else.
Not that anyone's asking him to leave. Pat Riley made clear during the team's exit interviews that he wants to keep the player he snapped up with the fifth pick in the 2003 NBA draft, via Yahoo Sports' Marc J. Spears:
"Dwyane is a Heat for life... I would be very surprised if he were anywhere else but a Heat uniform next year," - Pat Riley.— Marc J. Spears (@SpearsNBAYahoo) June 19, 2014
The question is, what sacrifices, if any, is Wade willing to make as a means of opening up cap space, thereby allowing Riley to acquire players who would at once appease James and bolster the Heat's hopes of contention?
Wade would be well within his rights to take the money that's currently on the table, but don't put it past Riley to negotiate a new deal with his star pupil. A three- or four-year deal with lower annual salaries but a larger sum overall just might do the trick.
If James and Wade stay in South Beach, Bosh figures to follow suit. "I love working here," Bosh said on his way out after the Heat's five-game defeat in the Finals, via Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick. "If you love your job, that's what is most important. And we're competing. We have a chance every year."
As they surely will next year, assuming Riley restocks the Heat's cupboard with some younger, fresher talent. Carmelo Anthony has already been floated as a long shot to join his classmates from the '03 draft. Kyle Lowry could be in the mix as well, along with any number of gifted veterans who are hungry for a taste of the title.
Whomever they bring in this summer, the Heat can take some comfort in knowing that they won't have to survive a gauntlet like the one the Spurs will face out West.
To be sure, Miami won't likely roll through the East next year with as little resistance as it did this time around.
The Chicago Bulls should have a healthy Derrick Rose at their disposal and are on the prowl for a wing scorer to complete their already solid squad. The Washington Wizards figure to be better, thanks to the continued growth of John Wall and Bradley Beal. The Toronto Raptors will still be on the up-and-up if Lowry doesn't bolt. The Charlotte Hornets have a top-10 pick and a swath of cap space with which to improve their roster.
Meanwhile, the Brooklyn Nets and Atlanta Hawks will each be welcoming back an All-Star big in Brook Lopez and Al Horford, respectively. The Indiana Pacers could go either way, depending on Paul George's development, Lance Stephenson's impending free agency and Roy Hibbert's recovery from a regrettable postseason. The Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers might be in the mix for their own playoff spots if they play their cards right this summer.
This wouldn't exactly be a murderers' row of competitors for the Heat to overcome, though it'd sure beat the heck out of the field of wilting lilies that barely impeded Miami's march back to the Finals. Still, with the proper infusion of new blood, the Heat should once again be considered the favorites to represent the Eastern Conference in June.
But history would hardly be caught making that bet. As rarefied as the air was around Miami's fourth consecutive trip to the Finals, the Big Three would find themselves in even more select company with five straight. Only the Celtics, who spent an uninterrupted decade in the Finals between 1957 and 1966, have managed the feat at which the Heat will be aiming next spring.
A Rematch Worth Watching?
In truth, that's what makes the notion of yet another Heat-Spurs tete-a-tete so tantalizing. A "three-match" would be basketball history in and of itself but would also require that more history be made on the way.
The Spurs would have to defy their own fatigue and inertia as they push for their first back-to-back championships in franchise history. The Heat would have to retool entirely while targeting a place in basketball lore that only the Celtics currently occupied—and have by themselves for nearly half a century.
Better yet, we'd all be treated to a rubber match between two powerhouses whose respective evolution we've tracked from year to year. The Spurs have come a long way since they were stomped out of the Western Conference Finals in 2012. Likewise, the Heat are far from the team that got doused by the Dallas Mavericks in 2011, and they figure to be even further from that in a year's time.
To that end, we could all be witness to a multidimensional chess match, one the likes of which the NBA has never seen. In any playoff series, there's much ado about the adjustments and lineup tweaks that coaches make from minute to minute, quarter to quarter and game to game.
With another Spurs-Heat series, we'd get to see how entire organizations shift their strategies from year to year. As Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick recently noted, Miami would do well to take a cue from its latest conqueror:
Riley needs to reinvigorate the culture. That means reinventing his philosophy, so it looks a bit more like the one that spawned the squad that just schooled his. A squad that was younger. A squad with more hunger.
Wouldn't it be fascinating to see what a master manipulator like Riley comes up with in response to his squad's stagnation on the game's grandest stage? Wouldn't it be great basketball theater to watch how the Heat attempt to gum up the Spurs' offensive machinery, and what San Antonio comes up with to counter? Wouldn't it be nice?
Which team is more likely to return to the Finals next year?
Maybe not for those who would rather see someone else have a shot at the top prize. All that chatter about parity in the lead up to, during and in the wake of the 2011 lockout would seem comically moot if the title were contested by the same two teams three times in a row.
Might it be more interesting to see Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook get back to the Finals without James Harden? What if Kobe Bryant and (Insert Incoming Star Here) put the Los Angeles Lakers back on the map? Or if Derrick Rose marked his (second) triumphant return from a debilitating knee injury by bringing the Bulls back to the "promised land"?
In that sense, Spurs-Heat III would clearly be old news. But through a broader historical lens, a "three-match" would be an underdog story for all time, as unique a feat as anyone has yet seen in the NBA.
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