They are the behemoths of basketball.
Legends of the game, Phil Jackson and Pat Riley have dominated the NBA landscape for decades. With 16 titles between them, they have enough hardware to make Stan Van Gundy's mustache curl.
As the 2010-2011 season fast approaches, it seems that Riley's Heat and Jackson's Lakers are heavily favored to emerge victorious in their respective conferences, potentially setting up a battle for the ages. The two have previously butted heads in the vicious Knicks-Bulls contests of the early 1990s, but have never met in the NBA Finals.
A victory against either of men would be the extreme tour de force for any other NBA coach. But when these two titans clash against each other, there is more on the line than just a ring. The victor of this encounter could arguably have an upper hand on their pedigree. On the significance of their heirlooms. On their generation.
Thus, we pose a simple question. With the 2010-2011 season, whose legacy is more on the line?
The Zen Master will ultimately go down as one of, if not the greatest coach ever to man the sidelines. Eclipsing Red Auerbach's nine NBA titles was certainly no easy feat, and Jackson has all the tools in place to make a few more championship runs. His triangle offense appears to be timeless, as the U.S.S.R. was still in existence at the time of Jackson's first ring.
I think there is a strong argument that Phil Jackson actually has more to gain here. Not necessarily in comparison to Riley, but in comparison to the pantheon of the elusive club known as "the greatest ever."
Think about it. If the Heat reach their seemingly limitless potential, they would likely be the favorites over the defending champs. With a skill level as gargantuan as that of Miami Thrice, expectations come in a similar size.
Talent-wise, the triple XL version of Boston's Big Three is arguably one of the greatest trio's ever assembled. With two of the NBA's three brightest stars on the same roster, the Heat are essentially in violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.
What does all of this mean for Jackson?
From this perspective, one could conclude that Jackson has virtually nothing to lose, but a whole lot to gain. Regardless of the outcome of a potential Heat-Lakers matchup, Jackson will still be the undisputed lord of the rings.
If he wins, however...well, he'll be considered a more impressive floor general than Alexander the Great, and he'll have nothing left to conquer.
He's already had his cake. At this point, its a question as to whether or not he could eat it too.
That's all well, but Jackson's legacy isn't completely protected. Another school of thought (a non-Buddhist one) would argue that in order to be the best, you have to beat the best.
Of all the teams Jackson has defeated in his past (Barkley's Suns, Stockton and Malone's near-dynasty, Rondo and the "Big Three), this current Heat roster is arguably second-to-none talent-wise. In the face of Jackson's toughest competition—which very well could come next June—we may see if Jackson deserves the title of "greatest ever."
If he loses, that title may come to be questioned. Especially if Riley returns to the sidelines, and the Heat continue to win.
Riley's story requires a slightly different approach. As Team President of the Heat, he no longer inhabits the sidelines. However, there is no doubt that Riley, the Don Corleone of basketball, was the mastermind behind the wheeling and dealing that landed the holy triumvirate of LeBron, Wade, and Bosh in South Beach.
Eric Spoelstra is currently the man on the bench for Miami, but we all know that may be subject to change. If Riley ends up returning to coaching, his return will open up a whole new can of worms. For the purposes of this article, however, let's just assume that he stays in the front office.
With a less direct impact on the team, Riley's legacy will be altered in a rather unique manner. By acquiring the NBA's finest tools, he has hammered together a very sturdy foundation for multiple championship runs. The infrastructure is intact; it is now up to Spoelstra and the players to use the framework to complete their dream home.
Or is it?
Like any architect, Riley is ultimately liable for his product. In many ways, this team is largely an experimental design, as the modern NBA has never seen such a championship blueprint.
If his model is successful, Riley should ultimately be lauded, and perhaps regarded as somewhat of a basketball genius for having the ability to bring three of the NBA's top 10 or 15 players to the same arena. Should they lose, however? That's an entirely different story.
You, me, and Spiderman all know that "With great power comes great responsibility." In constructing this global superpower, Riley has given himself tremendous power. However, this sword has blades on both sides. If the team fails, Riley will ultimately be the culprit.
Lastly, one must consider the historical implications of Riley's Heat. As previously stated, this team was constructed in a truly unique manner. If his model is successful, Riley will be considered a pioneer. A crusader. A modern day Christopher Columbus.
If egos collide, however, Riley will go the way of Napoleon, and this move will be considered akin to Bonaparte's invasion of Russia. Both great generals, but both legacies slightly tarnished by one monumental mistake.
A matchup between these teams would have huge implications on the legacies of both of these men. After weighing the scenarios, I've come to the conclusion that Pat Riley stands on tremendously less fortunate footing.
The Heat were not constructed to reach the NBA Finals only to lose in seven games. For Riley, LeBron, and Wade, the outlook is simple—winning is the only option.
At the same time, Miami is expected to win. Riley doesn't necessarily have much to gain at this point, as victory would merely be a confirmation of that already assumed. According to Flo Rida, the Heat already won.
If the Zen Master beats a team that "already won," he will technically have done the impossible. Though as we all well know, impossible is nothing.
Especially for a guy with 11 rings.