What These Finals Really Mean

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So I was going to write a Finals preview column, but fate, school, and Finals (and no, not the good basketball kind, the horrendous school variety. Ugh) intervened, and I didn’t have a chance to write it. This is my replacement column.

Now, for the record, my Finals prediction before the beginning of the series was Heat in 6. Here’s why I have them winning in 6:

The reason why I have the series ending in 6 is that the Heat don’t have home-court-advantage so they’ll have to win a game on the road. The odds are that the Heat, should they manage to win a game on the road against San Antonio, it’ll be in one of the first three, rather than the last one.

The reasons why I have the Heat winning the series are as follows:

  1. LeBron James.
  2. LeBron James.
  3. LeBron James.
  4. Have I mentioned LeBron James yet? I’m not sure. Just for my peace of mind:
  5. LeBron James.

Honestly, that’s the only reason to take the Heat. They’re don’t have home court, the Spurs are far deeper, the Heat are older. The Heat are not as good as last year while the Spurs are far better, and, if you’ll recall, the Heat only barely managed to win. The Heat can’t count on a Ray Allen 3 to bail them out again, nor do they have home-court so they can play a potential elimination game at home.

Still, all is not lost for the Heat. As you may have seen above, they still have LeBron James. Historically, the best player in the series almost always will win that series, unless the talent disparity is too much. As the Spurs are slightly better, while the Heat have LeBron, it’s close to a toss-up, but for me, when in doubt, I always go with the best player in the league. Still it should be a close matchup.

Of course, when the best player in the league isn’t on the floor, it doesn’t matter much if you have him. On Thursday night, LeBron sat for most of the fourth quarter as an 86-79 lead with nine minutes left deteriorated once he sat, culminating in a 110-95 San Antonio victory. He even came back in with about four minutes left, behind by two, made a shot, then limped off the court, never to return to the game.

This was caused by the arena’s air conditioning malfunctioning so the players were playing in 90 degree weather, lending new meaning to the chant “Beat the Heat”.

LeBron has had trouble with cramps in past playoff games; maybe he should try and fix his problem and attempt to find a solution, rather than hoping that it doesn’t show up in a big Finals game. Unlike most idiots on social media, all burying LeBron for “deserting his team”. All complete bullcrap.

LeBron is in horrible company in having to come out of a Finals game because of cramps. Michael Jordan would never do something like that because… Wait a second… My editors (I don’t have an editor, I’m my own editor, but I wanted to say that because one, it sounds cool, and two, it makes it sound better) are telling me something… Oh! MJ also came out of a Finals game because he had cramps? Yeah, but still. My point from before is still relevant because, you know, only the best player ever did it.

You know maybe they’re actually onto something here: someone who led his team in all relevant statistical categories (i.e. points, rebounds, assists, etc.) while carrying the team on his back the whole year and who led his team during that game in points, was tied for second in assists, and was second in rebounds, despite playing merely 33 minutes because his whole left side started seizing up, isn’t a good teammate because when the whole left half of his body is immobile, obviously, he should be out there, limping along, playing like garbage (wow that was a really long sentence). But it doesn’t matter if he did that because, of course, if he did, the Twitter-verse would tell him that he should have taken himself out so that he wouldn’t harm the team by playing badly. It’s a lose-lose situation for LeBron.

In fact, it’s commendable that LeBron took himself out. He could have tried to be the hero and sucked. Rather, he recognized his limits and decided that a lesser, but healthier teammate would be better than a hobbled version of him. Again, how is that a bad thing?

Anyways, so after Game 1, my pick isn’t changing. It’s still Heat in 6. I expected that the Heat would lose twice in the first three games in San Antonio, so this loss isn’t devastating for my pick. Of course, I really, really want to change my pick to San Antonio in 7 but that would lose me whatever respect you had for me in the first place, so I’ll have to refrain.

So, after a preamble of over 900 words, onto the actual article! This article is, I suppose, a Finals preview, but it’s not in the usual format and it’s not about the usual stuff, so I’m not counting it. This column is about what this Finals means to everyone important who’s involved in it and how it affects the legacies of those people.

LeBron James:

All that’s at stake for LeBron James is his third title, a three-peat, the inside track to the title of most dominant team of the decade, a few spots up the all-time list, and much more. Only MJ (twice), Bill Russell (multiple times), and Shaqobe (once) have ever managed to get a three-peat. That’s the best player ever, a top-five player, and the best pairing ever, between two top-twenty players. Not too shabby a list.

In addition, although he’s already accomplished this, it’s worth mentioning here, the four-peat of getting to the Finals. The last team to get to the Finals four straight years was the 1984-87 Celtics. Before that, it was the 50s and 60s Celtics. That’s another prestigious list.

Also, should he win this title, LeBron will move up the list, definitely to the top 10, or possibly even higher. My rankings of all-time players is MJ, Kareem, Russell, Magic, Bird, Duncan (although he’ll move up a couple of spots if he wins the title, although we’ll get to him later), Kobe, and then some order of Oscar, The Logo, and Wilt. Does LeBron move past those three to get to the Kobe-Duncan tier if he wins the title? I think so, especially as Wilt, West, and Oscar only won a combined four titles.

Another important thing that I’d like to talk about, something that I’ve talked about briefly in the past, is how winning this championship will affect LeBron’s potential free agency. No important player on, let alone the undisputed leader of a championship winning team, has ever walked away after winning it all. Ever. From that we can assume that he won’t leave Miami if they win this series, especially as they’ll have a chance for a four-peat, something that only Russell ever did (and he did it in a much weaker era). The question is whether or not LeBron will win more titles if he stays in Miami or if he goes to, let’s say, the Clippers. If he stays in Miami then he has a potential four-peat, but after that, with Wade’s deal clogging up the cap, he’ll have to carry the team by himself every night. Alternatively, if he loses, he can go to the Clippers and have a great supporting cast, not have to play his best game every night, live in Los Angeles, and win five straight titles as a superstar, if not more, before becoming a supporting player and winning a few more after that.

If he wins this year, I hope, rather than resigning a long contract with Miami that he just accepts his player option for next year, before going into free agency in 2015. If he wins the title with Miami next year too… Well, I suppose we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

The main risk for LeBron is that he becomes a historical nomad, like Roger Clemens. Clemens is a superstar, but Boston hates him, Toronto has no love for him, New York regarded him as a mercenary, and he only spent three years in Houston. If LeBron leaves Miami, then that’s the risk he runs. Is it worth it to sacrifice fan loyalty for more rings? Who knows, but it’s an important conundrum for LeBron, and one that he’ll have to figure out.

With the three-peat, all-time list, and everything else that we talked about, there’s certainly a lot at stake for King James these Finals.

Tim Duncan:

Tim Duncan probably has the most at stake other than LeBron. He and Kobe are locked in a duel for the title of the most successful post-Jordan superstar (I’ll talk more about Kobe later, but first, Duncan). He won four titles, he’s won more than 50 games every year of his career (except for the shortened season in 1999 in which he went 37-13, although that’s a 61 win pace), and he’s done it all without once bottoming out and getting a good draft pick, he’s consistent, he knows where to pick his spots (as in, he knows when he needs to score 20 and get 15 rebounds for his team to win), he’s loyal, and he’s lasted for more than 15 years, all of them above average.

In my opinion, a fifth title pushes him past Larry Bird and probably Magic as well (as Magic had a far better supporting cast and didn’t truly become the alpha dog of the team until 1986 or 1987), to become the fourth best player ever. A fifth ring also pushes him into a tie with Kobe for the third most rings ever from an alpha dog, behind Kareem and MJ (with six) and Russell (with eleven). The alpha dog distinction is important as a number of supporting players lucked into rings by playing alongside great players, like Robert Horry (with seven rings), Dennis Rodman (with five rings), and any player from the 50s and 60s Celtics.

Another interesting subplot with Duncan is that it seems as though he’ll retire if he wins. While it’ll be sad to see him go, after years as an elite player, leaving at the pinnacle of his profession is a pretty nice way to go. I like that Duncan will leave after this year if he wins because it shows how smart of a player he is: he won’t demean himself by holding on too long, like, for instance, MJ with the Wizards.

Another storyline to watch is how last years brutal Finals loss affected the Spurs. Most teams wouldn’t be able to come back from that but the Spurs just kept on rolling, destroying teams efficiently, as always. A historical parallel is the late eighties Pistons. The Pistons lost brutally in both 1987 and 1988. In 1987 they lost in the Eastern Conference Finals to the Celtics after Bird’s famous steal. The next year, in 1988, they made it to the Finals, against the Lakers, and were up in Game 6, about to close the Lakers out to win their first title, when Isiah sprained his ankle but still managed to notch a 25 point third quarter. Then, they lost in excrutiating fashion, losing by one point, 103-102, before losing the Game 7, 108-105. Still, after two seasons with bad breaks, they persevered and won the next two titles.

Yes, I suppose the comparison isn’t perfect; the Spurs have already won a title, but the message is the same: only truly great teams bounce back from those kinds of losses. Duncan, having done so, has already exorcised the demons of last year’s Finals, has already proven that he and his team are great. But to bounce back and avenge last year’s loss by winning another championship against the team that stole one away from him last year? That’s a damn good end to a damn good career.

Dwyane Wade:

Wade is content as no matter what happens, he’ll still have one more ring than LeBron, on the strength of his 2006 ring against Dallas. Still, another ring never hurts historically. The main thing that a ring would accomplish would be tying him with Duncan and pushing him to one ring behind Kobe. Still, that’s not as big of a deal as you might think for a couple of reasons.

One, competing with Kobe and Duncan doesn’t matter as much as competing with LeBron, Melo, and Bosh (and Darko) as they’re from a different period. Duncan and Kobe were drafted in 1997 and 1996, respectively, while the foursome (quick tangent, what’s the equivalent to trio for a group of four? Is it a foursome? Like, trio is to a group of three as ________ is to a group of four. Any suggestions?) of LeBron, Melo, Bosh, and Wade were all drafted in 2003.

Second, in 2006, he carried the Heat to the title, so there’s no argument there. In 2011, he was a big part of the runner-up Miami team. In 2012, when the Heat won the title, he was still an important component of the team, although he was no longer the alpha dog as LeBron had finally decided to assert his dominance. While in 2013, in the second consecutive title winning season, he was a good supporting player, but by no means an elite and integral player, especially as he was playing hurt for much of the playoffs. This year, he sat out for chunks of the regular season, only playing 54 games. In the playoffs, he had something of a rejuvenation, although he didn’t come anywhere near to his previous heights.

The question, of course, is how much the titles count in the grand scheme of things. Yes, he won titles, but not as the best player. How valuable that is determined to be will ultimately decide his legacy.

Ray Allen:

Allen is already a first ballot Hall-of-Famer. He already owns the most clutch, important, and challenging shot in the history of the NBA. He’s already the best three point shooter of all time. He doesn’t need another title like some of the others on this list, but his accomplishments keep on piling on and he keeps on moving up the ranks. Another record he’ll likely have by the end of the Finals is most 3s in the Finals. He has 49 to Robert Horry’s 56. Of course, this is Allen’s 3rd Finals while Horry had seven to accrue his total, making Allen’s total amount of 3s far more impressive.

Ray Allen will be remembered as one of the first great three point shooters (along with Larry Bird and Reggie Miller) and one of the clutchest (is that a word? If not, it is now) players ever, the owner of the clutchest shot ever,as well as the winner of two rings (and counting). There’s nothing more for him to prove, but winning another ring would be yet another accomplishment by a great player.

Gregg Popovich:

He’s already in the conversation, but another title would strengthen his case for the title of Best Coach Ever. He’s fighting with Red Auerbach and Phil Jackson. Auerbach famously coached with just seven plays while Jackson functioned as more of a peacemaker and harmonious Zen Master than as a coach, but neither of them had the same tactical aptitude as Popovich has. In fact, I personally think that Pop is already the best coach and here’s why:

The titles conversation is largely irrelevant. Auerbach won 16 titles throughout his career, but only nine as a coach, of the 50s and 60s Celtics. While, right now, it’s more than twice as many as Pop has, but they came in a weaker era with a quarter of the teams that there are today, meaning that Auerbach’s numbers are inflated. Additionally, Auerbach’s Celtics had a number of Hall of Famers while Popovich’s Spurs have had only David Robinson (only at the tail end of his prime and when he was washed up) who’s already a Hall of Famer. Obviously, Duncan is a shoo-in, but there’s no guarantee that Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili will end up making it in. Pop’s degree of difficulty is and was much greater than Auerbach’s ever was.

The same goes for Phil Jackson for his first six titles with the MJ-Pippen Bulls. The league was over-expanded and there weren’t enough good players to go around, not to mention the fact that he had the best player ever. For three more titles, Jackson had Shaq and Kobe, two of the three best players in the league at the time, another reason why he had it easier than Popovich.

Popovich has already won four titles and had 16 years straight of sustained success, all while never having a high draft pick since Duncan. He competed in a tougher league than Jackson, and a larger league than Auerbach. He won with far inferior players than either Jackson or Auerbach. That’s why I think Gregg Popovich is the best coach ever. Although some may disagree, another title will make it even clearer. That’s what’s at stake for Popovich these Finals.

Kobe Bryant:

As was briefly mentioned in the Duncan section, Kobe and Duncan are locked in a battle for the title of best post-Jordan superstar. Kobe is only in the conversation on the strength of his five titles. The problem with him is that he had a sub-500 season in his prime, along with 37 and 40 loss seasons in the two years immediately following it, not to mention another 37 loss season in 2012-13 when he had a ton of help. Also, the case could be easily made that his three titles during his three-peat from 2000 to 2002 don’t count as much as they were largely won on the back of Shaq while Kobe acted as an elite second banana.

If Duncan wins his fifth title, then Kobe loses whatever case he may have had as a better player as one of Kobe’s two big things that he was better than Duncan in (the other being points, in which Duncan is ranked 19th to Kobe’s 4th and is 7000 points behind Kobe) will be gone.

Despite his rivalry with LeBron, Kobe will be cheering for the Heat to prevent Duncan from surpassing him. In all, it’s a lose-lose for Kobe, and his legacy has never looked less secure since 2007, after three straight subpar seasons, before Pau Gasol came to Los Angeles in a one-sided deal that brought Kobe a few more elite seasons, a runner-up, and two titles.

I hope you enjoyed the article (and yes, I know, the cover picture is from last year’s Finals, but I thought it looked cool so just roll with it, okay?) and if you did, spread it around, share it with your friends and family, and anyone else who might like it. Thanks for reading and let’s hope for an amazing Game 2 tonight!

2 thoughts on “What These Finals Really Mean

  1. Lox

    Regarding a foursome, “quartet” would be the obvious, dull answer, but I would suggest the new word “quadre,” as in cadre of four…

    Reply
  2. Pingback: Looking Backwards and Forwards With the 2014 NBA Finals | Sushi On Sports

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