Tag Archives: Tim Duncan

How Did the Warriors Beat the Spurs?

I don’t think anyone was expecting the utter devastation the Warriors wrought upon the Spurs. I don’t think anyone was expecting Stephen Curry to explode for thirty-seven points in only twenty-eight minutes. I don’t think anyone was expecting San Antonio’s point differential to go down a full point. I don’t think anyone was expecting any of this.

The important question is: How did this happen?

The answer, simply, is that rather than running their usual motion offense, the Spurs decided to try their hands at running a bakery. The problem is that the only pastries they knew how to cook were turnovers (mostly apple ones). All (bad) jokes aside, the Spurs continually hemorrhaged possessions last night, giving the ball to the Warriors in a variety of ways.

Naturally, the multitudinous turnovers were a problem for San Antonio, but the fact that it’s bad to turn the ball over isn’t enough to explain the blowout. After all, it’s not like Golden State took particularly good care of the ball; it had twenty-one turnovers to San Antonio’s twenty-six (which is eighth-most out of 1348 team games played so far this season!).

In fact, just turning the ball over alone doesn’t matter all that much. Take a look at a graph:

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In this scatter plot, the x-axis is turnovers per game while the y-axis is winning percentage. As you can tell from the relatively even scatter of the graph, there’s only a very weak negative correlation (the r is -.36) between turnovers and winning percentage.

If turnovers don’t inherently affect winning, then why did they hurt the Spurs so significantly against the Warriors?

When a team turns the ball over, that often leads directly to a fast break, a facet of the game in which the Warriors excel. In fact, Golden State leads the league in fast break points with 20.7 per game, an impressive 2.76 standard deviations above the mean. To illustrate that number, take a look at a scatter plot of NBA teams and how many fast break points they have per game:

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Look how far the Warriors (the star in the upper right corner) are away from everyone else. In fact, they gap between them and sixth place is larger than the gap between sixth place and thirtieth!

Golden State is so aberrant in this regard, that, as shown by the following box plot, it qualifies as an outlier:

Screen Shot 2016-01-27 at 8.03.08 PM

As we can tell, Golden State’s offense relies a lot on fast breaks, and we’ve already covered how turnovers often lead to fast breaks. Now let’s take a look at San Antonio’s defense.

The Spurs allow 11.2 fast break points per game, ranking sixth in that category.  As seems to be customary between these teams, two strengths are in direct conflict.

In this case, the Warriors’ strength won out. They scored nineteen fast break points, about two points under their average, but roughly eight points more than the Spurs’ average.

Now, one important aspect of a fast-break is the “fast” part. The Warriors rank first in the NBA in pace, while the Spurs are the eighth slowest team in the league. Since Golden State was able to take control of the pace of the game, San Antonio was out of its element. It didn’t help matters that the Spurs’ average age is 30.5, the oldest in the league by over a year. In fact, that’s likely a significant part of why they play so slowly.

Anyways, to sum it up, the main reason the Warriors were able to dismantle the Spurs on Monday night was because they were able to take control of the pace of the game through forcing turnovers. Those turnovers allowed them to score plenty of fast break points, erasing one of San Antonio’s biggest strengths.

Here’s a bonus question: Did this game provide a blueprint for how to beat the Spurs?

I’ll put it simply: Do many teams have a guy who can do things in transition like this?

Yeah, I didn’t think so.

And aside from the otherworldly talents of Curry, the Warriors, as we’ve discussed, have a lot more going for them that other teams simply don’t have.

But even the Warriors haven’t figured out the formula to beating the Spurs.  San Antonio had nearly double its usual turnovers and Tim Duncan was sitting out. There were plenty of other factors that contributed to the blowout that are unlikely to recur all at once.

Although this clearly is not a death knell for the Spurs, it could be a chink in their formerly unbroken armor, and perhaps particularly skilled teams will now be able to exploit it.

 

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Warriors vs. Spurs: Who’s Better?

Tonight, the Spurs and Warriors will meet for the first time this season, in Oracle Arena. Not only are these teams the two best in the NBA this season, they’re also two of the best in NBA history. In fact, here’s a list of every single team that has ever posted a point differential above plus-12 like the Spurs and Warriors have so far this season:

Screen Shot 2016-01-25 at 3.18.12 PM

So yeah, that’s ridiculous. Even better, the three other teams on that list all went on to win the championship. The problem is that the Spurs and Warriors can’t both win the championship. In fact, as both teams play in the Western Conference, only one team can even make it to the Finals. Accordingly, the Western Conference Finals (assuming both the Spurs and Warriors make it) will be the de facto NBA Finals, as the winner of that series will go on to the real NBA Finals to demolish whichever flawed team emerges from the East.

Tonight’s game is truly a clash of titans, one that is quite possibly the greatest regular season matchup in the history of the NBA.

In honor of tonight’s game, it’s time to figure out which team is better and should be considered the favorite to take home the Larry O’Brien Trophy in June.

Offense

The Warriors lead the NBA significantly in points per game. They score 114.7 points per game, 6.2 more than the second place Thunder. The gap between the Warriors and the Thunder is the same as the gap between the Thunder and the ninth place Pelicans. To illustrate this point, here’s a graph of the points per game totals among NBA teams:

Screen Shot 2016-01-25 at 7.38.14 PM

That star in the upper right hand corner is the Warriors. Look at how far they are away from everyone else. In fact, they’re 3.27 standard deviations above the mean, meaning that, assuming a normal distribution, one would expect an offense to score as many points per game as them .05% of the time. That’s about once every sixty-seven seasons. Wow.

However, that point total is skewed somewhat by Golden State’s pace. They play at the second fastest pace in the league, averaging 101.75 possessions per game, behind only Sacramento. Meanwhile, the Spurs play far slower, at the sixth slowest pace in the league, averaging 95.91 possessions per game. That’s a difference of nearly six possessions per game, allowing the Warriors to average more points than the Spurs.

If, instead of points per game, we use points per hundred possessions, the gap between the Warriors and the rest of the league shrinks significantly:

Screen Shot 2016-01-25 at 7.37.41 PM

Here, the Warriors still lead the pack at 112.7 points per hundred possessions, but the Thunder (second at 109.2) and the Spurs (third at 108.8) follow close behind them.

Although Golden State’s offense is clearly the best in the game, the San Antonio’s isn’t all that far behind.

Edge: Warriors

Defense

The Spurs, similarly to the Warriors on offense, lead the NBA in points allowed per game by a significant margin, allowing a stingy 89.8 points per game. In fact, San Antonio’s defense (the star in the lower left corner) is nearly as far away from the rest of the league as Golden State’s offense:

Screen Shot 2016-01-25 at 7.38.03 PM

Golden State, on the other hand, ranks a mere eighteenth in points allowed per game, giving up 102.6 points per contest.

However, in addition to offensive numbers being skewed by pace, defensive numbers are skewed too. After all, it’s a lot easier to give up fewer points when you don’t have to face as many shot attempts.

To combat this, like we did with offense, let’s use points per hundred possessions:

Screen Shot 2016-01-25 at 7.37.24 PM

This change actually doesn’t affect the Spurs at all; in fact, it might even increase the gap between them and the rest of the league. However, the Warriors vault from eighteenth all the way up to third, a sizable jump.

Similarly to offense, while San Antonio’s defense is clearly the best in the NBA, Golden State’s isn’t too far behind.

Edge: Spurs

Chemistry

Golden State leads the NBA in assist percentage, as 68.5% of its field goals are assisted. San Antonio isn’t far behind, sitting in sixth place with an assist percentage of 61.7%. In addition, the Warriors are the proud owners of six of the eleven games this season in which a team accumulated thirty-five or more assists.

There are plenty of stats that I can use to show how great the Warriors’ chemistry is, but they can’t compete with the Spurs. No one can. A couple of years ago, San Antonio had this video made about them:

Sure, plenty of other teams pass, but have any of them had videos like this one made about them? I actually looked; there are none.

If you want something more recent, here are the Spurs earlier this season, destroying the Timberwolves:

I mean, just look at how disconsolate the Timberwolves are after the Spurs finally decided to score:

Screen Shot 2016-01-25 at 6.11.00 PM

That’s what the Spurs’ passing can do to a team.

Last of all, and best of all, who can forget the famous Spursgasm from a couple of years ago?

Good lord.

Big Edge: Spurs

Coaching

This might be the tightest category yet. Steve Kerr took over a Warriors team and, with largely the same roster, turned a 51-31 sixth seed into a 67-15 juggernaut. This season, with Kerr sidelined, Luke Walton has led the Warriors to a 39-4 start.

The Spurs have Gregg Popovich, the best coach in the league hands-down, and one of the best coaches of all-time.

No matter how good Kerr and Walton have been while helming Golden State, no one can equal Pop, but at least they’ve been able to come close.

Slight Edge: Spurs

Star Power

You’d think that this category would be an easy Warriors victory, but it’s a lot closer than you’d think. Each team has a superduperstar, Stephen Curry for the Warriors and Kawhi Leonard for the Spurs. Each team has a superstar, Draymond Green for the Warriors and LaMarcus Aldridge for the Spurs. The intrigue comes in the various supporting players.

San Antonio has so many good, solid players, from Tony Parker to Manu Ginobili to Tim Duncan to Boris Diaw to Danny Green. Even players buried a little deeper on the bench are still capable, like David West and Patty Mills.

On the other hand, Golden State has a far top-heavier rotation. Andrew Bogut is a solid center, Shaun Livingston is a good back-up point guard, and Harrison Barnes and Andre Iguodala are very good small forwards. Deeper on the bench are players such as Festus Ezeli, Leandro Barbosa, and Marreese Speights, three players who are all decent, if unspectacular.

In the end, the Spurs’ superior depth doesn’t matter as the Warriors have a third star in Klay Thompson, giving Golden State the advantage in the final category.

Edge: Warriors

Verdict

No matter which team is better, the Warriors should be expected to win tonight due to their immense home court advantage, but, in the end, by the tiniest of margins, the Spurs are the superior team.

Final Edge: Spurs 

Looking Backwards and Forwards with the Finals

Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan

Wow. What a series. Not exactly exciting, per se, but it was amazing nonetheless. Just watching the well-oiled machine from San Antonio dominate in every way possible was stupendous to watch. Series like this one show that when Duncan, Parker, Manu, and Pop all finally retire, the Spurs will keep on rolling on as they always do.

So, if you recall, before the Finals (well actually it was during them, but whatever), I wrote a piece talking about what was at stake for each important player in these Finals (if you didn’t, check it out at https://sushionsports.wordpress.com/2014/06/09/what-these-finals-mean/). Well, now that the Finals are over, let’s take a look back and a look forward for what these Finals have meant. Let’s start with the Finals MVP.

Kawhi Leonard:

The Finals MVP, obviously, had a very good series. The question is whether or not this series shows that he can become the next Spurs superstar, following in the steps of George Gervin, David Robinson, and Tim Duncan.

He’s a good player, sure, but he’s not an elite scorer. He’s a very good defender, hassling LeBron all series, but does that make him fit to lead the Spurs into the future?

The accepted requirement for a superstar is to be an elite scorer and the crunch time guy for his team. Leonard doesn’t exactly fit those requirements. He’s not an elite scorer (although he’s capable of scoring more than twenty points a game) and he doesn’t have the ball in his hands at the ends of close games. However, I don’t think it matters all that much.

The Spurs ecosystem is such that all five players on the floor are supposed to pass up good shots for better ones and that anyone can score at any given moment, so the individual scoring numbers for Spurs are generally suppressed. Leonard doesn’t need to score 25 points a night for San Antonio to be considered a superstar, because that’s not what’s needed of him by his team. Along those same lines, as I said earlier, because the Spurs always look for the best shot no matter what, even in crunch time, Leonard can’t get every crunch time play run for him. Leonard can’t be a superstar by those traditional requirements because, again, that’s not what San Antonio asks him to do.

All Leonard needs to be able to do to be considered a superstar by the standards of the Spurs is to take over when it counts, like Tim Duncan. Duncan always knew (and knows) when, to win the game on any given night, that he needed to, let’s say, score twenty points and grab ten rebounds. This was an important quality of Duncan’s, as it allowed him to really turn it on in big games and to lead his team to victory.

As shown by these Finals, it’s pretty clear that Leonard knows how to take over in important games and that he has the capability to lead the Spurs into the future and to assume Duncan’s mantle as the face of the franchise.

Tim Duncan:

Duncan, already the best power forward ever, is now pushed up even higher up the list of the greatest players. By my estimate, he’s pushed past Bird (only won three titles, had a loaded team, didn’t last as long as he could have due to injuries) and Magic (was the second banana to Kareem for much of his career) and is even with Bill Russell for the third best player ever, behind Kareem and MJ. In fact, I think Duncan is better than Russell because while Russell won eleven titles in thirteen years to Duncan’s five, Russell played in a much weaker era with better teammates than Duncan.

There are a few notable similarities between Duncan and Russell: Duncan is a great teammate and is very unselfish. Russell was like that too. Duncan always shows up for big games. Again, just like Russell. Duncan even shares the same reticence and privacy that Russell had half a century ago.

Almost as important, Duncan now clearly asserts his dominance as the best post-Jordan superstar. The runners-up, in order, are LeBron, Kobe, Wade, and Shaq.

Shaq won four titles and was dominant whenever he wanted, but about a third of his career was while MJ was still around, so he’s technically not a true post-Jordan superstar. Also, he failed to become what he could have been had he tried and worked harder, so he was unable to get the maximum amount of points that he could have earned.

Wade won a title by himself, and won two titles and two runner-ups in the Finals in a subservient role to LeBron. As he only played at a high level for a few years before breaking down due to injuries, it’s tough to give him full credit.

Kobe won five titles but three were in a secondary role to Shaq’s. His teams also haven’t had success when he was the only star on his team and his team has won 45 or fewer games multiple times, so he loses points there.

If LeBron had won this year, he’d top this list, but even so, because of his runner-up finish this year, he still moves past Kobe to spot number two. He could have been even better and more dominant, but he never really stopped messing around and started really working on his game until after the 2011 Finals loss to Dallas. He’s accrued as many honors as you can get as an individual player and has had three runner-ups in the Finals and two championships, all as an alpha dog, so it’s impossible to put him lower than second on this list.

Duncan now has five championships, along with a resume so long that the Spanish-speaking announcers during the World Cup wouldn’t be able to say the whole list in just one breath. Those accolades are what make him the best post-Jordan player.

Another way that Duncan broke new ground is in adaptability. At the start of his career, Duncan and the Spurs relied on post-ups and slowing the game down. After the rule changes midway through the decade, they changed course to become a player and team that are essentially 3-and-D, along with great ball movement and selflessness. This transformation was impressive and it just adds to the legend of Tim Duncan. Whenever he decides to retire, the league will sorely miss him.

The Spurs Way (and International Players):

Speaking of adaptability and selflessness, the Spurs Way has proven its’ use throughout the series and the entire season. We’ve already discussed the stylistic and strategic changes that the Spurs have made, but let’s talk about a few other components of the Spurs Way.

  1. Only high character guys. They haven’t had a bad character guy since Stephen Jackson, way back in 2003. Since then, they haven’t risked any locker room cancers and instead have focused only on players that can contribute to a healthy locker room.
  2. Passing and unselfishness. All you need to know about the Spurs’ offense is that when announcers say that so-and-so made the “extra pass”, members of the Spurs just hear “the right pass”.
  3. International players. An astounding NINE of San Antonio’s players are not from the United States (compared to zero on Miami). There must be something about international players that the Spurs have discovered that makes them inherently… better, I suppose, (although I was thinking about “different, but in a good way”) that the Spurs now use to their advantage. Something that I find to be, perhaps, indicative of the gap between international and American-born players, is what happened in Game 1 of the Finals, the infamous Cramps Game. American players like LeBron were felled and couldn’t function properly, while players like Tony Parker and Tim Duncan were used to the brutal conditions. Parker said that it “felt like [I was in] Europe… We never have AC in Europe, so it didn’t bother me at all” while Duncan said that he hadn’t played in conditions like this since he “left the Islands” where he was born. Be it that international players are tougher, more skilled, or anything else, they, and the Spurs Way, brought the title back to San Antonio, a pretty powerful endorsement of them.

The Spurs Into the Future:

The Spurs are in good shape for the future. Of the San Antonio Big Three, Parker remains in his late prime, while Duncan and Ginobili, while clearly past their prime, remain good players and will be able to play for as long as they want. They have the future leader of the franchise, Leonard (as we talked about earlier), and a number of good players alongside him. They have around ten million dollars in cap space this summer and they can manufacture good players out of thin air. As long as R.C. Buford, Gregg Popovich, and Tim Duncan all help run the team in some capacity, the Spurs will be in good shape.

LeBron James:

How can you blame LeBron? Here’s a chart that showed the Heat’s EWA, or Estimated Wins Added by Heat players during the Finals (courtesy of ESPN Stats and Information:

Per DiemESPN Stats & Information

LeBron had nearly two, Bosh had about a half, and the rest of the Heat dragged LeBron down. The chart pretty much says that LeBron was dominant and incredible, Bosh was decent, and that the rest of the Heat were garbage, pulling LeBron down with them.

No matter how good LeBron might be, he can’t win one on five against the Spurs. LeBron was guarded by Kawhi Leonard, (who defended LeBron perfectly) but since the Spurs didn’t have to pay much attention to anyone on the floor other than Bosh, they could help onto LeBron to make it much harder for him to score. And, because there weren’t any scoring threats on the floor other than him, (apart from Bosh) he couldn’t rack up assists and get his teammates easy points when the Spurs helped off of them to guard him instead.

This wasn’t 2011 against the Mavericks all over again. In that series, LeBron forgot that he was LeBron and that he is unstoppable when he decides to be, and did nothing for minutes at a time, losing him a title and a lot of respect from the world. In these Finals, LeBron did everything that he possibly could. This time, LeBron didn’t lose the Finals; the Heat did.

And that’s really what these Finals should be about: Miami didn’t lose the Finals as much as San Antonio won them. Miami didn’t choke away a victory as much as San Antonio went out and got it. San Antonio outclassed Miami in every way, and rather than blaming LeBron for the shortcomings of his teammates or talking about how Miami sucks, we should all be applauding the Spurs for the marvelous tutorial on how to play the sport of basketball. That’s the story that people should take away from these Finals. It’s possible that we will never see the level of offense that the Spurs exhibited during this series ever again, so why squander it by blaming LeBron for something that isn’t is fault? Honestly, I think that we should all just take a moment and appreciate the rarity and history of what we were lucky enough to see.

The 2015 Heat:

Outside of three early termination options (from Bosh, LeBron and Wade) and a player option (from Udonis Haslem) (the difference between EWOs and POs is that the former is ending the deal a year early while the latter extends the deal an additional year), Miami only has just over four million dollars on their cap for 2014-2015 (from Birdman, Norris Cole, and Justin Hamilton). This gives them the freedom to improve. However, it may not be easy as that. Just to bring back their three stars, unless they take a massive pay cut, will be somewhere around 50-60 million dollars combined. Wade alone, when he picks up his player option, will be around a 20 million dollar cap hit. It’s almost impossible to be able to perform enough cap gymnastics to get around that.

Remember, this is a team that got solidly beat in the Finals. Just keeping their players (who are, keep in mind, all getting older) won’t be enough. They need to add a number of supporting pieces, but they don’t have the cap space to do it. Next year, even if they bring back LeBron and Bosh, they’ll be an older and shallower team, even weaker than they were this year. The Heat are in bad shape for the immediate future (or at least as bad as you can be when you just were the runner-up in the Finals) and it’s going to be interesting how they manage to deal with their bleak outlook for 2015 and beyond.

The Decision 2.0.:

How does this series affect LeBron’s decision? As we mentioned earlier, this series, it was LeBron (with some Bosh) against the Spurs. His teammates (again, excluding Bosh) were useless. Miami’s options to upgrade the team are almost nonexistent. Wade will accept his player options for the next two years because it’s a lot more money than he would get on the open market. Why would LeBron want to stay in Miami when he has to carry the team by himself, accept less money, and only be a championship contender because the Eastern Conference is complete garbage?

I’ve been advocating all along for LeBron to go to the Clippers (you can check out a few of my prior articles for the reasons why). An interesting direction that LeBron leaving Miami for the Clips might push the league towards is a league of superstars, rather than a league with individual teams. Instead of cheering for the Heat or the Thunder, fans will cheer for LeBron or KD, independent of the team they play for.

The NBA would never allow that to happen because it would push way too much power to the players, which could lead to an intriguing scenario: the players leaving the NBA and forming their own league, to officially take control of the basketball league away from the NBA. Here’s an article about that very concept from about two years ago, during the lockout: http://grantland.com/features/we-need-renegade-basketball-league/. It’s co-written by my favorite writer, Bill Simmons, and it’s certainly worth a read.

The ideas that the article proposes are fascinating and it wouldn’t be a stretch of the imagination to see this possibly happening. If the players took over and made it a players’ league, the NBA couldn’t do anything to stop them, the players would make more money with fewer restrictions, and we’d all get to finally stop seeing stars force their way to one team or another, because a star would own and run his own team. There’s no downside for anyone other than the owners of NBA teams, and if it ends up happening, that’d be one of the coolest things in the history of sports.

Speaking of cool things in sports, go turn on your TV and watch the World Cup. It’s been great so far and it’s worthwhile to watch. An article recapping the first slate of games for each team should be up, at the latest, within 24 hours, so if you haven’t watched the World Cup so far but want to get into it, you should check that out along with the last article I posted, previewing the World Cup.

Also, if you enjoyed this article, share the link to it on social media and with your friends and family, coworkers and acquaintances, and anyone else who you think might like it. Every page view, like, and share helps. Thanks in advance and thanks for reading!

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!