Imagine there’s a sixth grade kid running 4:59 mile times at the middle school track meets. Let’s call him James. The newspaper is all over him, says this is the next great runner, he’s going to be an Olympian, maybe someday the best runner of all time.
Most people in town are skeptical of all this early praise. Especially when the headlines start saying: KING JAMES. The kid will burn out. Way too much hype. And how can you even project that far in the future?
In the same town there is a junior in college who is clocking in at 4:05. Let’s call him Duncan. Duncan’s been running this pace for the last three years, which is great, consistent, but never passing that elusive 4 minute barrier. He’s an extremely quiet guy that needs his own category of introvert. The town doesn’t really notice him and often forgets they even have a university.
Well, turns out the hype was warranted. In high school, James runs a 4:01 as a junior, 3:55 his senior year. He decides not to go to college, instead trains solely for the Olympics. Signs a monster contract with Nike, legend continues to grow before he even runs his first big race.
By age 25, James is widely considered the best mile runner in the world. The problem? At the national championship he came in third. After the race he decides to get a new coach, head down to Miami and train with two of his best friends. The Olympics are the following summer and James is tired of watching other guys get gold medals.
The Olympics end up being a bigger disaster. A guy from Germany wins and James runs a shocking 4:02. He’s the laughing stock of the running world, the internet is a buzz with James choking jokes.
The next summer James wins gold at the world championship. The summer after he does it again. His mile time is down to 3:48, five seconds away from the best time ever recorded.
Shortly after his second world championship, James goes to a charity event down in San Antonio and runs a 3:47. The media goes crazy starts asking the question, “Is James going to be the best mile runner of all time?”
Hidden behind the James story is a human interest piece about Duncan who quietly ran a 4:05 at the same charity race. “This guy’s 37-years-old and he ran a 4:05! Has anyone ever been this good, this late in their running career?”
A year later Duncan and James show up again at the San Antonio charity race. It’s absolute miserable conditions outside. Temperature is around 100 degrees. It’s muggy, the sweat just lingers in the air. At the end of lap one, James starts having severe leg cramps.
The 38-year-old Duncan passes him by. Three laps to go.
The NBA has a pretty tidy history book. Since 1980, only nine franchises have won an NBA title.
The NFL has had 11 since ’99. MLB – nine since ’01. That European soccer league somehow crowns six different champions every year.
Sticking with the 1980 – 2014 window, here is who I would consider the top 10 NBA players in that span:
1. Michael Jordan
2. Kareem Abdul Jabbar* (a lot of his legacy was built in the ’70’s)
3. Magic Johnson
4. LeBron James
5. Larry Bird
6. Tim Duncan
7. Kobe Bryant
8. Shaquille O’Neal
9. Hakeem Olajuwon
10. Dr. J
Of the 34 NBA Finals in that time span, only five times has a team won the Larry O’Brien trophy without a player on the list above – Pistons (’89, ’90 and ’04), Celtics (’08) and Mavericks (’11) and only once has there been a matchup that didn’t involve someone on this list (1990 finals between the Detroit Pistons and Portland Trailblazers).
In other sports the GM can say we don’t need the best player, we can build a great team, build the best defense and win it all. In the NBA you really just need the league’s best player. Pretty simple formula.
Show the above list to any basketball fan and 95 percent will say the greatest rivalry is Bird vs. Magic. The other five percent might say Shaq vs. Kobe.
What isn’t a likely answer – Tim Duncan vs. LeBron James. Yet here we are with the third installment of their NBA Finals matchup, the same amount of times Bird and Magic met.
I think it’s the weirdest “rivalry” in NBA history. Duncan is almost 10 years older than LeBron. LeBron is in the middle of his prime, Duncan is at the end of his career, likely retiring if the Spurs win it all. Both are frontrunners for Finals MVP.
Neither one hates the other. But it’s not a playful rivalry either. Both are established champions and NBA legends. Duncan is the best power forward of all time. LeBron is the best small forward or, at the very least, second behind Larry Bird.
So what’s at stake? Does Tim Duncan’s legacy diminish at all with back-to-back finals losses? For LeBron, besides the inevitable Twitter explosion, does a third finals loss officially kill the LeBron vs. Jordan debate?
For Tim Duncan
Best Case Scenario – Wins Title and Finals MVP
Would put Duncan at five championships and four Finals MVPs. In Finals MVPs he’d only be trailing Michael Jordan (6) for most ever. Going into the finals he only needed three double doubles to have the most in NBA Playoffs history, a top five that includes Magic Johnson, Shaq, Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain.
How many times can Duncan show up at the top of these lists without moving up to the top of the ultimate list? He may lose out in the who had the best prime or “he was the best player I’ve ever seen” debate, but in terms of most impressive total career, five rings and four finals MVPs I believe puts him fourth on the all-time list behind MJ, Bill Russell and Kareem.
Worst Case – Loses title
Doesn’t diminish his legacy, but instead of, “Is Tim Duncan in the top five of all time?” I think the debate becomes more, “Who was better in the post-Jordan, pre-LeBron era; Kobe, Shaq or Duncan?”
For LeBron James
Best Case Scenario – Wins Title and Finals MVP
His first three-peat is complete. Three finals MVPs before his 30th birthday. Has at least four years left in his prime to keep adding to the total.
A third ring and LeBron will have secured his spot above Larry Bird, Kobe, Shaq and Duncan. He will be on pace to pass Wilt, Kareem and Magic. And yes, as much as Chicago will hate this, his legacy could still catch up to Michael Jordan’s.
Worst Case – Loses title
This would hurt, but is not the end all. If you look at the Eastern Conference, I don’t think it’s out of question to project four or five more trips to the NBA Finals for LeBron. Maybe more because with LeBron (barring injury) his career is not going to end at age 34. He is going to be on more of a Tim Duncan timeline, playing up to age 38-40.
Pat Riley will continue to shape the roster to fit LeBron’s evolution or the King can go back to Cleveland and team up with Kyrie Irving and Joel Embiid.
Magic Johnson lost in four NBA Finals. Larry Bird and Kobe lost in two. The, “Well, Michael never lost an NBA Finals series” is already over for LeBron, so whether he’s 3-for-5 or 2-for-5 doesn’t really matter. The only way to damage his legacy in this series is if he has some sort of repeat performance of 2011.
So the Stage is Set
All of the stuff above is subjective. Any time you get into legacies there are so many factors to consider and enough evidence for both sides to make a compelling case. Toss all of that aside, this is Duncan vs. LeBron round three, the rubber match, likely the final installment of this not-really-a-rivalry-rivalry. Time to turn off the air conditioning and settle this on the court.