The NBA Finals mark the pinnacle of the NBA season, but also a special time in league history. Every June, teams and players match up to decide legacies, contemporary reputations, and more topics for argument among friends and acquaintances. How will various outcomes affect the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat this series? Read on to find out.
Gregg Popovich: Over the past few years, the Spurs coach has come to be identified widely as one of the greatest coaches in the history of the NBA. He deserves that honor, having led the Spurs to four titles, a ridiculous stretch of 50-win seasons, and status as the steadiest organization in sports at a time when regular turnover is the norm. Plus, despite (or due to) Popovich's ostensible disregarding of image, he's developed into one of the most identifiable personalities in the game.
For all those accomplishments, though, defeating the Heat in this series could elevate him to the highest stratum of NBA coaching and place him next to Red Auerbach and Phil Jackson as co-leaders for the title of Greatest Coach Ever. While Popovich doesn't have as many rings as either member of that duo, he generally receives more credit for the character and success of his teams, in part because Tim Duncan is such a self-effacing star but also because he has overseen so many changes in personnel and style over his time in San Antonio. Although the reality is more complicated, no coach in this era has been so associated with the form of his team. It's as if the Spurs sprung from his head fully formed.
Beating the Heat would rank as one of his greatest accomplishments. The Spurs haven't won a title since 2007, topped the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference finals when they looked to have a matchup nightmare, and return to the Finals this week to face a team that came back from within a few seconds of elimination to bounce the Spurs in the final game of the 2012-13 season. Transcending all those challenges would indicate just how well Popovich has guided this team — through the last 12 months and the past seven years. We all know how great a coach he is, but this title would be the best evidence of it.
Tim Duncan: Winning or losing this series will not cement Duncan's place in NBA history — he's the greatest power forward ever, or at least the greatest center who still gets called a power forward even when Matt Bonner starts next to him in the frontcourt. Regardless, winning a title at 38 years old would put Duncan in select company with few other players — arguably only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, really — as someone who won a title at advanced age while still performing at the level of an All-Star. We will always reflect on Duncan as someone who aged particularly gracefully, with no hint of ego as he took on a less central but no less essential role to his team's success. A fifth championship would just add another clause to make that sentence even more impressive.
Kawhi Leonard: In last June's NBA Finals, Leonard turned from a nice young player with an important role on a conference champion into a budding star who figures to become the face of the Spurs when their Big Three no longer leads the team in every conceivable on-court manner. That lead towards stardom was grounded during the first few months of this season, but Leonard has rewarded those predictions of late with stellar play in the second half of the regular season and major roles in each postseason series up until this point. He was particularly important to the Western Conference finals, in which he helped frustrate Kevin Durant to an impressive but decidedly sub-MVP performance.
Leonard figures to take on a similarly important role vs. the Heat once again. No player can stop LeBron James, but Leonard has seen more success than most and should also see considerable time against Dwyane Wade. If he plays quality defense and continues to provide his share of the Spurs' scoring load, expect Leonard to continue on the track toward stardom.
Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili: These longtime backcourt partners are at different points in their careers — Parker is nearly five years younger — but they occupy similar positions of consistency. Despite obvious differences, including that Parker is significantly more productive than Ginobili right now, they often appear to be the same players they were when they took their primary roles in the Spurs offense. Parker remains a lightning-quick guard with elite finishing ability, Ginobili is as creative as ever, etc. Like Duncan, both players are so familiar in their roles within the team that it's as if the normal realities of NBA reputation-maintenance don't affect them at all. It feels like no result can change their status. We'll just add another line to their bios if they achieve their goals.
No One: The Spurs have prided themselves on an organization-wide avoidance of fame and other presumably selfish concerns, but they have nevertheless developed an aura matched by no opponent. While teams like the Heat become targets of hate even as they reach levels of massive popularity, the Spurs generally appear impervious to criticism. The old "boring" epithets now come from an ever-smaller minority — instead, appreciation of the San Antonio way now seems like the only thing NBA fans can agree on. For whatever reason — perhaps because they provide a stark alternative, maybe due to the constancy of the roster — the Spurs are in many ways media darlings.
If the Spurs were to fall to the Heat for the second consecutive year, would it be cause any great concern? When they lose, it's rare to see anyone criticize their organizational philosophy, as you might see with the Oklahoma City Thunder and Indiana Pacers this week. That goes for whenever it happens, too, even when they face disappointments that have crushed other franchises. Their defeat in the first round of the 2011 playoffs as the West's top seed did little to derail their long-term plans, and no one saw the Spurs project as irreparably compromised. The same likely would have occurred if they'd lost to the Dallas Mavericks this season — which, though it seems weird to say now, was a real possibility. It's as if the Spurs appear so comfortable with themselves and so certain of their preparation that any loss reflects only on a deficiency of resources.
Figuring out potential movement in their reputations, then, is somewhat unnecessary. What could possibly happen that would make them see rampant criticism? Four straight blowouts? A horrific brawl? Someone falling asleep on the bench? Whereas most every other team appears to consider the NBA Finals a time to decide honor, a place in history, or any other emotional attachment to the sport, the Spurs look content to view it as a best-of-seven series for a cool trophy. Even if they care more than they let on, it's hard to consider any special negative repercussions of a loss when the team itself doesn't seem to dwell on disappointments. They bring rare maturity to a fairly irrational exercise. That quality is refreshing, but also a little disappointing for anyone who enjoys the more extreme aspects of pro sports.
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