Seize The Legacies
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I remember when my boyhood hero, Magic Johnson, first faced his college and NBA rival, Larry Bird, in the 1984 NBA Finals when the L.A. Lakers battled nemesis Boston Celtics--that was a magical moment for me and millions other like me.
When one of the greatest ever, Michael Jordan, and his all-time great Chicago Bulls teams of the '90s faced John Stockton, Karl Malone and perennial playoff power Utah Jazz in the 1997 and 1998 NBA Finals--those were some memorable matchups that hold TV ratings records for basketball to this very day.
I get the same feeling now with Heat-Spurs II. Or Duncan-LeBron III. Or however you want to title these 2014 NBA Finals where the back-to-back NBA champion Miami Heat, who are in their fourth straight NBA Finals, take on the 17-year perennial playoff power San Antonio Spurs, who have won four NBA championships over that span.
The faces of this newfound rivalry are three-time Finals MVP Tim Duncan, who got the upper-hand on LeBron when San Antonio defeated the LeBron-led Cleveland Cavaliers squad in the 2007 NBA Finals, and two-time Finals MVP LeBron James, who got his upper hand on Duncan when the Heat beat the Spurs in a seven-game classic 2013 NBA Finals.
Don't get me wrong.
LeBron and Kevin Durant in 2012 was nice hype.
LeBron and Dirk Nowitzki in 2011 was very entertaining.
Just as riveting were the 2008 and 2010 NBA Finals between old rivals, Lakers and Celtics.
I cherished each one of my beloved Spurs' four NBA championships, even more than I enjoyed the Shaq-and-Kobe-led Lakers three-peat of the 2000, 2001 and 2002 NBA Finals when I was living in Los Angeles.
Those were the days--the days that showcased the 21st Century superstars and also showed they could carry the NBA Finals in an ever-changing cable TV climate as well as network stars Michael, Magic, Larry, Dr. J, Hakeem and the Bad Boys before them.
But Heat-Spurs 2013 & 2014, to me, falls in the extra-special category, like Lakers-Celtics 1984, 1985 & 1987 or Bulls-Jazz 1997 & 1998.
Not only do you have compelling storylines that should make for another ratings blockbuster, but you also have many of the game's all-time greats assembling in one place for one legendary seven-game matchup called The Finals.
It is finally here. And I cannot wait for it all to get started.
This series has the potential to go down perhaps as the #GreatestFinalsEver.
Then again, one team could possibly sweep the other in a four-game series, thus cementing their own franchise as #GreatestTeamEver.
Regardless, we are going to get some hashtags out of this baby.
The Boston Celtics had already won 10 of their 11 NBA championships before I was born in 1966. So when I think of the greatest NBA teams of my era that I have seen, I think of the '90s Bulls, the '80s Lakers, the '80s Celtics, the '00s Lakers and even the '10s Heat. But unlike those historic eras that seem to evaporate after three to six to eight to 10 years of championship shelf life, the greatest team I have ever seen belongs to two centuries, taking birth in the 1997-98 season when Duncan joined the Spurs and coming to full growth today in 2013-14, after 17 seasons of winning basketball heretofore unseen in NBA history. Name another team in NBA history that went 1095-485 in the regular season and postseason in a 17-year span, winning 69.3 percent of their games and the equivalent of 50-plus wins (when you accounted for lockouts) in every one of those aforementioned regular seasons. It's just not possible. The Kobe Bryant Lakers, the second best winning percentage of this current 17-year era (.628), is nowhere close to the Spurs, nor is their average margin of victory in their 982-582 record of games (San Antonio averages a +5.90 scoring margin to L.A.'s +3.20). The Michael Jordan Bulls--even if you give M.J. credit for the Scottie Pippen-led 55-win season of 1993-94 when Jordan played baseball--even then, those Bulls teams still come nowhere close to the Spurs, going 875-462 (.654) with a +4.83 margin of victory over a 14-year span. Same is true for the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Lakers (895-434, .673, +4.99 over 14 seasons), the Magic Johnson Lakers (839-332, .716, +6.08 over 12 seasons), the Larry Bird Celtics (855-387, .688, +5.38 over 13 seasons) and even the Stockton Jazz (1055-653, .618, +3.69 over 19 seasons). When the great teams of all-time are discussed--after proper respect is paid to Bill Russell's 11-time NBA champion Celtics teams--people always bring up Jordan's six rings, Magic's five and Kobe's five because those squads won more championships than all the rest. That said, do Magic and Kobe's Lakers step aside if Duncan's Spurs beat the Miami Heat in the 2014 NBA Finals, giving TD, Coach Gregg Popovich and the Spurs organization their fifth NBA title in 17 years? Does Jordan worry about his legacy next year? When I say, The Spurs are the greatest team I ever seen, I say it knowing that 17 years of 50-plus wins annually has never been done and probably will never occur again. With another title or two, everyone else may soon agree.
The Heat are in the midst of a four-year Finals run, which places them on the same pantheon as the 1984-thru-1987 Celtics, the 1982-thru-1985 Lakers and the 1957-thru-1966 Celtics, as the only teams that reached the NBA Finals four consecutive times. If they win the 2014 NBA Finals, the Heat will become only the fourth NBA franchise to three-peat as well, joining the 1952-thru-1954 Minneapolis Lakers, the 1959-thru-1966 Celtics, the 1991-thru-1993 Bulls, the 1996-thru-1998 Bulls and the 2000-thru-2002 L.A. Lakers. Not only would they be the Team For The 2010s, but they'd be a team for all-time. At the moment, Miami's regular season and postseason record from the 2009-10 season through 2013-14 is 330-151 (.686) with a +5.53 scoring margin--all marks that rank second only to the Spurs in the 2010s (324-139, .700, +6.13). If the Heat was to beat the Spurs in the 2014 NBA Finals, their next challenge will be the impossible: winning four straight titles, which has only been done by Bill Russell's Celtics, when Boston had its improbable eight-straight-year championship run in the '60s.
Full disclosure: I was 2 years old when Bill Russell walked away from the game, with 11 NBA championships and five MVP trophies. I dribbled at times. Had some slam dumps. But didn't really follow the game of basketball much at age 2. So unfortunately, when I speak of the greatest players I've ever seen, Mr. Russell is not part of my discussion. The only comparables when it comes to NBA accolades are Russell, Abdul-Jabbar and Jordan, who are the only players to have as much hardware as Duncan (four rings and counting, three Finals MVPs and counting, two MVPs, 14 All-NBA awards, 14 All-Defense honors). The only greats who can match Duncan in longevity are Abdul-Jabbar, Stockton and Malone. But when it comes to consistent winning and team leadership, no one touches Duncan in my lifetime. I did see Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (a.k.a. Lew Alcindor) and Michael Jordan at the heights of their careers, just as I have Duncan. While I do believe Abdul-Jabbar at his peak (early '70s) was similar to Jordan at his peak (mid-to-late '90s), I have never seen anyone sustain such a high level of greatness over a 17-year (and counting) period as Duncan has with the Spurs. It is inconceivable that anyone in NBA history--with the exception perhaps of 20-year vet Abdul-Jabbar--matches Duncan's career regular season and postseason Plus-Minus score. Basketball-Reference charts Duncan as the career leader since the 2000-01 season, with a +7738 score, which is 1500-plus more than his closest competitor (Dirk Nowitizki). When estimates are done for Russell (a 13-year NBA veteran) and Jordan (a 15-year vet), none of them come close to what Duncan would get over his 17-year career. Need further proof of that? When Duncan has played, the Spurs have gone 1042-441 in regular season and postseason action for a .703 winning percentage. Abdul-Jabbar--whose teams have won 186 more games than Duncan but also lost 128 more times--has the most career victories at 1228-569 (.683), while his Bucks and Lakers teams did post a cumulative +5.68 scoring margin through his 20 years. So it is conceivable that Abdul-Jabbar may be the one player who still leads Duncan in all-time Plus-Minus, when you compare those totals to San Antonio as a team, which has a +5.90 17-year margin of victory over Duncan's 17 years. None of the other all-time greats likely compare. Jordan is not even close at 825-426 (.659). Others on the 1,000-win list likely fall short: Robert Parish 1121-674 (.624); Karl Malone 1050-619 (.629); Stockton 1042-644 (.618), Derek Fisher 1014-532 (.656). While other all-time greats simply fall short to Father Time in conceivably catching Duncan in Plus-Minus: Kobe Bryant 948-517 (.647); Shaquille O'Neal 948-475 (.666), Scottie Pippen 946-440 (.683), Magic Johnson 798-298 (.728) and Larry Bird 759-302 (.715). Simply put, in my lifetime, nobody won like Duncan. Nobody played defense like Duncan, a record-setting 14-time All-Defense power forward/center who quarterbacked 10 of the best 50 defenses in the three-point shot era (since 1979-80) en route to setting a defensive win shares record for players of that era (98.1). On the flip side, some of the game's best offensive players ever, Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson each quarterbacked six of the NBA's 50 best offenses in that span. As great as MJ and Magic were on offense, TD was even better on D. On the flip side, Duncan was one of the best offensive big men too, posting a 24.6 Player Effiiciency Rating that ranks 12th all-time, with career 20-point, 11-rebound averages that only rose during the postseason at 24.7 along with 21 and 12. He is the all-time playoffs leader in blocked shots, is 115 minutes away from becoming the all-time playoffs leader in minutes played and currently ranks third all-time in playoffs rebounds. In a nutshell: Duncan is one of the best offensive players ever, definitely the best defensive player of the three-point shot era and is on his way to becoming the greatest winner the NBA has ever known. I suspected this would be the case all along, ever since first meeting 18-year-old Duncan 20 years ago. Two decades later, I can confirm his code name: GREATEST P.I.E.S. Greatest Player I Ever Seen.
LeBron James always was The Next. I could be wrong, but I believe I was one of the first persons on the internet to proclaim his future greatness when I told former colleague and current ESPN The Magazine Executive Editor Scott Burton in Summer 2001 that I would take this high school sophomore named LeBron with the No. 1 pick in the 2002 NBA Draft when he was picking my brain in Summer 2001 for draft prospects. Ahead of Yao Ming. Ahead of Jay Williams. Burton called me "demented" for even thinking such a thing about a high school underclassman, but a month or so later when he saw the junior-to-be LeBron in person, he agreed. Six years later, when Duncan and the Spurs beat LeBron's Cavs in the 2007 NBA Finals, TD also predicted that this league would one day soon belong to LeBron, and now it does, with the four-time MVP leading his Heat to back-to-back NBA championships. Next question is, how many more rings and blings and things can LeBron get. He is only a half year away from turning 30 and already has as much NBA hardware to rank amongst the game's dozen best players ever. He's barely past the halfway point in his career and the 29-year-old power forward already ranks 27th in career NBA points, 35th in assists and 45th in steals. The only player that tops LeBron in career Player Efficiency (27.79) is Michael Jordan (27.91) and already he ranks 15th in career win shares. As Duncan and Kobe Bryant settle into their Top 1, 2 or 3 or Top 4, 5 or 6 legacy positions, it will only be a matter of time before all of us ask the question, Has LeBron passed them in the all-time rankings yet?
Man from France joins Spurs in 2001. Man from Argentina joins Spurs in 2002. Some dozen-or-so years later, the two make history: greatest NBA guard tandem ever. I don't even see it as hyperbole anymore; I see it as fact. Six years ago, I wrote a HOOP magazine story, saying it was a "Well-Guarded Secret" that Ginobili and Parker had quietly surpassed Hall-of-Fame duos like Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars, Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe, Jerry West and Gail Goodrich, Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman, Bobby Wanzer and Bob Davies. If you want to see me make my case for Parker and Ginobili as the greatest, all you have to do is read that story written six seasons ago, and then add the wealth of accomplishments the dynamic duo have continued to add in the half-dozen seasons since then. Suffice to say, you are going to find it difficult to locate another backcourt that has two Gs with 20,000-plus minutes together and 19-plus career Player Efficiency Ratings, along with more three NBA championships won together (2003, 2005 and 2007), not to mention a dozen All-NBA and All-Star Games combined, to boot. Maybe I should re-pitch that story to my editor since this All-NBA duo of Ginobili and Parker, in my humble opinion, remains on top of their game today, even at ages 36 and 32. Only thing now is, it's not such a well-guarded secret anymore. They've been the best backcourt for quite awhile now.
What happens when I say The Shot? Do you think of Michael Jordan pushing off on Bryon Russell before daggering the Jazz in the 1998 NBA Finals from up top? Or do you think of Ray Allen's improbable step-back, right corner 3 in the 2014 NBA Finals to steal the championship from the Spurs and put it on hold on ice for the Heat? Because it's either one or the other that has to go down in NBA history as The Shot, and speaking for heartbroken Spurs fans everywhere, I think Allen's "shot" has to go down as the greatest because of what it meant and because of the level of difficulty of taking six pitter-patter steps backward and because it was done by the greatest shooter of all-time (sorry, Mike; you're still the greatest scorer in our modern era). But Ray Allen a.k.a. Jesus Shuttlesworth from the movie "He Got Game" is a unique legend in our game that will live on in NBA Finals eternity with the clutch shot he made with 5 seconds left in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals. It helped him add to his legacy ledger, which now reads: 2 NBA championship rings, an NBA-record 2,973 reguar-season three-pointers (413 more than second-place Reggie Miller) and an NBA-record 376 postseason three-pointers (56 more than second-place Reggie). Need I mention that Allen makes both at a 40-percent clip as well. Allen is the greatest three-point shooter we've ever seen and even today he gives young Stephen Curry a standard to shoot for in his late 30s. As we watch these 2014 NBA Finals, try not to only think of the thousands of shots the 38-year-old Allen has made, rather, think of the hundreds of thousands the 18-year vet has practiced, getting to NBA arenas early for all of his professional life to make moments like The Shot happen.
I hashtagged these two together because Pop and Spo deserve to be honored simultaneously. It took the NBA and its fans years to warm up to Gregg Popovich, but now the 65-year-old Spurs president is the darling grandfather of the NBA coaching fraternity--if, by darling, you mean a military-trained, potential CIA agent who could make you disappear quicker than I can say Gaylord Focker. Yes, I agree, Pop is one of the best people in sports today and his persona is one of my very favorites as well. But he is on this list because Pop is the game's greatest coach of today--for what he has created in the Spurs organization, the 17 consecutive seasons of 50-win and playoff basketball (adjused for lockouts), not to mention the four (and counting) NBA championships his teams have won. However, just as importantly, Miami Heat Head Coach Erik Spoelstra is dominating at his job as well, ranking perhaps as one of the two best coaches in the game today, and just doesn't get the credit, ala Pop, because Spo is so young (43 years old). He is at the point in his career where Pop was 10 years ago, winning championships and earning peer respect, but not fully vested in the public's mind yet. It's been a long drive already for Spo, who joined the Heat as video coordinator in 1995, when Heat President Pat Riley's first took over as Miami head coach. Spoelstra's decades of on-the-job training from one of the greatest NBA head coaches of all-time in Pat Riley is one of the reasons why Spo can be mentioned in the same paragraph and hashtags with Pop today. After all, nobody else in the league today has won multiple NBA titles as either of these two men.
The Miami Heat are Americans, with 15 men hailing from the USA, while the San Antonio Spurs are global, with nine Spurs born and raised in countries outside America. The Miami Heat were built on free agency, while the San Antonio Spurs were built mostly through the NBA Draft. The San Antonio Spurs are veterans in the basketball world. So too are the Heat. The Spurs are one of the five oldest teams in the league; the Heat are even older. The Spurs are one of the NBA's top two teams in continuity, with eight players logging 5,000-plus minutes in San Antonio uniforms; the Heat is that other team, ranking high in continuity, and also will have eight players with 5,000-plus consecutive minutes in Miami uniforms once Allen plays 83 more minutes. The Heat has sacrificed millions of dollars to play together. So too have the Spurs. Yes, there are differences between the two, but as you go down the list, one finds more similarities between the Heat and Spurs than one might have first thought. Both are anchored by basketball legends, Tim Duncan and Dwyane Wade, who have been groomed by coaching legends their whole professional life, by Pop and Riles/Spo. Both were joined by future Hall-of-Fame teammates, either by draft (Ginobili was the 57th pick in 1999; Parker was the 28th pick in 2001) or in Summer 2010 free agency (LeBron and Chris Bosh). Both now are anchored by what everybody calls The Big 3. Every NBA team nowadays thinks you need a Big 3 nucleus to win it all and point no further than Miami or San Antonio to prove their point. Call the blueprint what you will: The Big 3, as they say in Miami, or Los Tres Grandes, as they so-eloquently say in San Antonio-international tone. The two Big 3s is back once again in The Finals. And now, with Duncan-Parker-Ginobili just recently passing Magic, Kareem and Cooper on the all-time playoff-games-won-as-a-trio list, whoever wins these 2014 NBA Finals will rightfully be thought of as The Greatest Big 3 ever, right? It is a title that will last until ... at least ,until they meet up again in the 2015 NBA Finals.