SAN ANTONIO — When LeBron James retires someday he will go down as one of the greats to ever play the game. Exactly where in that pantheon, where on that scale he lands remains to be seen. He can call the talk of his ultimately legacy “kind of stupid” as he did Wednesday, but the fact remains that’s kind of where his career is at right now — he is in legacy building mode. Whether he wants to admit it or not.
Whenever this Spurs era ends — and no matter the outcome of these NBA Finals that start Thursday night in San Antonio — this franchise’s legacy is going to be set as one of the best teams in the post-Jordan era. It has sustained excellence spanning three decades now, from the late 1990s to today. We will call it the Tim Duncan era but it will be more than that, it will be David Robinson and Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker and most of all Gregg Popovich.
They may not want to talk about it, but both of the participants in the 2014 NBA Finals in some way have secured a powerful legacy.
And yet both have a lot on the line with their legacy in this series. Particularly LeBron.
Which is part of what makes these Finals so compelling. This is more than just another rematch, there is more than just pride and another ring on the line for these guys.
Especially LeBron — the stakes are highest for his legacy. Whether he cares about it or not.
Win and LeBron will have led a team to a three-peat, something Jordan did, something Shaq and Kobe Bryant did, but not something legends like Magic Johnson or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Wilt Chamberlain or Larry Bird ever did. Fair or not, Jordan is the bar LeBron is compared to now. Win this title and LeBron will have led an aging, declining team to a third straight title — past the immortal Duncan (twice), past Kevin Durant, past every peer he faced at his peak. That is how legends and legacies are made.
Lose, however, and LeBron is 2-3 in Finals and suddenly it’s a long road to Jordan’s 6-0 Finals record. LeBron will have been felled by Dirk Nowitzki and Duncan — two legendary players, but if you are an icon those are the titles you are supposed to win. Because that’s what we saw Jordan do. Again the standard may not be fair, but that’s where the bar has been set.
Lose and LeBron will someday go down as maybe the greatest physical specimen ever to play the game, but there will be questions about how much he got out of that talent. Doesn’t matter if he thinks that is fair, doesn’t matter how many MVPs he has or who the teammates were around him.
He may say that this kind of talk is stupid as he is 29 years old, but this is the same guy who has said in the past he wants to be on the NBA Mount Rushmore, that he is driven to become the greatest NBA player of all time. Remember he called his key jumper late in Game 7 of the Finals last year his “MJ moment.” He cares about his legacy, about how he will ultimately be remembered. And with that there is a lot on the line in these Finals.
Tim Duncan will go down as the greatest power forward ever when he steps away from the game sometime in the next few years. That is secured. We will debate him vs. Karl Malone on the pantheon, or whomever else you wish to put at the four spot, but Duncan has secured that place in the conversation.
However, win a fifth title and he will have done something more.
Win and these Spurs can lay claim with their sustained 15 years of excellence to the “greatest team in the post-Jordan era” title. It’s them and the Lakers, who have five titles to the Spurs four right now. If San Antonio gets a fifth — spread 15 years apart, where they won 50 games or more every one of those seasons (save for the lockout year there were just 50 games) — and they rightfully can try to snatch that mantle away from Kobe. You may say that the title still belongs to the Lakers (this is essentially a bar stool debate anyway) but the fact is the Spurs deserve to be respected and part of that conversation.
A win helps cement the Tim Duncan era as one of the great runs in the history of the NBA. It bookends it with 1999. It brings it into a new era and shows that ball movement, cutting off the ball, and just playing smart, playing fundamentally sound basketball will always be able to win. Even if you’re no longer the most athletic of teams.
That’s a huge legacy.
As it would be for LeBron if he wins.
The players, trying to focus straight ahead on the games may find the talk “stupid” but for both the 2014 NBA Finals is about their ultimate legacies.