SAN ANTONIO — Tim Duncan and LeBron James each dismissed what the NBA Finals rematch between the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat represents for their respective legacies. But the series has sparked a debate about which accomplishment would be more impressive: Winning a fifth title during a 17-year career with the same team or becoming the fifth player to lead his team to three straight NBA championships?
When the series opens Thursday, it will mark the third time Duncan and James have met in the Finals. And while each has plenty at stake, it’s James who arguably has more to lose. Duncan wouldn’t alter perceptions about his career with another ring, but he would certainly gain more appreciation.
The expectations for James have always transcended his greatness, but he has willingly accepted that he has to do more to please the masses, given the high standard he has already set for himself.
Once he won his fourth title by defeating James’s Cleveland Cavaliers in 2007, Duncan’s status as an all-time great was cemented. His chase for another ring has mostly been about his own drive. The Spurs have been buried multiple times over the past seven years — including last season, when a Finals collapse against Miami had many assuming it was Duncan’s last chance.
This should be a time when Duncan has already ceded the Western Conference to a younger upstart, such as Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder. But Duncan has remained relevant beyond his prime because of his willingness to sacrifice — shots, minutes, diet — to make sure the Spurs continue to win.
“Everyone wants to get through a championship. Having won it before only turns that up even more,” said Duncan, who has no plans or desires to retire anytime soon. “All I'm focusing on is trying to get another one. Doesn’t matter if it’s four, five, two or one before. This is the only one that counts right now, and this is the only one that’s in my head right now.”
Duncan could become the only big man from a generation that mostly shunned being big to win five titles.
That he won his first title in 1999, the summer before James entered high school, speaks to his timeless game and loyalty as a true franchise player.
Michael Jordan won six titles from 1991 to 1998. Magic Johnson won five from 1980 to 1988. Kobe Bryant won five titles from 2000 to 2010.
Duncan no longer has any rivals or contemporaries. He outlasted Shaquille O’Neal and only can watch Kevin Garnett labor meekly toward the finish line. Duncan, 38, entered the league the season Jordan won his final title in Chicago.
In terms of longevity and productivity, Duncan is most similar to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who won six titles between 1971 and 1988. But Abdul-Jabbar switched teams from smaller market Milwaukee to the ultimate glamour team, the Los Angeles Lakers. Duncan flirted with the idea of leaving San Antonio in 2000 but inevitably decided to stay instead of joining Grant Hill in Orlando.
The decision was rewarded. The San Antonio front office has drafted wisely, and Coach Gregg Popovich has developed players such as Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili into stars.
Popovich preaches unselfish play, and Duncan bought in long ago.
“Every time you see your superstar, the franchise being so unselfish, it makes you want to be like that, too,” Parker said. “Timmy is a great example for me. He was a model for me to follow. He’s been so good for so long, and I think a big key of our success is we never let our ego, me or Timmy or Manu, be ahead of the team.”
Duncan has experienced some slippage and relies upon economic movement to stay effective, but he can still deliver when necessary, as he showed while he scored seven points in overtime of Game 6 in Oklahoma City to lead the Spurs back to the NBA Finals.
“He is still solidifying his legacy at this point, in the sense that he’s playing at the one of the highest levels of any guy that’s played this long,” James said. “To keep this team and this franchise relevant over 15 years is amazing. . . . Just lets you know what type of person and what type of player and passion he has for the game.”
James hasn’t had a rival during his reign. Dwyane Wade may have come the closest, but he and James decided to join forces. Seemingly in competition with history more than the opponent in front of him, James joined the Heat before the 2010-11 season with his legacy in mind.
He didn’t necessarily feel entitled to win championships because of his incredible physical tools and sharp basketball mind, but he lacked trust in Cleveland’s ability to build a contender around him and conceded his own limitations as a recruiter when Chris Bosh elected to play with Wade in Miami instead of joining James with the Cavaliers.
The decision to join Bosh and Wade has yielded the expected return for James.
He is the first player since Larry Bird to lead his franchise to four consecutive Finals and is now four wins from joining the likes of George Mikan, Bill Russell, Jordan and O’Neal as leaders of teams that won three consecutive championships.
If Miami doesn’t win three straight, questions will begin about the future of the Heat since James, Wade and Bosh all can become free agents.
James also would have to encounter some of the same scrutiny he faced after the Heat lost to Dallas in 2011, when Wade said James’s desires to win consumed him so badly he eventually imploded.
“Sometimes when you want something so bad, it works the opposite,” Wade said. “He's really taken his game to a whole other level. I sit back and look from afar. He’s done an unbelievable job under the microscope that he’s been under since he was 16 years old of doing things his way and been very successful at doing them.”
James has recovered from that dark period, but his stated quest to go down as the greatest ever to play the game and bump someone from his Mount Rushmore of great NBA players — Jordan, Bird, Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson — would also experience a setback with a loss.
Jordan went 6-0 in the Finals. Bird was 3-2. Johnson was 5-4. Robertson won in his only appearance. James is 2-2 — but the four-time MVP is still in his prime at age 29 with hopes of playing at a high level for several more years.
“I put no pressure on this Finals,” James said. “I don’t really care what people say about me or how people categorize my so-called legacy or the way they think I should be. I play this game at a high level and put myself in the position to help our team succeed. And at the end of the day, win, lose or draw, I’m satisfied with that. I don’t get involved in what people say about me and my legacy. I think it’s actually kind of stupid.”