Now that the NBA Finals have concluded with the Spurs capturing the 5th title in franchise history, we’re going to take a moment to consider the legacies of three prominent players. The first two being Tim Duncan and Lebron James, the alpha-dogs featured in this year’s Finals. The third, one Kobe Bryant. Why Kobe you ask? Because the focus of this piece is legacies, and in that context Kobe serves as a measuring stick for both Duncan’s and James’ rankings among the greatest of the NBA great.
That said, when you’re the top guy on a team,’the franchise’ if you will, nothing builds your legacy like winning a championship, and when it comes to determining the best of the best, multiple championships. While it’s not what separates the men from the boys per se – that would be an oversimplification – it does separate the greatest of the great from ‘just’ the great. You can’t convince me that phenomenal talents on the short end of the championship stick weren’t men amongst men on the court. Guys like Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Artis Gilmore, Steve Nash, Elgin Baylor, Allen Iverson, Patrick Ewing and many others were indeed some of the greatest to ever do it. Their accomplishments are many, from MVP awards to scoring championships to Olympic Gold Medals, along with all-time rebounding, assist, scoring, steals, and blocks statistics, deep playoff runs, and Conference Championships. Lamentably, these guys never got over that championship hump. As such many of their counterparts are considered top-tier all-timers, a notch above those title-less greats previously mentioned. These men include the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Isaiah Thomas, Larry Bird, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, and Bill Russell (the ultimate champion with 11 rings, though he’s too often historically penalized in the ‘best ever’ debate for doing the bulk of his winning in the 60s – a questionable line of reasoning which we’ll discuss in detail another day). With that in mind, lets take a look at what the outcome of this year’s NBA Finals means for three all-time greats and their respective legacies.
We’ll start with the current “best player in the world”, Lebron James. King James is already among the all-time greats, having led a very flawed Cleveland Cavaliers team to the franchise’s only Finals appearance back in ’07 and having just concluded a run with the Miami Heat of making 4 straight Finals appearances, a feat that hadn’t been matched since Larry Bird’s Celtics made 4 straight in the mid-80s, going 2-2 in that span. Having come up short this year, Lebron is now 2-3 in 5 Finals appearances, having lost to Tim Duncan’s Spurs in ’07 and again this year, and to Dirk Nowitski’s Dallas Mavericks in 2011. His back to back titles in 2012 & 2013 are indeed impressive however. He’s won 2 NBA Finals MVP awards along with 4 regular season MVPs and continues to climb up the all-time statistics charts (already 26th all-time scoring for example) as he plays through the prime of his career. He is undoubtedly one of the most dominant and complete players basketball has ever seen, with a combination of speed, athleticism, and brute strength that allows him to steamroll his way to the hoop at will, while also possessing the ball handling and passing skills necessary to be an effective game manager when he’s not scoring. No slouch on defense, he’s notorious for running down an opposing team’s fast break and making a seemingly impossible block from behind. Even though he lost this year’s championship King James has already accomplished enough to be mentioned in the same breath with guys like Bird and Kobe. And at 29 years old, he still has plenty of good years ahead of him to add to his legacy. So what exactly was at stake for Lebron in these Finals? Leverage in the ‘greatest player ever’ discussion, that’s what.
Lebron arrived on the scene back in 2003 as perhaps the most hyped and highly anticipated high schooler to ever enter the NBA draft (and that’s saying something when you consider all-timers like Moses Malone, Kevin Garnett, and Kobe Bryant also entered the draft right out of high school). Since then he’s been chasing the basketball legacies of Kobe Bryant (the best player in the game at the time Lebron entered the league) and of course, Michael Jordan. We’ll talk about Kobe in more detail shortly, but for now lets consider his 5-2 Finals record against Lebron’s 2-3 mark. Though 5 Finals appearances are not to be taken lightly, losing 3 of them puts Lebron significantly behind Kobe and damn near eliminates him from any comparisons to MJ and his 6-0 Finals record. As it currently stands, he’d have to win as many, if not more titles than His Airness to re-emerge in those comparisons. Remember, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a 6 time NBA Champion (with 2 Finals MVPs), a record 6 time regular season MVP, and with an astonishing 38,387 points he’s the NBA’s all-time leading scorer to boot. Despite that stellar resume, for some reason he’s rarely ever brought up in the ‘greatest ever’ conversation. My best guess as to why (aside from him being typically aloof and just not a very likable personality, okay so maybe my Boston bias is kicking in here) is that though he won 6 championships, he also LOST 4 (in ’74, ’83, ’84, & ’89). In the ‘greatest ever’ debate for whatever reason MJ’s 6-0 mark trumps Kareem’s 6-4 mark. Though it’s a great accomplishment in and of itself to make the Finals, in the eyes of many fans and analysts great players lose points for losing in the championship round. As such, despite his greatness, Lebron’s current 2-3 Finals record hurts him. That said, unless peers like Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, and/or Chris Paul start winning title after title in the coming years, Lebron’s status as the best player of his generation is safe, but again his sub-.500 record in the Finals means he’s lost a lot of steam in ‘greatest ever’ debate.
That said, the most intriguing legacy story line in these Finals is that of Tim Duncan’s versus Kobe Bryant’s. Coming into this season, Kobe was slightly ahead of Duncan in the ‘best player of his generation’ debate, not to mention the ‘greatest ever’ conversation. Duncan’s career accolades are impressive. Along with the 4-1 Finals record he had prior to this year (winning 3 Finals MVP awards along the way), he’s also a two time regular season MVP and boasts double digit All Star appearances as well as several All NBA and All NBA Defensive Team nods. Kobe’s career has been at minimum equally if not more impressive, boasting a 5-2 Finals records (winning 2 NBA Finals MVPs), 1 regular season MVP (though many argue he was stiffed twice, I’m looking at your 2 MVPs, Steve Nash…), double digit All Star appearances (including 4 All Star Game MVP awards), and many All NBA and All NBA Defensive Team selections as well. He’s also currently the 4th leading scorer in NBA history, behind only Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, and Michael Jordan. Should Kobe play another 2-3 seasons at a reasonable scoring clip by his standards (say 22 points per game), he’ll definitely catch Jordan as he’s currently only roughly 600 points behind (or a third of a season at 22 points per game). He even has an outside shot of catching Karl Malone for 2nd all time as he’s currently roughly 5,000 points behind, meaning he’d have to score better than 22 per game over a 3-4 year span (or play damn near into his 40s for another 5-6 years). Either way you slice it, both Kobe and Duncan are all-time greats, making comparing their legacies like an exercise in splitting hairs, but we’ll do so anyways.
At day’s end as we mentioned above, when discussing greatness in the NBA and whether it’s fair or not, championships are what separate the greatest performers from the mere great. In the case of Kobe vs. Duncan, Kobe was ahead entering the year because he had 1 more ring than Duncan. But that’s no longer the case. Ducan’s victory this year means he now has as many titles as Kobe, and one less Finals loss. On top of that, whereas Kobe played Robin to Shaquille O’Neal’s Batman for his 1st three championships, Tim Duncan has been unquestionably the main piece in all 5 of his. And that’s to take nothing away from guys like David Robinson, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobli, but let’s face it, since the day he entered the league Timmy has been the engine that makes the Spurs go. The Shaq and Kobe Lakers’ 3 straight titles in the early 00’s were impressive, but Shaq also managed to win with other great sidekicks, having made the Finals as the top dog for the Orlando Magic back in ’95 while playing alongside a young Penny Hardaway (an All NBA talent before knee injuries derailed his career), and more importantly having WON the 2006 title playing with Dwayne Wade (who’s now a 3-time Champion). This suggests that Shaq could’ve won in LA without Kobe, albeit it would’ve had to have been with another great player. That said, though Kobe was definitely the main guy for his 2009 and 2010 back-to-back championship teams, by comparison it’s hard to imagine any of the Spurs championships happening without Tim Duncan leading the charge. As such, this hurts Kobe’s all-time ranking.
Another point to consider is that one of Kobe’s losses in the Finals came against the Chauncey Billups led 2004 Detroit Pistons. Kobe would never avenge that defeat. In fact, in 2005 it was Tim Duncan and the Spurs who dethroned a Pistons team that featured the same cast of characters who beat Kobe & Shaq the year before. To his credit however, though he never got back at the Pistons Kobe did manage to avenge his 2008 Finals defeat at the hands of the Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce led Boston Celtics, winning the rematch in 2010. By comparison, Duncan’s only Finals loss came at the hands of Lebron’s Heat and he was able to get his revenge the very next season. He now owns a 2-1 Finals record over King James, who again is widely regarded as the current “best player of this generation”. When it comes to alpha dog legacies, that has to count for something.
The end result of all this? Duncan has now officially passed Kobe Bryant in both the ‘greatest ever’ and ‘best player of his generation’ debates. Neither will catch Michael Jordan, let’s be real about this. But whereas coming into the season both Kobe AND Lebron would typically be mentioned as guys who at least can approach Jordan in that conversation, the landscape for that reasoning has changed. Lebron, for the time being shouldn’t come up in that conversation at all. He still has plenty of time to get back into it, but today he’s on the outside looking in. Kobe’s 5 rings and an overall fantastic resume that he’s also still working on means if nothing else he’s at least in Jordan’s stratosphere. Duncan however, now not only officially enters that conversation but he leapfrogs Kobe as well. For the time being, despite Kobe’s gaudy scoring numbers and his one more Finals appearance, Duncan has surpassed Bryant on the pantheon of NBA greatness and has for the time being cemented himself as the best player of his generation. Granted that can change as both men, now in their mid-late 30s do have a few years left in the tank, but again as it stands right now, Duncan’s the One.
Congrats to Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs on their 5th championship since the 1999 season. It was a fantastic NBA season and I can’t wait for the next one, but in the meantime it’s appropriate to consider how great Tim Duncan truly is. Now the only NBA player in history to start for a championship team in 3 different decades, this guy is truly a once in a lifetime talent who deserves all the praise that’s coming his way this off-season. For Timmy the question now becomes, ‘can he match Jordan’s 6 rings?’ I, for one, can’t wait to find out.