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Train in Vain

24 Lingering Questions From the NBA Finals

It’s time to wrap up the re-throning of the Spurs and look to next season and beyond

Leave it to the San Antonio Spurs. Just one day after celebrating one of the most emotional title clinchers in NBA history, the “Ozymandias” episode of the Duncan-Pop era was rendered irrelevant by America’s first World Cup game. The poor Spurs didn’t even make it through a 24-hour news cycle. So let’s belatedly celebrate them with a column that never uses the word “legacy.” In fact, the legacy of this column is going to be that it never included the word “legacy.”

Q: In recent sports history, how many redemption stories were better than that of the 2014 Spurs?

There are two kinds of sports redemption: The first is an individual battling back from a personal tragedy (think Michael Jordan after his father’s murder), major injury (think Derrick Rose next season) or career-threatening event (think Michael Vick post-jail or Tiger Woods post-Escalade); the second is an entire team recovering from an unforgettably devastating defeat (the 2014 Spurs). Ideally, the team would want to avenge the defeat right away. If it’s against the same opponent, even better. If it’s done convincingly, with all demons being exorcised, even better. There’s no way to rank the redemptive power; you’re either in the group or you’re not.

From the past 40 years, here’s the group that San Antonio joined: the ’85 Lakers (avenged their ’84 Finals collapse in Boston); Sugar Ray Leonard (avenged his Roberto Duran loss with the “No Más” fight); the ’89 Athletics (won the World Series one year after being haunted by the Gibson homer); the ’89 Pistons (swept the Lakers after getting bounced in back-to-back years by Boston and L.A. in the most excruciating ways possible); and, of course, the 2004 Red Sox (lost on 2003’s Boone homer, rallied from 3-0 down to beat the ’04 Yankees, then won their first World Series in 86 years).1

The best thing about a redemption title: That “unforgettably devastating” defeat becomes forgettable pretty fast. Boston fans stopped thinking about Boone’s homer a little before midnight on October 27, 2004. The Spurs and their fans stopped thinking about “28.2” on Sunday night. The Patriots and their fans stopped thinking about the Helmet Catch right as Gronkowski pulled in Brady’s Hail Mary in Super Bowl XLVI. It’s the best feeling you can have as a sports fan: winning the title AND dumping your baggage. Anyway, I have been in the house in 1984, 1985, 1986, 2008, 2010, 2012, 2013 and 2014 when an NBA team won a championship; Sunday night was the most emotional scene I can remember. You could feel that 12-month journey with every hug.

(Important note: I’m well aware that the Pats lost Super Bowl XLVI. Just wanted to see what that sentence looked like in print.)

Q: Magic Johnson, Tim Duncan … Kawhi Leonard??? Wait … what??? How good can this guy be?

In the last three games of the 2014 NBA Finals, Kawhi went head-to-head against the world’s best basketball player AND OUTFREAKINGPLAYED HIM. He even earned a nickname that hasn’t caught on yet: “Kingslayer.” For me, that was more impressive than Kawhi becoming the third-youngest Finals MVP. Did he no-show Games 1 and 2? Absolutely. Was LeBron a little worn out from four straight Finals seasons, the Olympics, an absolutely insane workload and the day-to-day pressure of carrying a team that had quietly turned into the 2010 Cavs? Absolutely. But Kawhi can always brag about going toe-to-toe with LeBron — in his prime, in the Finals — and being better than him for three straight games.

So, long-term, what are we looking at? Before you play the Pippen 2.0 card, please read the following paragraph about Mystery Player X from one of my 2007 columns …

Great player. The closest thing to Scottie Pippen since Pippen, although he’s not the dunker or the destructive defensive presence that Pippen was. Still, we could be making room for [Mystery Player X] in the Second Banana Hall of Fame some day along with greats like Pippen, Johnny Marr, Kevin McHale, Ricardo Tubbs, Kevin Johnson, Reed Rothchild, Shawn Kemp, Nate Dogg, Hank Kingsley, Young Kobe, Old Shaq, Jeff Garlin, Andrew Toney, Beavis and everyone else.

Who was Mystery Player X? Josh Howard!!!

OH NO!!!

That might be the single worst paragraph in my entire ESPN.com archives. Meanwhile, Kawhi is a younger,2 more resilient, less-stoned version of the player we wanted Josh Howard to be. Could he climb to Pippen 2.0 heights? Like Pippen, he fell into the perfect situation, blessed with an all-time superstar teammate, a Hall of Fame coach, multiple leaders/mentors, successful teams and the luxury of asserting himself offensively on his own terms. Like Pippen, he’s a superior two-way player and an absolutely electric defender. Pippen was a better ball handler/playmaker, and he was definitely a better athlete. But Kawhi is a much better 3-point shooter, and he repeatedly came through in big moments at a much earlier age (unlike Pippen, who needed a few years to, um, come through when it mattered).

Since Pippen was a 22-year-old rookie, Kawhi got a two-year career jump on him. But Pippen was Chicago’s backup playmaker, so he handled the ball way more than Leonard does (hence, more points and more assists). If you look at Kawhi’s first three playoff years …

Age 20: 8.6 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 0.6 apg, 50-45-81%, 1.6 stocks,3 15.1 PER, 1.2 WS
Age 21: 13.5 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 1.0 apg, 55-39-63%, 2.3 stocks, 18.9 PER, 3.1 WS
Age 22: 14.2 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 1.6 apg, 51-42-74%, 2.4 stocks, 18.7 PER, 2.9 WS

And Pippen’s first four playoff years …

Age 22: 10.0 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 2.4 apg, 47-50-46%, 1.6 stocks, 10.0 PER, 0.1 WS
Age 23: 13.1 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 3.9 apg, 46-39-64%, 2.3 stocks, 14.4 PER, 1.3 WS
Age 24: 19.3 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 5.5 apg, 50-32-71%, 3.4 stocks, 18.7 PER, 1.9 WS
Age 25: 21.6 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 5.8 apg, 50-24-79%, 3.6 stocks, 22.0 PER, 2.9 WS

It’s not that ludicrous to compare them. Over the next two years, as Duncan and Ginobili get phased out, Kawhi will assume a bigger offensive burden. I believe he’s one of the league’s 20 best assets right now — maybe you can’t put him with the Harden-Curry-George group for 26-and-under stars yet, but he’s heading there. He also answered the seemingly unanswerable question “What would it have been like to watch Pippen defend LeBron in the Finals during LeBron’s prime?” Because I think Scottie would have defended LeBron just about exactly the same way. Regardless, that was awesome. A star was born. Let’s keep him away from Josh Howard, please.

Q: Couldn’t you argue that LeBron should have won the Finals MVP, considering Miami would have gotten swept by 40 points per game if he hadn’t played?

A: Put it this way: When I was an unborn fetus during the 1969 Finals, I probably kicked my mom in the stomach when Jerry West won the Finals MVP. How valuable could you have been if your team lost? Absurd.

Q: What was San Antonio’s luckiest moment of the past 15 years not counting their three lottery wins?

A: Not trading Tony Parker during the summer of 2010 or 2011 when 90 percent of the league would have reacted to 2010’s Phoenix sweep and 2011’s ass-kicking from Memphis by saying, “Let’s cash in our best trade asset and reboot this thing ASAP.” The lessons: Trust your infrastructure, trust continuity, don’t make big trades just to make big trades, and if that’s not enough, count on the fact that you’re the Spurs and you have a steady stream of horseshoes falling out of your ass.

Q: Wait, the Spurs won three lotteries? Didn’t they win only two?

Technically, yes — they won in 1987 (Robinson) and 1997 (Duncan). But considering that George Hill morphed into a third guard during this year’s playoffs, I’m counting 2011’s Leonard-Hill trade as San Antonio’s third lottery win. Grantland’s Zach Lowe wrote wonderfully about that trade last year, but the odds of Leonard falling to no. 15 in 2011 — making that trade possible — had to be lower than San Antonio winning the 1987/1997 lotteries. Consider …

• Chad Ford ranked Leonard as 2011’s sixth-best prospect and had Detroit taking him at no. 8 in his final 2011 mock draft. John Hollinger’s Draft Rater pegged Leonard as the draft’s fifth-best prospect and guaranteed that he’d become a “solid” rotation player at worst.

• The following players were picked ahead of Leonard: Jan Vesely, Bismack Biyombo, Jimmer Fredette, Alec Burks and both Morris twins. Of that group, my favorite miss is Vesely — and not just because it was immediately revealed that he was horrible at basketball. During Kawhi’s rookie season, Washington used Rashard Lewis, Maurice Evans, Cartier Martin and Chris Singleton as their small forwards.

• After Utah took Burks at no. 12, I wrote in my Draft Diary, “How has Kawhi Leonard not been taken yet? What am I missing?”4

• Indiana took Leonard 15th. You know who had the 14th pick? Dork Elvis! That’s right, the darling of the advanced-metrics and common-sense communities took the Poor Man’s Morris Twin one pick ahead of Kawhi Freaking Leonard. Cancel the Sloan Conference right now! Just cancel it!

• After both Morris twins went, I wrote in my Draft Diary, “San Diego’s Kawhi Leonard is officially our ‘how the hell did he slide to the middle of the draft’ guy, which doesn’t happen every year, but when it happens (Danny Granger, Ty Lawson, Roy Hibbert), you know as it’s happening. He should have been a lottery pick. That guy is a natural NBA small forward.”

• And if that’s not enough, the Pacers could have kept Kawhi and teamed him up with Paul George … which, in retrospect, they definitely would have done had they known that they would have been trotting out the NBA’s most frightening defense/young legs/above-the-rim perimeter combination since Jordan and Pippen. Can you imagine?

To recap: The Spurs needed Michael Jordan, Dork Elvis AND the Basketball Jesus to blow the Kawhi thing, along with everything else that happened. They NEVER should have gotten Kawhi. That’s Lottery Win No. 3.

Q: What were the biggest breaks the 2014 Spurs received that had nothing to do with them?

Small breaks: DeJuan Blair kicking Tiago Splitter in the head right as it seemed like Dallas was going to steal Game 4 (and make that series truly scary); Portland beating Houston (allowing the Spurs to avoid Harden and Howard); Ibaka missing Game 1 and Game 2 of the Western Conference finals; the Cramp Game; Dwyane Wade inexplicably turning into a 45-year-old man.

Big breaks: the Harden trade; the Sterling fiasco; Derrick Rose’s knee injuries; Whatever The Hell Made Indiana Implode; Miami’s wear and tear from four straight Finals; and for a second time, the Harden Trade.

But you know what? Every champion gets breaks! If anything, you could argue that — after Fisher’s 0.4 shot in 2004, Dirk’s 3-point play in 2006 and last year’s 28.2-Second Apocalypse — the Spurs were overdue for a hot blackjack table. The best team won.

Q: Will we always remember the Cramp Game, or will that just fade away over time?

The Finals result was so decisive — and LeBron’s overall workload so ridiculously daunting — that I can’t imagine anyone holding those Game 1 cramps against him long-term. (Well, unless they’ve never played sports.) It’s more funny than anything that LeBron’s kryptonite is unexpected heat; he’d make for the worst DC Comics character ever.

Just break the AC when he’s not expecting it! Turn it off!

Not to sound like Clint Eastwood sitting on the porch in Gran Torino, but I attended 40 or 50 Boston Garden games that were hotter than Game 1. The Garden wasn’t air-conditioned and they didn’t have suites, so everyone was packed into that place like 300 college kids cramming into someone’s apartment at a keg party. That’s how Game 5 of the 1984 Finals — a.k.a. the Heat Game, when it was 96 degrees outside and 296 degrees inside — became one of the defining Bird games. Fans were fainting in the stands. The Lakers were sucking from oxygen masks on their bench. We were deliriously hot during that game; we felt like cars overheating.

But it actually added to the atmosphere — we felt like we were playing, too — and that’s what happened, to a lesser degree, during Game 1. San Antonio’s fans were going bonkers down the stretch, they loved the conditions and REALLY loved that LeBron couldn’t handle them (even if it wasn’t his fault). That was my favorite 2014 playoff game.

(Also, I will never forget seeing LeBron stiffen up under Miami’s basket and thinking, Hmmmmm … look whose luck is turning! I will also never forget doing the postgame show and SportsCenter segments for an hour after the game, with the humidity from open doors combining with TV lights to make us feel like we were wearing fire-retardant suits. Ever been a groomsman wearing a tuxedo in an oppressively hot church, when the sweat starts soaking through and you start feeling like you just swam in your clothes? That’s what it felt like. Bizarre night.)

Q: OK, so what was your favorite moment of the 2014 Finals?

Those 1.76 seconds in Game 4 when Kawhi got possessed by the spirit of ABA Doctor J, then went for a hellacious dunk over Chris Andersen … I mean, even if Andersen fouled him and screwed up the dunk at the last possible split second, that was nearly my favorite Finals moment anyway. Just breathtaking. I couldn’t believe he went for it. How much fun is Kawhi Leonard??? Hold on, let’s torture Wizards fans for a second.

But since Kawhi didn’t complete that Doctor J dunk, here’s my replacement favorite moment …

I watched every Finals game in San Antonio with Doug Collins from our set behind one of the baskets. He’s an old-school guy who gravitates toward gritty, competitive, relentless players — basically, anyone he would have loved to coach. And when he’s watching games, he’s usually thinking out loud, so he’ll get super-excited about a player from time to time. And as we became buddies over the last eight months, I realized that Doug had something of a hierarchy of praise that went like this.

Level 1: “Coach, that guy is tough.”

Level 2: “Coach, that guy is a BITCH.”

Level 3: “Coach, that guy is a [12-letter word].”5

Level 3 didn’t happen that often (and never in mixed company). And if it happened, he’d usually nudge me and whisper, “Coach, coach, that guy is a [12-letter word].” There was no higher praise from him. During Game 5, Doug blessed Kawhi with Level 1 and Level 2, then something else happened (I think it was one of those big Kawhi 3s) and Doug briefly lost his mind, pounding my arm, breaking Level 3 code and yelping, “Coach, that guy is a [12-letter word]! He is a [TWELVE-LETTER WORD]!!!!!!” That’s right, Kawhi Leonard single-handedly created Level 4 on the Coach Collins Hierarchy of Praise. That was my favorite moment of the 2014 Finals, hands down. I wish everyone loved basketball as much as Doug Collins does.

Q: Can you give me three reasons why Miami lost the title other than “San Antonio was better”?

Reason 1: The decrepit East fooled the Heat into thinking they were better than they were — hence last summer’s risky Beasley-Oden dice rolls over targeting more reliable role players,6 or not shopping their 2014 first-rounder for bench help in February. Everything reeked of “We’re fine, we’ll be there in the end.” Meanwhile, eight of the nine best 2013-14 teams played in the West.7 They just didn’t see it.

Reason 2: They spent the season resting Wade and keeping him from playing back-to-backs, foolishly putting an even bigger burden on LeBron (a far more important player for them). Not only did that gamble NOT pay off — get ready for the eBay listing “GAME-USED FORK FROM DWYANE WADE’S BACK: 2014 FINALS” — but that unneeded LeBron mileage backfired on Miami in the Finals. He wore down and actually seemed human a few times.

Reason 3: Playing in four straight Finals is the NBA’s version of running a marathon, doing a triathlon, scaling a 15,000-foot mountain and finishing a Tough Mudder in back-to-back months. (You can do it; you’d just be a lunatic.) Wade, Bosh and James played five seasons in four when you incorporate those 87 playoff games; combined, they played over 10,000 more minutes than Duncan, Parker and Ginobili since 2010-11.

And it’s not just the physical toll — many times in the playoffs, they looked like they didn’t have much fun playing together. On Monday, Chris Bosh confirmed as much, telling an AP writer, “I don’t think anybody really enjoyed this season like in years past. There was no, like, genuine joy all the time. It seemed like work. It was a job the whole year.”

If you remember, that kind of happened to them last season, too … and then they ripped off that 27-game win streak and regained their collective mojo. Playing chicken with that on-off button is a dangerous thing; NBA history says that one time you’re gonna click it to “on” and nothing will happen. Along those same lines …

Q: Which obscure movie quote captures what happened to Miami those last three Finals games?

We have to go back to 1989 for Young Flanagan in Cocktail saying, “Everything always ends badly; otherwise it wouldn’t end.” Just ask the 2004 Lakers (three straight losses), 1991 Lakers (three straight losses), 1991 Pistons (sweep), 2011 Lakers (sweep) and 1996 Rockets (sweep) — all of their “runs” ended ignominiously, only we were saying to the bitter end, They’ll be fine; they won’t go out this way. And they usually do. One of MJ’s greatest moves may have been not returning to the ’99 Bulls. It would have happened to him too.

Q: What was the best crowd-related moment of the 2014 Finals?

Manu’s retro lefty slam in Game 5 nearly caused a riot. I fully expected them to briefly stop the game, Rucker Park–style, so fans could deliriously wander onto the court. Runner-up choices: Spurs fans mocking the “Seven Nation Army” chant in Game 5 (never gets old), and Pop taking out Duncan, then Manu, then Diaw and Parker together in Game 5, just so all of them could get some extra love. Contrast that with …

What was the worst crowd-related moment of the 2014 Finals?

Miami fans hightailing it out of the Game 4 blowout over sticking around and showing their respect and cheering LeBron, Bosh and Wade for four great years. They’ll feel bad if that turned out to be their last home game. (Thinking.) You’re right, they won’t feel bad.

Q: How much money did Patty Mills make in the playoffs?

Three times as much as Mario Chalmers lost.

Q: Can we officially retire all Boris Diaw fat-guy jokes?

Absolutely! We’re even retiring Rafe Bartholomew’s epic “The real Big Three is Boris Diaw and his boobs” joke. I love having the 2006 Phoenix version of Boris back in the league. Is there anything goofier than looking up at that video screen and seeing that Boris has a 5-6-9 or a 3-9-7 going? I missed watching that guy; there’s just nobody like him. In his place, we can unretire all Dwyane Wade fat-guy jokes. Once upon a time, we wondered if he’d become the next Michael Jordan — in 2014, it’s actually happening.

Q: If you were Miami owner Micky Arison, would you rather pay Wade and Bosh $85 million combined over the next two years, or be tipped over in a port-o-john five straight times?

The port-o-john, no question. That’s five long showers and you’re out.

Q: Gut feeling — have we seen the best of Chris Bosh?

Almost definitely. For one thing, he suddenly has 11 years, 796 regular-season games, 89 playoff games and nearly 32,000 career minutes on his NBA odometer. But once the minutes, rebounds and free throw attempts start slipping, that’s the beginning of the end for elite big guys — Bosh dropped from 39.7 MPG, 8.5 RPG and 6.7 FTA in the 2011 playoffs to 34.3 MPG, 5.6 RPG and 2.4 FTA in 2014. At the same time, his 3-point attempts climbed from 0.2 (2011) to 3.7 (2014). Basically, Bosh quietly morphed into this generation’s Sam Perkins. And look, I loved me some Sam on those mid-’90s Sonics teams; Bosh could play for another 10 years doing a rich man’s Perkins impression. But not for $20 million a year.

Q: Gut feeling — is it over for Dwyane Wade?

Wade rope-a-doped everyone this season — by playing only 54 games, resting his body for multiple DNP stretches and avoiding back-to-backs, his numbers ended up looking better than HE did, if that makes sense.

My biggest problem with our increasingly good NBA metrics: They don’t properly value wear and tear (everything that LeBron does on both ends), heavy minutes (Durant playing nearly 4,000 minutes this season, including playoffs) or someone’s offensive burden if his teammates suck and can’t really help him create shots (like Carmelo this year). Kobe should have won the 2006 MVP for those three reasons: trapped on a lousy Lakers team, Kobe dragged them to 45 wins by averaging 41.0 minutes, 27 shots, 10 free throw attempts and 35.4 points; he also made 45 percent of his shots and finished with a 28.0 PER and 15.3 win shares. That’s an astonishing season when you consider his night-to-night burden.

Same for Wade in 2009: 38.6 MPG, 22.0 FGA, 9.8 FTA, 30.2 PPG, 7.5 APG, 5.0 RPG, 49.1% FG, 30.4 PER and 14.7 win shares for a ghastly 43-win Heat team. That’s the greatest season by a 2-guard since whatever vintage MJ season you want to pick. It was the degree of difficulty that made it so transcendent.

Wade’s 2014 season? That was the reverse of 2009: He played nearly every game with a rested body, went against his opponent’s second-best perimeter defender and skipped games whenever he didn’t feel right. Do you realize what kind of numbers LeBron or Durant would put up if they could pick and choose 54 games per season, then sit for the other 28? Give me a break. Wade got exposed badly during Game 5 of the Indy series, with LeBron battling foul trouble, when Paul George wiped him out on both ends. (Wade ended up shooting 3s because that was his only real recourse; he couldn’t beat George off the dribble.) The same thing happened in the Cramp Game, when Miami needed Wade for those last seven minutes and he couldn’t deliver.

Everything bottomed out during those last two Finals games — the nadir of Wade’s career, no question — when Wade got swallowed up in the paint over and over again, couldn’t finish plays, kept turning the ball over, couldn’t defend anyone and jogged around on defense with his spirit broken. I don’t meant to sound harsh; this was genuinely disheartening to watch. I mean, Wade was a GREAT player. He’s one of the four best 2-guards of all time by any conceivable calculation.8 But his body is breaking down — it’s undeniable now — and the history of terrific 2-guards once they pass that his-body-looks-like-it’s-breaking-down point couldn’t be more bleak. (T-Mac? Richmond? Drexler? Sprewell?)

Wade’s difficulty shooting 3s makes it even worse, and he was never the maniacal 24/7 workout guy that Kobe was. So I don’t know what Miami does here. Wade simply isn’t a day-to-day impact player anymore. If Miami used him like San Antonio uses Manu — 25 minutes a night, 68-70 games per year, instant playmaking off the bench — I could see him remaining effective. Anything beyond that and he’ll keep breaking down. Could he reinvent himself Manu-style as a scorer/creator off the bench? Maybe. Just know that this happens to every great player — all of them, without exception — and we never accept that it’s happening until it’s way too late. You might get five years out of them, you might get nine, you might get 12, you might get 15. But when it’s over, it’s over. He’s never going to be 2011 Wade again. Miami has to accept that. In the words of Jurgen Klinsmann, you can’t pay a superstar for past performance. Not if you want to keep winning titles.

Q: OK, so if you were LeBron, what would you do this summer?

We don’t know how much loyalty LeBron feels toward what Jalen affectionately calls the Miami Mafia (Micky Arison, Pat Riley, Juwan Howard, Alonzo Mourning, Erik Spoelstra, et al.), or how he feels about Wade and Bosh. We also don’t know how many skeletons are buried out there — for instance, if Wade and LeBron made a pact during the 2008 Olympics to play together, then spent the next two to three years colluding on their 2010 destination, then got Riley involved at some point during the 2009-10 season, AND MULTIPLE PEOPLE KNEW THIS WHOLE STORY, I think it would be risky for LeBron to walk away (and have that stuff belatedly come out).

At the same time, he’s all about winning titles … and that’s not happening if Miami pays Wade and Bosh $40.75 million combined next season and $44.2 million combined in 2015-16. And yet, if you’re Bosh and Wade, you’re not walking away from that guaranteed money, either.

So here’s where LeBron and agent Rich Paul have to throw their weight around — they have to convince everyone involved (not just Wade and Bosh, but Miami’s owners, too) to restructure those deals. Let’s say Wade and Bosh opt out of their 2014-15 deals, then sign for $58 million apiece over the next four seasons. And let’s say the numbers look like this: $12.5 million (next year), $13.5 million, $15 million, and then $17 million apiece for the 2017-18 season (when the salary cap will be $20 million to $25 million higher, anyway). So Bosh and Wade get slightly more than $15 million guaranteed beyond what they’re already owed.

And let’s say LeBron exercises his 2014-15 player option for $20.6 million. Throw in Norris Cole’s salary ($2 million), convince Udonis Haslem to retire (and just overpay him as a Heat employee and the newest member of the Miami Mafia), and suddenly you have nearly $20 million to spend on one more big gun (Carmelo). Or, you could go a different way and pursue one or two elite free agents (Kyle Lowry, Pau Gasol, Luol Deng, Marcin Gortat, even Lance Stephenson), combined with a couple of veterans (Paul Pierce, Trevor Ariza, Spencer Hawes, Vince Carter) and maybe one role player (Shaun Livingston, Josh McRoberts, Greivis Vasquez).

That $20 million could go a lonnnnnnnnnnnnnng way. But it can’t happen without Wade and Bosh restructuring their deals. But hey — it’s not like this is a big deal; it’s only the entire immediate future of the league that’s at stake.

Q: If LeBron does leave Miami, where would he go?

Door No. 1 (-400 odds): LeBron opts in for one more year, hopes that Miami can patch together a better bench (and get lucky with its first-round pick), then targets the summer of 2015 (when Cleveland will be a year further along and more big-market teams — including the Clippers, Lakers and Knicks — have cap space).

Door No. 2 (+400 odds): He goes back to Cleveland and convinces Carmelo to come with him. Do NOT rule this out. Especially if Cleveland hires a coach who LeBron likes. The Cavs are loaded with young assets and could create whatever team LeBron wanted. And also, you gotta love the fairy-tale ending here — LeBron coming home as 10,000 different Cavs fans make YouTube montages of him with that “I’m Coming Home” song.

(The biggest obstacle: Will LeBron ever forgive Dan Gilbert for The Letter? From what I’m hearing … not anytime soon. I’d start groveling to a connected third party right now, Mr. Gilbert, if you’re not doing that already.)

Door No. 3 (+500 odds): LeBron rolls with Doc and CP3 in Los Angeles — something that would only require the Clippers to trade DeAndre Jordan’s expiring deal, Matt Barnes’s expiring deal and Jamal Crawford’s deal (expires in 2016) to different teams with cap space (super-easy), then use last year’s first round pick (Reggie Bullock) and/or a future first rounder, along with $3 million of Steve Ballmer’s money (chump change!), to dump Jared Dudley (two years, $8.5 million remaining) on someone with cap space (also doable). Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and J.J. Redick will make about $48 million combined next season — if the Clips cleared everyone else (again, VERY doable), they could offer LeBron a deal starting at about $15 million. And he’d get to reinvent himself in Los Angeles, with a coach he loves, a superstar he respects and a billionaire owner who’s ready to splurge on a great team.

FYI: This is the most entertaining LeBron-related basketball scenario by far … (wait for it) …

BY FAR.

And don’t think the Clips aren’t pursuing it, because they are.9 So those are the options — with all due respect to Houston (which could team him with Harden, Howard, Parsons and Beverley pretty easily), Phoenix (which could sign him and build its run-and-gun offense around him) and Chicago (which could steal him for all the same reasons it’s homing in on Carmelo right now), those three teams aren’t happening. He’d look like a sellout for going to Houston. Phoenix is never happening. And going back to the Midwest but picking Chicago over Cleveland? Come on.

My verdict: If you were pointing Ray Felton’s gun at me and forcing me to make a pick, I’d still pick LeBron going back to Miami for one more year. But I wouldn’t bet on it, that’s for sure.

Q: Do you really think Carmelo Anthony could save Miami?

No. Serge Ibaka could save Miami. Marc Gasol could save Miami. Joel Embiid four years from now could save Miami. The Heat didn’t lose the 2014 Finals because of their offense; they lost because their supporting cast sucked, they couldn’t defend anyone, and Wade and Bosh aren’t the same guys anymore. You realize San Antonio went on a 59-22 run in Game 5, right? Saying Carmelo can save the Heat is like saying Emma Stone could have saved the last season of Dexter.

Q: After watching Miami get rolled over in the Finals, how many Eastern Conference teams are saying to themselves right now, We can make the Finals next year!!! No, really, who’s stopping us????

I’m counting eight: Chicago (easily the best bet because of the Noah-Gibson-Carmelo-Butler-Rose potential), Indiana (can it flip Hibbert into a different asset?), Washington (hey, Wiz fans, you ready to wildly overpay Ariza and Gortat???), Charlotte (don’t forget, it has cap space and the no. 9 overall pick), Toronto (one more elite player away from being interesting), Brooklyn (if Brook Lopez can come back and Deron Williams miraculously turns into a franchise point guard again), Cleveland (loaded with tradable assets if it wants to go that way), and Boston (if it gets Kevin Love).10

(Note to any Knicks fan: Please, for your own sanity, stop typing the “What about us?” email, delete it, and stare at your computer screen in silence for a few seconds until you crash back to reality. Thanks.)

Q: Enough with the crappy East — let’s go back to the Spurs! What was the most underrated Spurs-related story line?

Can I give you two? First, they took full advantage of the title window inadvertently created by OKC (the Harden trade) and Chicago (Rose’s two injuries). In some alternate universe right now, I’m writing about how incredible the 2014 Finals between OKC and Chicago was. That’s just the NBA for you — it’s a league of “What if’s.”

Second, you can’t sleep on how important it was that Duncan-Manu-Parker took less money to stay with the Spurs. I don’t know if “sacrifice” is the right word — there’s no state income tax in Texas; the cost of living is much cheaper; and they stayed with a savvy franchise that does everything correctly, looks out for its players, prolongs their careers and succeeds more consistently than anyone else. It’s not like they were donating bone marrow to play there. But at the same time, they played for 25 to 30 percent less than their market value, which allowed San Antonio to re-sign Tiago Splitter and afford Boris Diaw, Marco Belinelli, Danny Green and Matt Bonner.

When you include Kawhi Leonard’s rookie salary ($1.9 million), the Spurs suddenly had a legitimate competitive advantage. Their best four players earned $32.3 million combined last season … nearly $8 million less than Joe Johnson and Deron Williams, and only $1.85 million more than Kobe Bryant made by himself. That’s insane.

Q: What’s the best lesson of the 2014 Spurs that wasn’t ridiculously obvious?

Five words: Don’t feel sorry for yourself.

Instead of moping around after blowing last year’s title, they looked at everything logically and wondered, “Hmmmmm … why did we REALLY lose?” The conclusion: They weren’t good enough at small ball; they couldn’t play two point guards at once; they didn’t rest their veterans enough; and they didn’t exploit Diaw’s offensive skills enough. They spent the regular season working on those issues and transforming themselves into a superior version of the Seven Seconds or Less Suns. The end result: They treated the 2014 Heat the same way those slash-and-kick international teams treated American basketball in the mid-2000s. It almost looked like they were playing a different sport.

Q: Will we ever see the same coach-star combo win NBA titles 15 years apart?

No way. Do you realize that Popovich and Jerry Sloan are the only two people who coached the same NBA team for 17 years or more? Do you realize Spoelstra is no. 2 right now on the “Current coaches who stayed with the same team” list … and he’s in Year 7? Do you realize that Duncan is one of five people who played for the same team for the first 17 years of his career?11 This will NEVER happen again.

Quick note on Pop: I think it’s fascinating that the four greatest NBA coaches of all time — Red Auerbach, Phil Jackson, Pat Riley and Pop — are so clearly the four greatest coaches of all time. Throw away the first 10 NBA seasons since it barely looked like basketball.12 (And it wasn’t just the styles. If you wanted to watch black players, you had to go see the Harlem Globetrotters.) Really, the league we’re watching now started when Bill Russell showed up in 1956. Of those 58 seasons since 1956-57, Auerbach (nine rings), Jackson (11), Riley (five) and Popovich (five) have won more than 50 percent of the titles (30 combined). Since no other NBA coach has won even THREE titles, really, there’s no Mount Rushmore argument to be had.

Q: Has anyone in NBA history had a better career than Tim Duncan?

We’re not arguing “Best Player Ever” here, just start-to-finish careers. Think of it this way: You’re starting a team from scratch, you can grab any player from NBA history … and you can build around that one player for up to 20 years. If you pick Jordan, you’re getting 11 full Chicago seasons, two abbreviated Chicago seasons, a lost baseball season and those two Wiz seasons. If you pick Bird, you’re getting nine extraordinary seasons, one other very good season, a DNP season and two injury-plagued seasons. If you take LeBron, I can give you only his 11 seasons, because who knows what happens after that? And so on down the line.

Now, some of you might grab the 11 great Jordan years and suck for the other nine. I get it. But if you want to succeed for two decades, you’d gravitate toward all-encompassing excellence, durability, longevity and the knowledge that, at some point, the winning pedigree of that player would win you a few titles. (Sorry, Reggie Miller, John Stockton and Karl Malone … you just got crossed off.) Before you pick Kobe, hear me out: He’s played 18 years and counting, but his rookie season (15.5 MPG) and Year 18 (177 minutes total) were throwaways. Look at his résumé compared to Duncan’s résumé and the résumé of The Guy You Should Have Picked.

Kobe’s résumé: 5-2 in the Finals; 15 All-Star Games; one MVP; two Finals MVPs; 11 first-team All-NBAs; two second-team All-NBAs; 13 seasons with a winning percentage over .600; two missed postseasons; only one of six players to score 30,000 points; 25.5 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 4.8 APG, 45.4% FG, 23.4 PER, 173 win shares (reg. season); 25.6 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 4.7 APG, 44.8% FG, 22.4 PER, 28.3 WS (playoffs). Fantastic? Absolutely. But unless he reinvents his career these last two or three years, he can’t pass Duncan and The Guy You Should Have Picked.

Duncan’s résumé: 17 seasons; 5-1 in the Finals; won titles 15 years apart; 14 All-Star Games; back-to-back MVPs; three Finals MVPs; Rookie of the Year; 10 first-team All-NBAs; three second-team All-NBAs; never had a winning percentage below .600; never missed the playoffs; 19.9 PPG, 11.1 RPG, 2.2 BPG, 50.6% FG, 24.6 PER, 191.6 WS (reg. season); 21.3 PPG, 11.7 RPG, 2.3 BPG, 50% FG, 24.6 PER, 36.2 WS (playoffs). The best player of the post-MJ generation — it’s true.

The résumé of The Guy You Should Have Picked: 20 seasons (19 as an asset); 6-4 in the Finals; won titles 17 years apart; won two Finals MVPs (14 years apart); six MVPs; 19 All-Star Games (!!!!); 10 first-team All-NBAs; five second-team All-NBAs; 16 seasons with a winning percentage over .600; missed the playoffs twice; leads the NBA in minutes and points; 24.6 PPG, 11.2 RPG, 2.6 BPG, 55.9% FG, 24.6 PER, 273.4 WS (regular season); 24.3 PPG, 10.5 RPG, 2.4 BPG, 53.3% FG; 23.0 PER; 35.6 WS (playoffs).

That guy? Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Bonus points for having the most unstoppable shot ever (the skyhook) and for the ’88 Lakers running their biggest play for him when he was 41 years old (down one, Game 6, last 20 seconds — and yes, he drew a foul on Laimbeer13 and made both free throws). Even though he’s the third-best basketball player ever (behind Jordan and Russell), Kareem remains our most underrated great player. Nobody had a better start-to-finish career. But if Duncan plays two or three more years, makes another Finals and reaches that 20-year mark? It might become an argument, right?

Kareem’s A-game was better — that’s undeniable. His first 11 seasons were as great as LeBron’s first 11 seasons. Duncan was never THAT good for THAT long. But Kareem was more of a loner, a tortured genius, a once-in-a-generation talent who motivated teammates mostly by being outstanding at his job. Duncan’s most underrated “skill”? He’s one of the greatest and most unselfish teammates of all time. The Spurs realized early on that they could build a franchise around his personality, his competitiveness and his work ethic, so that’s exactly what San Antonio did. Everyone from Duncan’s generation was jealous of the players who got to play with Tim Duncan. It’s one of many reasons why he’s had the second-greatest career of all time.

And if you were there on Sunday, it was hard not to get choked up near the end, after Duncan had departed the game, when Parker and Ginobili approached him for their we-did-it hugs. Great player, great team, great career, two great moments. You would have wanted to play with Tim Duncan, and maybe that’s all that matters. 

Filed Under: NBA, NBA Playoffs, San Antonio Spurs, Miami Heat

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Bill Simmons is the editor-in-chief of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, click here.

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