For the first time in four seasons, the NBA Finals are a rematch. Defending champions the Miami Heat look to take on the San Antonio Spurs again this year after a tightly contested series in 2013 that emerged as one of the best Finals in the last decade. It was the series that shifted on Ray Allen’s pivotal Game 6 three-point shot, arguably the biggest three to ever be made in an NBA Finals game; Tim Duncan’s missed layups will also be remembered. Duncan’s open missed layups, excuse us.
What seemed inconceivable at the time was that San Antonio would play well enough to make it back. The lasting images of the Spurs this time a year ago were of a team that had played as well as they possibly could, enjoyed a career season from their then 37-year-old centerpiece, and had the good fortune to make it past an Oklahoma City Thunder team that had traded James Harden to the Rockets and lost Russell Westbrook to injury. The Spurs were on the way out, and last season was their best chance to win Duncan another ring.
Or so everyone thought. Then the Spurs kept everyone’s minutes below 30 per game for the first time since the ABA, held on to the top seed in the highly competitive Western Conference as the only team in the league to top 60 wins, steamrolled the Thunder even after Tony Parker was out for the majority of a decisive Western Conference Finals Game 6, and generally made everyone look stupid for predicting the demise of San Antonio. The same way they do almost every year. And the Heat still beat them.
With the scene sufficiently set, let’s take a look at the four biggest stories surrounding this year’s iteration of basketballs biggest stage.
1. What happens to Miami’s Big Three
This question comes up in some form or fashion every year, but it’s never been at a more critical juncture than right now. While the Miami Heat have never missed an NBA Finals appearance since the formation of the Big Three in summer 2010, two of their three primary pieces are now on the decline.
LeBron is the engine of the team and is far and away the Heat’s best player, but even he can’t carry the weight of an entire squad to victory over a team like the San Antonio Spurs. Dwayne Wade’s struggles have been well documented, and there’s a reason why he was such a nonentity during the regular season: He was being saved for the latter half of a deep postseason run. Chris Bosh’s game hasn’t declined as much as suffered disappearing fits, long stretches of quiet murmurs that make his 20 point, 10 rebound games look almost identical to the ones in which he can’t make a shot and only grabs two or three boards.
Either way, the Heat probably aren’t going to get much better than they are right now, and while all three stars have publicly committed to staying in South Beach when they hit free agency next season, questions about what kind of team Eric Spoelstra and Pat Riley are able to put around them linger. While they’ll still have the best player in the world on the roster, they’ll need to surround him with the type of talent we can’t see Wade and Bosh being able to provide on a consistent basis in the future — particularly if all three sign for long-term deals, even at a discount.
That’s to say that the Miami Heat relied on Mike Miller and Shane Battier to help cross the finish line last year. Not to diminish either of those players, but they’ve since been replaced (literally for Miller, metaphorically for Battier) by Rashard Lewis and James Jones. On paper, at least. Right now, Miami’s core is fleshed out by specialized veterans who are willing to sign for a discount because they cannot be a primary option anymore. If Miami’s core stays together and degrades even slightly, will they have the financial flexibility to enhance their roster through free agency, or will they have to consider more drastic maneuvers, like trading Bosh or Wade?
2. Ray Allen’s legacy
From one Big Three to another: Ray Allen’s career is a fascinating study of an NBA star that somehow turned into the ultimate role player, and while he’s as good a lock for the Hall of Fame as any, the man who was Jesus Shuttlesworth may wind up as close to an NBA vagabond as Oscar Robertson, with no team honoring his legacy. In some ways, that’s owing to his degraded skill set. While Ray-Ray still owns one of – if not the prettiest — jumpers of all time, back in his prime, he was like a bigger Stephen Curry.
As the best player on some of the best Milwaukee teams since the Big O and Kareem, Allen was an incredible athlete that couldn’t quite get anywhere in the slow-it-down, watch-the-star-play one-on-five offense that was the Eastern Conference of the early 2000s. In Seattle, Allen teamed up with Rashard Lewis to play good and occasionally great basketball before ankle injuries hampered his game and he was traded to the Celtics for a single, solitary draft pick. You know the story from there.
The NBA’s greatest three-point shooter has a very real chance of retiring from the game and never seeing his number hung in the rafters by any of the franchises he played for. Particularly if the Heat are unsuccessful this year, Allen could feasibly end his career playing his best basketball in Milwaukee and Seattle while winning one ring in Boston and one ring in Miami. It’s an interesting division of a Hall of Fame career, especially for someone that was once much more of a superstar than, say, Robert Horry.
3. The stars of the San Antonio Spurs ride off into the sunset, part VII
Ignoring the hyperbolic either/or that the title of this section implies the San Antonio Spurs have built a streak of continuous NBA title contention that spans almost 20 years. They’ve evolved as they’ve drafted new talent — the stodgy, low post-pounding teams with David Robinson and Duncan bear exactly one resemblance to the 50-plus pick-and-roll machine that Manu and Tony built: the presence of the Big Fundamental. Duncan, now 38, may have as many as three years left of high level play. At this point, we’re willing to bet that Timmy Dunks can match Kareem and possibly even Robert Parish as having a career that measures over two decades.
But if he wins another championship, what’s to say he doesn’t retire? With five rings, he will have equaled Kobe Bryant, bested Shaquille O’Neal, defeated LeBron James twice in the NBA Finals, and done it all with tattoos of a wizard and a dragon. His colorful compatriot Manu Ginobili, still the best passing 2 guard in the game at 36 and more than capable of nailing incredible game-winners with ease, is in a similar situation: near the end, but not quite over the edge. What a difference a year makes. After his dismal performance in last year’s Finals, a Ginobili retirement announcement wouldn’t have been surprising. And then, you know, he made the ballsiest shot of the entire postseason without an iota of hesitation, helping send the newly crowned MVP home early:
4. It’ll show us what the 2017 NBA lockout will be about
In all likelihood, there won’t be a single broadcaster, analyst, player, or coach that brings up the 2017 NBA lockout, but every single moment of the entire Finals is going to weigh on the next battle between the owners and the players. After instigating the 2011 lockout in the wake of the formation of Miami’s Big Three, as well as the Carmelodrama that saw Carmelo Anthony hold the Denver Nuggets hostage, and the Dwightmare, which saw Orlando at the mercy of Dwight Howard (as well as awful portmanteaus), the NBA ownership cracked down on free agency, largely eliminating sign and trades and putting major fiscal limitations on where players could play. That wasn’t an accident — none of them want to be Cleveland in The Decision, Part II. They want to be San Antonio.
Tim Duncan, the best power forward of all time, has famously played for San Antonio for his entire career. All the fuss about tanking teams? Fueled largely by a desire to land the next Duncan: a franchise superstar who has more 50-win seasons in his career than some franchises do in their entire histories. Never mind the fact that there aren’t five other teams in the league that are on San Antonio’s level, structurally speaking (Miami is one, to be sure). Front offices are all aflutter at the idea of landing the next Duncan or the next Durant, then making sure he stays with the team.
On a fundamental level, this is series between a team that’s been able to hang on to their superstar and a team that had to reach out and grab two more. Last time, the Heat won. We’ll see what happens this time and what it could say about the next problem the ownership has with free agency and player movement.