The Monarch and the Triumvirate
To say the Spurs have a “Big Three” at this point is unfair. The Celtics had a big three. The Clippers have a big three. Maybe the Thunder have a big three. The Spurs have a triumvirate. You know, three dominant rulers who equally divide power in order to force a vast expanse of land and persons to succumb to their will. And in the context of what the Spurs have done to the NBA for over a decade, that is not an exaggeration.
Tim Duncan is Marc Antony. Much like stories of ancient Rome when we look back at the Spurs’ quiet dynasty, his image will be the first in our minds. Before we see Manu coming off the bench with his euro-step, before we see Tony Parker driving to the basket for a layup, even before we see Pop screaming his head off at some kid who barely speaks Europe after a missed assignment on defense, we will see Tim Duncan; no smile nor frown, neither elation nor anger.
No there’s really no iconic Tim Duncan image. No NBA Classics moment that will burn into our memories thirty years from now. Bird had the split-second touch passes that drove fans nuts.
Magic had that smile. That smile that came out in his first game and first win as an NBA player; demonstrating emotion like he had just won an NBA Championship or conquered the world.
Kareem had – and will always have – the skyhook for his image. Dr. J had his iconic dunk contest, you know, the one that made us care about the dunk contest. And of course, Dr. J’s most iconic in-game moment was that float through the air, under the hoop, right hand windmill off the backboard for the reverse lay-in. You know the one I’m talking about. The one you tried to do as a kid, but you had zero hops so you lowered the hoop about three feet.
MJ stole the dunk contest’s most iconic moment and inspired the Jumpman logo which would go on to make him millions. He also had that game-winner against the Cavs with the crazy fist pumping. Oh and his last shot as a Bull against the Jazz. Oh and the image of him laying his head against Scottie Pippen after the flu game. Oh and that layup against the Lakers where he jumped in the air for about 10 seconds and switched hands and put it in; you know, the one where Phil Jackson just shook his head in absolute disbelief thinking, “How do I get these guys to focus on the rest of the game after that?”
Side Note: Did you know that the Cavs once made the playoffs without Lebron James!?!? I know, right!? Crazy!!
I’ve been giving a lot of thought to what Tim Duncan’s image is. Try a little experiment and google image search “Tim Duncan.” There’s no earth-shattering dunks. No crazy gravity-defying layups. Actually, come to think of it, these Spurs don’t have many dynamically-exciting moments. Bank shots and fundamental chest passing make for a really crappy highlight reel. This is America. We like home runs and 360-dunks, not clutch free-throw shooting and pitching duels.
I saw a middle-aged Spurs fan wearing a Sean Elliot jersey and a cowboy hat cheering his head off during Game 2 and I wish I was tech-savvy enough to be able to screenshot my TV somehow (Filler, I may need a tutorial. You seem good at technology things). I’m a really weird guy, and for some reason that image spoke to me so much and somehow in that moment, that guy embodied everything it means to be a Spurs fan. Sean Elliot never blew anyone’s mind. Despite being a top prospect, he was never a superstar talent. But he was perfect for the Spurs. Understood his role, played his heart out, and won games. Duncan won his first ring with Elliot and David Robinson – another guy with a big iconic smile. Over ten years later, he’s looking for his fifth.
If you will pardon me for excusing players of the ridiculous Celtics dynasty of the 50’s and 60’s, here is a list of players with more than five rings:
– Robert Horry (7)
– Bob Cousy
– Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
– Michael Jordan
– Scottie Pippen
Maybe it was the Sean Elliot jersey thing, I don’t know, but the most iconic Tim Duncan images I can think of are of him with his big, lean arm draped over the shoulders of Sean Elliot in the 99’ Finals or rubbing Ginobili’s bald spot after a big play.
Yea, come to think of it, the most iconic Duncan and Spurs images are of him being a team player. Giving high fives, pulling a young teammate aside after they just got their butthole ripped open by Poppovich on the sideline, giving Pop a look that says “Yes sir,” at the age of 38 after being berated like a child, taking a charge, passing up an open 15-footer for a cutting teammate.
But as Duncan and the Spurs triumvirate look across the court in their sixth Finals appearance in fifteen years, they see Lebron James and the Miami Heat. A team once comprised of a “big three,” but now seems completely reliant on a “big one.” When James went down in Game 1, Miami effectively threw in the towel, looking hopeless. When James stayed in the game down the stretch and decided to take over Game 2, he led his team to victory including a 14-point 3rd quarter where he seemed to score almost effortlessly.
Make no mistake, if Michael Jordan is the standard by which we measure NBA greatness, Lebron is a far cry from being that guy. It is almost universally accepted among NBA statisticians and students of the game that if Jordan played today in the era of hand-check and forearm fouling he would average around 40 PPG. But whether you’re his biggest fan or you hate the Miami Heat for no rational reason at all (like me), it is time for all of us to at least admit that Lebron is a king in his own tier, head and shoulders of above Kevin Durant, and at the very least he is “like Mike.”
After the Spurs swept the Cavaliers in Lebron’s only Finals’ appearance as a Cavalier, Tim Duncan found King James amongst the chaos after Game 4 ended and said in his ear, “We’ll be seeing you again, I’m sure.” Little did he know he’d be seeing James again, twice. Only this time, he would see James in his perfected form; wearing a new number, a new uniform, with new friends as the undisputed best player in the NBA.
But it’s easy to focus on Lebron and examine what will become of his legacy, win or lose. I think we’re missing the real story here. We will have plenty of time for that. Lebron is 29, Duncan is 38. Spoelstra is 43, Pop is 65. I choose to look at the bigger picture. The legacy we ought to be looking at – and marveling at – is that of the San Antonio Spurs. This Spurs team has made the playoffs for 17 consecutive seasons. They have 6 Finals appearances and 4 wins during that span. And the craziest part of it is that they’ve done it without an otherworldly talent like Jordan or James.
If greatness is something we measure in aggregate, something we judge over time in the greater context of its era rather than something we try to analyze in the moment, then Duncan and these Spurs are greater and closer to basketball immortality than Lebron and this Heat team – despite the outcome. Each year we say, “Surely this is the last chance for the Spurs,” and they surprise us all by showing back up in the Finals as the favorite once again. They pass, they defend, and follow Pop’s gameplan. And with all the old players and the [seeming] lack of talent, watching this Spurs team defy all the odds and go toe to toe with the greatest athlete in the country should be as captivating to you as watching Lebron fly through the air.
So this year’s NBA Finals is simple. Can the talent, athleticism, and greatness of one man triumph against the most dominant team we’ve seen in any major sport since the 98’ Bulls or 2000’s Lakers. Two games in, my answer is still no. I still say Spurs in 7. Win or lose, I will savor these last moments of watching team basketball at its absolute finest.