Legacies on the line in NBA Finals
Much of the lead-up to the last eight NBA Finals focused on what each potential championship meant for the legacy of LeBron James, but now that he is not in the playoff picture, we turn our attention to what this series means for so many others.
It is remarkable that this year’s Finals feature three deserving heirs to LeBron’s throne, all attempting to lay claim to the title of Best Basketball Player Alive. Much is riding on this series for Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and Kawhi Leonard from a historical standpoint, but they aren’t the only ones whose careers will be viewed differently depending on the outcome of the first LeBron-less finals since 2010.
Let’s run through the eight players putting their legacies on the line when the Golden State Warriors and Toronto Raptors tip off the 2019 Finals on Thursday.
Durant’s frustration with legacy narratives is understandable when you consider that he has won the last two Finals MVP awards in decisive victories against LeBron’s Cleveland Cavaliers, and yet there are still so many unanswered questions about his place in the league entering this year’s Finals. Such is the plight of a legendary player who joined a historically great team to chase championships.
What if Durant doesn’t return from his calf strain, and the Warriors beat the Raptors without him? What if he does come back, only to be outplayed in a loss to Kawhi Leonard? Or what if he returns to lay waste to Leonard and the Raptors, delivering a third straight title and capturing a third straight Finals MVP in dominating fashion?
How this series unfolds will go a long way in telling the tale of Durant’s tenure in Golden State, especially if he leaves in free agency at season’s end, and his injury leads to so many fascinating plot lines. Fair or unfair, the Warriors winning without him would lessen the shine on his hardware. A hobbled loss to the Raptors leaves more to the imagination. Maybe it would show how much this dynasty really needed him, or maybe it would serve as a reminder of how little they were tested in years past.
However you slice it, Durant has more riding on the next couple weeks than anyone else. A third straight handshake with Bill Russell at series end would give him as many rings as Larry Bird and as many Finals MVPs as LeBron at 30 years old, which further complicates any conversation about the greatest small forward ever.
For the record, Durant has been ruled out for Game 1, but is traveling to Toronto.
Curry won a title with the Warriors before Durant joined them in July 2016, and his legacy would undoubtedly be bolstered by winning another in KD’s injury absence this year. Still, in order to start climbing the highest rungs of the NBA legends ladder, Curry needs the Finals MVP trophy that eluded him when Andre Iguodala’s defense swiped it in 2015 and Durant’s dominance demanded it the past two years.
This Finals MVP will be the first in almost a decade decided on one’s own merit and not by LeBron or how well someone performed opposite him. That will shape how we consider the Greatest Player Alive argument for the next decade and beyond. If Curry rises to take this one, it will erase the false narrative that he had not met the moment earlier and render questions about his claim to previous awards irrelevant.
Here is the list of players with at least one regular-season MVP, a Finals MVP and four rings to his name: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant. Finals MVP wasn’t an award until 1969, but since the award is named after Russell, we can probably safely add him to the ledger, too. Curry would be the eighth name on that list. This is rarefied air.
I’m not sure Curry climbs into the top 10 all-time with a Finals MVP performance, but he will be damn close at age 31, and it will be hard to argue against him ranking as the second-best point guard in NBA history behind only Magic at that point.
Leonard was close himself to Greatest Living Player status when last we saw him face these Warriors in the playoffs and Zaza Pachulia stepped under his ankle 28 minutes into Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference finals. That injury may have altered the course of the league forever, but here we are again, with Leonard getting another shot at Golden State and Best Basketball Player on the Planet status.
Here’s to second chances.
If Leonard takes down Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Warriors in back-to-back series — after ousting the Philadelphia 76ers on one of the greatest shots in NBA history — he will have a better-than-ever claim to the title Michael Jordan bestowed upon him two summers ago: “the best two-way player in the game right now.”
It’s hard to imagine the Raptors winning without Leonard warranting Finals MVP honors, and if that’s the case, it would be his second on as many teams in five years. He will also have a pair of championship rings, Defensive Player of the Year awards and top-three regular-season MVP finishes in that span. He is 27 years old.
Leonard’s statistical legacy won’t be what it could have been had he not played in San Antonio’s egalitarian system or missed almost a full season due to injury, but he also might not be in this position if not for both of those experiences. Regardless, he would vault into the conversation of the greatest 25 players ever with another title, and his peak would be closer to top-10 level, right around Hakeem Olajuwon, currently the only player in league history with two DPOY and Finals MVP awards.
Draymond Green and Klay Thompson
Both elite two-way players, they are two wildly different. Green is the ultimate small-ball big, both as a versatile defensive weapon and playmaker, and Thompson is the perfect backcourt complement, both as a lights-out shooter and lockdown perimeter defender. They are not quite at the all-time great level reserved for MVPs, but at some point the ever-mounting hardware is too hard to ignore.
When all is said and done, Green will go down as one of the greatest defenders in history (2017 Defensive Player of the Year and runner-up in both 2015 and 2016), and Thompson will be on the short list of greatest shooters to ever live (16th in regular-season career 3-pointers and fourth in the playoffs before his 30th birthday). They have three and five All-Star appearances to their names already, and yet we don’t know how to properly rate them on a Warriors roster so loaded with talent.
Add four rings to those résumés, though, and they cement what may be true now: They belong on the short list of best supporting actors in dynastic casts that includes the likes of Sam Jones, Kevin McHale, Scottie Pippen and James Worthy. They are Hall of Famers and top-50 players all, as Green and Thompson may be with a few more monstrous performances in high-stakes, series-swinging games.
We saw what a Finals appearance meant for Lowry in the embraces he shared with his children on the sidelines of Toronto’s Game 6 victory against Milwaukee, but a championship might mean even more to the legacy he leaves behind to basketball.
It was almost impossible to imagine this for him when he was jettisoned as part of rebuilding efforts in both Houston and Memphis, but put a ring on Lowry and he is closer to being considered a Hall of Fame-caliber player than ever before. His closest statistical comparison, according to Basketball Reference, is Tim Hardaway, whose ringless fingers have awaited the Hall call every year without a payoff yet.
Lowry is a five-time All-Star who may well finish in the top 50 ever for 3-pointers, assists and steals. Advanced statistics look favorably on his career, and a title — depending on how instrumental he is in winning it — could nudge him closer.
His Hall of Fame candidacy is just as complicated. He has as many All-Star nods as he does Finals MVPs, which is to say one, and he is somewhere between the fourth- and fifth-most important player on a team chasing title No. 4 in five years.
There are 37 players with four championship rings. Twenty-two of them were All-Stars at one point in their careers, and fellow one-timer Horace Grant is the lone Hall-eligible player among them not in Springfield right now. Grant was never a Finals MVP. In fact, Cedric Maxwell — a two-time champion and no-time All-Star — is the only Finals MVP who is eligible for the Hall of Fame to never be enshrined.
Iguodala’s career numbers are not Hall-worthy, but statistics have never been what makes him so valuable to arguably the greatest team in NBA history. His ability to play just about every position on both sides of the ball is the lethal injection in the death lineup. However you evaluate his numbers, Iguodala’s trophy room would make him an aberration if he were to win another ring and get left out of Springfield.
A six-time All-Star, Cousins has been labeled a career loser after his Sacramento Kings missed the playoffs for the first seven years of his career, and then his New Orleans Pelicans made last year’s push to the postseason after his Achilles injury.
That label may continue to follow him now that he missed most of the regular season with that same injury and all but 25 minutes of the playoffs with a torn quad, but he could lord his ring over all doubters with a decent Finals effort (assuming he returns), despite his concession that joining the Warriors was a means to this end.
There will be plenty of questions about his viability in free agency again this summer, but he is a 28-year-old not far removed from being the best true center in the game. If Cousins ever gets there again, we can start to have a conversation about his Hall worthiness. Wherever his career takes him from here, though, he could always point to his ring, and that may be all that matters to him in the end.
Those eight players have the most riding on this series from an individual legacy standpoint at this point in their careers, but there are a handful of players for whom a weight will be lifted or a door unlocked by a championship. They are, quickly:
• Kevon Looney, Golden State’s best big off the bench, whose purse as a 23-year-old in unrestricted free agency this summer can only get fatter with a solid Finals.
• Marc Gasol, Toronto’s 34-year-old center, whose legacy is pretty well cemented as a former Defensive Player of the Year who only joined these Raptors at the trade deadline. Yet, there are few players for whom a title would mean more, given a career spent gritting and grinding for some under-appreciated Memphis teams.
• Pascal Siakam, the rising Raptors star who can take a massive step forward with a championship effort this early in a career with so much legacy yet to be written.
• Danny Green, who came to Toronto in the deal with San Antonio and set a Finals record for made 3-pointers when the Spurs won in 2014. Another epic performance in a title series would put him on a list of clutch role players worth remembering.
• Serge Ibaka, whose up-and-down career has taken him from Oklahoma City to Toronto via Orlando. Along with Durant, he helped push the Warriors to the brink in the 2016 Western Conference finals, and a title for him would add one more “What if?” question to the ever-growing list of them for a Thunder team torn apart too soon.
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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach
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