In some years, the lead-up to the NBA Finals drips with animosity. Opposing players do their best to hide their disdain for one another with curt, generic responses in press scrums. Networks run prepackaged clips of heated exchanges or hard fouls between the two teams, and talk of rivalry supersedes most other basketball discussion. The notion of competitors empowered by hatred is both intriguing and marketable, and thus tends to become the predominant storyline in any series between real or presumed adversaries.
This is not one of those years. Most of the pre-Finals media appearances from the Heat and Spurs have oozed with respect. Take this quote from LeBron James, who spoke incredibly highly of Tim Duncan and his place in NBA history on Monday, as transcribed by ASAP Sports (via Eye on Basketball):
If I just look at the last 15 years, he's probably been the most consistent, most dominant player that we've had as far as 15 years all together. He's won four titles, multiple All-Stars, MVP, and so on and so on. I think he doesn't get a lot of recognition because he's not flashy like a lot of guys are. He's not jumping over people and high‑flying and doing the things that attracts people to the game. But I think true basketball, true IQ people, players know how great he is. What else can you say?
James' comments prompt an interesting thought exercise: Which NBA player has been the most consistently dominant over the past 15 years? There are many who have played spectacular ball for a portion of that 15-year window (James included), but if we narrow the field down to only those who have dominated the bulk of that stretch, four reasonable candidates emerge: Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki. Shaquille O'Neal comes close, but the fact that he's missed the past two seasons entirely and hadn't played at a star level since 2009 hurts his case. Of those four candidates, Nowitzki would likely earn the low run by way of a shaky rookie season and defensive deficit. But a viable argument could be made for Duncan, Bryant, or Garnett, each of whom has embodied two-way excellence through the majority of that 15-year window. Who would you pick?