and Tim Duncan
have split their Finals matchups 1-1 against one another. (Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images)
Whose legacy would benefit more from a 2014 title: LeBron James or Tim Duncan?
Phil Taylor: LeBron James. Tim Duncan doesn't have that much to win or lose in terms of his place in history. He'll either have four championships or five in his 17 seasons, so there won't be a big difference in how he's perceived either way, especially since he doesn't carry this San Antonio team the way he did some of their previous champions. If anyone's legacy stands to benefit dramatically on the San Antonio side, it's probably Gregg Popovich, who stands to move up in the discussion of the greatest NBA coaches of all time if he can deny the mighty LeBron a three-peat with a team that really only has one star in his prime -- Tony Parker. A third straight title for James, however, would take some ammunition away from the he'll-never-be-as-great-as-Jordan crowd, (although they'll be sure to point out that Michael three-peated twice.) Three in a row is something neither Magic nor Bird ever achieved, so it would be a major accomplishment for James to wave around in any greatest ever debate. Losing the series, though, would leave James at 2-3 in the Finals, a pedestrian record for a player who purports to be the Chosen One. Win or lose, Duncan will be remembered as one of the best, but not the best, ever. James has a chance to make it to the mountain top one day. He has more to gain in this series, and also more to lose.
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Lee Jenkins: LeBron James. The stakes are higher for LeBron because the ceiling is higher. If he wins a third straight championship, after a season in which his team regressed and older players deteriorated and Dwyane Wade worked part-time, the Jordan conversation gets real. LeBron would be halfway to Jordan’s six titles, still smack in the middle of his prime, having again vanquished the Spurs and separated himself from Kevin Durant. Tim Duncan will go down as an all-time great and arguably the best power forward of all time. But LeBron is positioned for more. He has a chance, regardless of the odds, to leave the game as the best player ever. The next two weeks will help determine whether he eventually gets there.
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Ben Golliver: LeBron James. I think this is less of a question of who benefits more from winning -- because both players have already won multiple titles -- and more a question of who would be hurt most by losing. For James, a loss would be a scarlet letter. It would mark his career third loss in the Finals, dropping his record to 2-3, a far cry from Michael Jordan's perfect 6-0. More importantly, it would be a trump card in future arguments like, "Who was better in their prime, MJ or LeBron?" Jordan won six titles between the ages of 27 and 34, and he never needed a Game 7 to do it. James, should the Heat fall to the Spurs, would have Finals losses at age 26 and 29, making it difficult to argue that he was more dominant during his peak years than Jordan. When debating the "Greatest Of All Time" mantle, parsing the details down to this level is a necessity. If Miami prevails, though, James' Finals record would stand at 3-2 and he would be halfway to Jordan's six rings before turning 30. Plus, he could join Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal as the only players to win three straight Finals MVP awards, giving himself a shot at becoming the only player to accomplish that feat four years in a row in 2015. All of that paints a much rosier picture when it comes to his chase towards GOAT status.
A Spurs victory would give Tim Duncan a title in three different decades, something that not even Kareem Abdul-Jabbar accomplished. A player's total ring count obviously matters far more than exactly when he won his titles, but this tidbit would be a tidy way to summarize the crazy of Duncan's dominance when we look back on his career 50 years from now. To win titles before Jordan's final comeback, throughout the Kobe Bryant era and during James' peak would be truly special. A loss in the 2014 Finals would dampen, but not erase that legacy. No matter what happens over the next few weeks, we'll never forget that Duncan was a key force on a contender into his late-30s.
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Chris Ballard: LeBron James. First off, neither of these guys needs much help in the legacy department. Duncan is the premier power forward of his era and one of the top big men in NBA history. James is rapidly entering the "best ever" debate, if he's not already there. That said, LeBron stands to gain more because his ceiling is higher. At this point, I'm not sure a title changes how we think of Duncan all that much. The Spurs are bigger than any one player, so he's no longer faulted if they lose, and will receive only a share of the credit if they win. There's not much Duncan could do, at this age and with the career he's had, to make us think less of him. James, however, has an opportunity to reach for historic heights, and it's clear he's the one who determines whether the Heat win or lose. Wade is no longer the player he was. Ray Allen is a year older (at least in theory). Mike Miller is gone. This would truly be a title won by LeBron.
Matt Dollinger: LeBron James. It would be pretty awesome to see Tim Duncan punctuate his legendary career with a championship and walk away on top. It would also solidify his case as the greatest power forward of all time, which doesn't hurt either. But LeBron James is chasing something even bigger -- the greatest player of all time, meaning a 2014 title would mean more to his legacy than the Spurs star's. It's funny how we spent so much time laughing at LeBron's, "Not one, not two..." speech a few years ago, and now he's just four wins away from nabbing his third title in a row. A Finals victory helps LeBron achieve new heights -- and silence even more skeptics.
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Chris Johnson: LeBron James. Michael Jordan’s six championships have served as a measuring stick for James ever since he blossomed into a superstar. Whenever people get into those annoying best-ever debates, Jordan disciples scoff at the notion that James even belongs in the discussion because he’s only won two championships. James can climb another rung on that ladder by leading the Heat past San Antonio in the Finals. Adding a third consecutive Finals MVP trophy in the process certainly wouldn’t hurt his case. Meanwhile, we can already see the end for Duncan; it wouldn’t be surprising if he calls it quits after this season. If the Spurs’ star big man wins another championship, it’d be a nice accomplishment in an already no-doubt Hall-of-Fame career. LeBron will end up there one day, too, but he’s got a few peak years in front of him.
Richard Deitsch: LeBron James. First, let's establish that both legacies are secure already. Tim Duncan can walk off the court today as the greatest power forward in the history of the NBA. If LeBron James left today, he's an automatic Hall of Famer and considered one of the 10 best talents in the history of the basketball. That caveat aside, James has more to gain on a historical axis with a win. There are only five teams in NBA history to have won three straight titles including the 1991-93 Chicago Bulls, the 1996-98 Chicago Bulls and the 2000-02 Los Angeles Lakers so he'd be part of an elite group including Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, two players James is chasing on a historical level. He'd also be halfway to six title at age 29 and six career titles seems to be the magic number for the public given that Jordan owns six titles. This will also be the best team James has ever faced in the Finals. That's a factor for me.
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