One way or another, Thursday night will resolve the long-winded NBA season. A champion will be crowned out of these thrilling Finals, and from that verdict will come all manner of reflection and judgment. There's room to note that neither team's history should be rewritten by the result, while also acknowledging that there's much at stake. I suspect that most of the reflection on these Finals will dwell on Miami no matter the outcome, but San Antonio has a chance to cement a sustained greatness while validating its process with the ultimate prize.
This would mark the fifth title for the pairing of Tim Duncan and coach Gregg Popovich in a 16-year span -- an outstanding total reached through seemingly impossible consistency. San Antonio made a more legitimate claim for contention in some of those years than others, but the Spurs have won 50 games (or the equivalent, in the case of the 1999 lockout campaign) every year of Duncan's career. Calling that kind of accomplishment "historic" is almost a disservice to the still-active basketball institution, but the term nevertheless applies to one of the best-run franchises in basketball.
Lottery luck may have landed Duncan in San Antonio, but only through his and the franchise's greater diligence are the Spurs in a position to claim a title in a third consecutive decade. With that kind of established pedigree, the Spurs have set the bar rather high -- albeit not high enough to be considered favorites entering these Finals. They were expected to contend this season, and have done that. They were expected to compete, and have pushed the best team in basketball this season to a seventh, deciding game. They were expected to continue in the incredible tradition of high-level execution that this franchise has so carefully built over the last 16 years, and have certainly accomplished that much. They've done all that they were presumed to do and more (few expected the Spurs to make the Finals at the start of the playoffs), and could do one better in snaring the title on the road.
That said, Duncan, Popovich, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili hardly need the widespread confirmation that would come with winning that title. Their credentials in their respective roles are proven and secure already, minted in gold with wins together in 2003, 2005 and 2007. Still, this may well be the Spurs' last best chance to win it all while relying so heavily on this core.
That core has had a remarkable basketball lifetime, but it's also been so good for so long that we risk overlooking what this fifth championship would mean as an endorsement of the Spurs' process. It's no secret that San Antonio runs an impeccable operation, but Duncan's consistency, in particular, overshadows a franchise that is always on the move, tactically.
As the league changed, so too did Popovich's lineups and strategies. He lined his roster with perimeter shooting as the league's rules changed to put a premium on floor spacing. He cultivated Parker's talent as a scoring guard and empowered him as a primary creator. He co-opted the Suns' spread pick-and-roll as a base format for his offense, moving away from stodgy post play. His team refined its performance and its style on both sides of the ball, most recently climbing back into the defensive elite on the basis of Duncan's rejuvenation and some minor tactical tweaks.
That the Spurs have been able to accomplish so much while in a state of constant adjustment screams, to me, the value of their ingenuity. The league's best teams will largely be those that are intellectually curious enough to understand that their way isn't the only way or categorically the best. Popovich understands this. Spurs general manager R.C. Buford understands this. Duncan, Parker, Ginobili and every Spur down the line understands this, or, at the very least, trusts the leadership enough to buy in to that notion.
None of this will change in the event of a loss on Thursday. The Spurs' ultimate legacy lies in the power of their ethos and infrastructure as much as Duncan's bank shot or Parker's floater -- a fact that would only be better and more widely understood in the event of another title. San Antonio managed to reinvent itself through continuity, and in the finale of a championship series, this group has the opportunity to broadcast the value of that process to the entire basketball world. Executives all across the league have long been paying attention to the Spurs' operation, but this is one more -- and perhaps one last -- chance, after four relatively quiet titles and a decade and a half of muted admiration, to remind the public at large of the enduring value of a team run right.
Though we can take nothing away from Duncan's accomplishments this year, time will inevitably catch up with the all-time great, to the point where he can no longer bear such a considerable burden. San Antonio is positioned well to continue shifting the 37-year-old's responsibilities elsewhere, but those days for transition are coming.
Plus, Ginobili is in even more discouraging shape, as the soon-to-be 36-year-old guard has proved to be particularly erratic in these playoffs. He still has his moments, his minutes, his games, but Ginobili's ambitious style of play and gradually dwindling minutes hardly make him what he once was. There's still room in his game to yield helpful stretches, but this Spurs team is already relying on Ginobili less and less. With his deal set to expire this summer, he could well retire. It seems likely he'll return, however, and simply shade a bit closer to the background. But at this point his inclusion as a member of the Spurs' Big Three is more out of respect for tenure and accomplishment than an implication that he can consistently perform on Parker's and Duncan's level.
Parker isn't going anywhere, and between Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and even Tiago Splitter, San Antonio should have plenty to work with in tweaking the roles and responsibilities throughout this roster. But the fact that Duncan and Ginobili have already seen their best days doesn't bode quite as well for a 2014 push, when the field figures to be healthier and even more competitive. There should be no doubt that San Antonio will be present and likely contending next season, but we could see Duncan and Ginobili start succumbing to the limitations of age. This group -- Popovich included -- is closer to the end of its run, and for that reason alone it has more at stake than the still-spry stars anchoring the Heat.