10. Frank Vogel/Lionel Hollins- Vogel and Hollins are basically in the same boat, which for the sake of this discussion might as well be considered a sail boat in comparison to the cruise ships of the other two head coaches remaining in the playoffs. Vogel and Hollins are two coaches who preach defense, discipline, and hard work who have overcame the odds of coaching for smaller market franchises with lower payrolls and managed to scratch and claw their way to the Conference Finals. To get to the Finals, Vogel will have to lead his Pacers past the goliath of the NBA, the Miami Heat, while Hollins attempts to fight back from a 1-0 deficit against the San Antonio Spurs, a franchise that has won more championships in the last fifteen seasons (four) than the Grizzlies have playoff series (three).
9. Mike Conley- As I’ve mentioned so many times before, we’re in a golden age of point guards right now in the NBA. A perfect example of how true that statement is comes directly from a move made by the Grizzlies. Memphis traded away their leading scorer and put their team in the hands of Mike Conley, who has subsequently shot up the point guard power rankings like a bat out of hell. For whatever reason, I have a somewhat irrational trust in Mike Conley to come through in big games. I just feel like he’s going to come up big on the bigger stage. Gasol and Randolph would be the Vegas favorites to win Finals MVP if the Grizzlies were to win the championship, but Conley could easily sneak into that MVP discussion. Where does that leave him going forward? At only 25 years old and saddled with a frontcourt that point guards dream of having, Conley’s ascension would perhaps only be beginning with a Finals run this year.
8. Gregg Popovich- On my initial construction of the list I initially had Coach Pop as the individual with the 3rd most to gain from winning a championship. It would be his 5th title which ties him with Pat Riley for the 3rd most all-time, but then I realized that if I was indeed discussing who had the most to gain, Pop can’t go much further up. A fifth title wouldn’t necessarily launch him past Riley, Phil Jackson or Red Auerbach since he’s already in that discussion. The Mount Rushmore of NBA head coaches is already carved up and made up of those four, and I can’t see Pop’s spot being challenge anytime soon. Still, this would be a 5th title in a fifteen year period for Pop, Duncan (coming up) and the Spurs, which is incredible when you think in terms of longevity. The Celtics incredible run in the late 50’s and 60’s came to an end with Bill Russell as the head coach, not Red Auerbach. Phil Jackson and the Bulls won six titles in eight years and then broke it apart. Phil Jackson’s Lakers three-peated in the early 00’s, blew it up, and then Phil came back for two more titles. But Pop and the Spurs have churned out 50 win seasons for the last fifteen years (with the exception of the 1999 strike season where they finished 37-13). That kind of consistent excellence is hard to match and, well, excellent.
7. Paul George- George’s remarkable 2012-13 season could only get better if it was capped off with a Pacers title, and likely a Finals MVP to follow. Looking back at all of the past winners of that prestigious award, only Magic Johnson (20) and Tim Duncan (22) would be younger than George (23) would be if he were to add the Bill Russell NBA Finals MVP Award to his Most Improved Player Award he won earlier this year. Before we start etching George’s name on the trophy he has to get through the Miami Heat and LeBron James. I love the fact that there is so much build up for the LeBron/George matchup, but let’s be real: there is at least a 75% chance LeBron turns this into an Olajuwon/Robinson or Jordan/Drexler situation and goes on to eviscerate Paul George. And that isn’t meant to be a knock on Paul George. I’ve been on that bandwagon since he was a lanky sophomore at Fresno State that no one had ever heard of, and I’ve been saying for a year that the Pacers could hand the keys to George for the next decade and just pretend Danny Granger never had the keys. I just don’t know if George is ready for that kind of build up just yet.
6. Marc Gasol- There are a whole lot of historical ramifications for Marc Gasol in the next two rounds. The four most important ones are as followed:
1: Only Hakeem Olajuwon has won Defensive Player of the Year and Finals MVP in the same season. Gasol could potentially become the 2nd individual to join that very exclusive club. Any time you’re mentioned with Hakeem Olajuwon, you’re doing something right.
2. A title for the Grizzlies and Finals MVP for Marc Gasol would just about put an end to the “Who won the Grizzlies/Lakers trade from 2008” argument, and make the Stephen A. Smith “They Gave Up Kwame Brown” video 5% less funny. Ah, who am I kidding? It’s still just as funny. Additionally, it would vault Marc past Pau in the “Greatest Career by a Gasol Brother” power rankings.
3: I’ve called Marc Gasol the modern day Bill Walton for a while now based solely on their style of play and the fact that the stats of each player doesn’t totally back up how vital they were to their respective teams both offensively and defensively. In order for my argument to gain some momentum, a Grizzlies title is a necessity. When you really think about it, the parallels between the 2013 Grizzlies and 1977 Trailblazers are there. Both teams are from smaller markets. Both were relatively new franchises at the time, and both are built on defense and team cohesiveness. Each teams cornerstone was a center who was flanked by a banging power forward (Zach Randolph and Maurice Lucas, whose nickname was “The Enforcer”), a smart, heady and good defensive point guard (Mike Conley and oddly enough, Lionel Hollins), and then a relatively forgettable supporting cast. The comparison can go even further if the Grizzlies were able to defeat Miami in the Finals, which is the closest equivalent to the 1977 Philadelphia 76ers I could come up with (LeBron, Wade, Bosh, Allen compared to Dr. J, Doug Collins, George McGinnis and World B. Free kind of works for the sake of this argument).
4. If the Grizzlies wins the title and Marc Gasol plays an MVP caliber series, he grabs firm control of the Best Center in the World Championship Belt but more importantly, he helps change basketball as we know it. If a small market like Memphis can win a title during a time period where teams are so concerned with forming Big Three’s and Superteams and players want to play in big media markets, then the script is officially flipped. I can’t help but think it might be a good thing.
5. Erik Spoelstra- Obviously there is no way of proving this now but if the Heat would’ve failed to bring a title back to South Beach last year, Erik Spoelstra wouldn’t have a job right now. But as fate (or LeBron James) would have it, Miami did win the title and in the year since Spoelstra has turned Miami into a 66 win juggernaut; an offensive machine that plays positionless basketball, spreads the floor, shares the ball and revolves everything around the most talented player to come into the league in the last 20 or so years. As if the Heat hadn’t made enough history this year, Spoelstra is the odds on favorite to become the 7thcoach since 1960 to win back to back NBA Titles, putting him in the same category as Red Auerbach, Bill Russell, Pat Riley, Chuck Daly, Phil Jackson, and Rudy Tomjanovich.
4. Dwyane Wade- Dwyane bought himself a column without insult thanks to his revival in Game 5 against Chicago. I wish I didn’t even need to worry about whether I had to go through a whole column without calling Dwyane Wade a wussy or questioning why his shot selection is sometimes so poor, or why he never runs back on defense… but I do. That’s not on my agenda today though. Today, I’ll just mention all that Wade has at stake over the next two rounds. If Wade maintains grasp on his “Robin” role for Miami and the Heat win the title, then that means he will have won three titles, one Finals MVP and twice was the 2nd best player on the team. Outside of the times when he’s playing like a wussy, he’s one of the most overqualified 2nd options of all-time considering he’s likely going to retire as either the 3rd or 4th best shooting guard of all-time.
Over the next two rounds all Wade has to do is score 20 points, pull down 5 rebounds, and dish 5 assists per game. I don’t care if he has to fly to Germany every other day for the procedure Kobe had or douse his knees in deer antler spray on the days off; Wade just needs to play at a B- level over the next four weeks and Miami has a very good shot of winning another NBA title. And if he does, I hereby swear I will never write another bad word about Dwyane Wade… unless he completely deserves it.
3. Tim Duncan- I shouldn’t have to rank Tim Duncan this high on the list. It should be a case similar to that of Gregg Popovich, where there isn’t much more that Duncan needs to do to prove his greatness. But the unfortunate fact is, there is. It took me a longer time than I’d like to admit to realize how astonishingly good Tim Duncan has been for nearly two decades. Like I mentioned in the Popovich section, Duncan is the anchor is sixteen straight seasons of the Spurs winning more than 60% of their games. What’s even more remarkable than that is that Duncan could potentially win a Finals MVP this year (his fourth), fifteen years after winning his first… in the previous effing millennium! Are you joking? How is it that Duncan’s per 36 minutes statistics this year (21.3 points, 11.9 rebounds, 3.2 blocks, 50% FG) are just as good as his per 36 minute stats from the 2002-03 season, his 2nd MVP season (21.3 points, 11.8 rebounds, 2.7 blocks, 51% FG)? There are only two potential explanations. Either he’s A) An alien; or B) Hands down the greatest power forward of all-time. I’d hesitantly go with option B, although I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility for there to be an option C, which is All of the Above.
2. Tony Parker- There is a whole lot riding on these next two rounds for Tony Parker. In fact, the last time there was as much riding on the performance of a Frenchman it was Napoleon Bonaparte who was leading France into the War of the Sixth Coalition. That didn’t work out too well for France (Paris was captured) or Napoleon (He was exiled to Elba, and not my hometown in New York either). A poor performance in the next two rounds certainly wouldn’t get Tony Parker exiled, but it would put a halt on the momentum he’s been building for his legacy.
With a 4th title and a likely 2nd Finals MVP—which should be his first; he shouldn’t have been rewarded with a Finals MVP just because he ran circles around Boobie Gibson, Damon Jones and Eric Snow for four games; you could’ve replaced Tony Parker with at least ten other point guards and San Antonio would’ve still swept Cleveland—Parker would put himself in remarkable company. Only nine other players have ever won multiple NBA Finals MVP Awards. Magic Johnson is the only point guard to do so. Additionally, Hakeem Olajuwon is the only foreign born player to win the Bill Russell Award twice, and no foreign player who came into the NBA without college experience has ever won multiple Finals MVP’s. This raises the question: Where does Tony Parker rank on the all-time list of foreign players in the NBA? He’s only 31 years old and could easily end up with 20,000 career points and 8,000 career assists. He already has three titles, a Finals MVP, five all-star appearances, two All-NBA Team nods, and will certainly go down as one of the best point guards of his era. With another title and Finals MVP under his belt—one that would carry a whole lot more weight than his 2007 Finals MVP does—we might be talking about a Top 50 player of all-time perhaps? At this point, isn’t Dirk Nowitzki the only player more accomplished in the NBA than Parker when it comes to foreign born player who never played college ball in the United States?
1. LeBron James- Everyone is familiar with this narrative by now, right? LeBron James was the most highly touted amateur athlete of our time, is the most highly criticized athlete in our time, and someday (we’re a while away from this) he will be recognized as the greatest athlete of our time – get ready for an absolutely mammoth “if”— IF he can win a few more titles. Whether it’s fair or not, LeBron’s legacy, and in large part every other great athlete’s legacy too, will boil down to how many rings he is responsible for winning. LeBron promised multiple championships; not one, not two, not three, and so on… so if he can win title number two this year it would be a fitting end to one of the greatest 20 month stretches of basketball we will ever see.
Here is the interesting question: Where does a championship put LeBron James in the grand scheme of things? You’ll certainly hear some more Greatest of All-Time chatter from some people, while others will say he’s still not top ten all-time (In my opinion, that statement should be immediately followed with a small shock from a Taser). I’m not in a position to say where I think he’d be on that list because it would certainly be twisted around so it came off as biased. It’s just hard to look the big picture and not recognize that this is a player whose individual accolades will never be able to accurately express what it was like to watch him play the game of basketball.