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On James, Popovich, and the future

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The Miami HEAT are NBA Champions.


And congrats to them. In one of the most fun, quality NBA finals of modern times, LeBron James and the Miami Heat prevailed last night. The Spurs, between their missed free throws and defensive rebounds on Tuesday night and Tim Duncan's missed layup last night, could not have come face to face with defeat in a more heart-wrenching fashion.

There should really be no question after this week (and after the last several regular seasons) that LeBron James is the premier player of this generation. His defensive versatility is astounding. He's just as good on the defensive glass as the average NBA center. Through his passing ability alone, he'd be a top-5 NBA point guard; he turns over less frequently than Chris Paul. And then there's the matter of his +20 offensive efficiency on 30% usage (insane), his scoring record in elimination games now ranking higher than anyone who's ever played, his 40% three point percentage just an absolutely unfair addition to an essentially perfect game.

Say what you will about his demeanor, his perceived arrogance, his whatever else (and for the record, it's amusing to me how the infinitely more petulant Dwyane Wade is cited for these supposed crimes so much more rarely, or that Kevin Durant, who you'll remember repeatedly showing up and mocking various Hornet players in the midst of a 40 point blowout until Monty Williams actually physically stepped on the court and yelled directly into his face for it, is perma-wrapped in an apparently indissociable humility shroud).

LeBron's the closest thing to basketball perfection I've seen since Michael Jordan, miles better than his perimeter contenders of the 00's, Kobe, McGrady, Wade, each incredible in their own ways; hell, the starkest distinction you can draw between Jordan and James at this stage isn't one of skill, talent, or production, but simply time. We saw last night one of the greatest ever -- maybe the greatest ever -- in his prime, against a defense designed perfectly to stop him, against an absolute genius of a coach, just ace a career defining game. As a fan of basketball, I can't help but sigh at the poetry of it.

San Antonio's mere presence in these Finals is just staggeringly impressive to me too. The exact same core that was the biggest threat to the Shaq-Kobe Lakers, so many years and stories and narratives ago -- was the biggest threat to the Big 3 Heat in 2013. Imagine if the Rasheed Wallace Blazers or Chris Webber Kings were not only still around today, but were matching blow for blow against LeBron and Wade and Bosh. When you think of everything that's happened in between the start of the Spurs' run and the present day, all the players that have come and gone -- the Chris Paul Hornets era, the Dwight Howard Magic era, the Boston Big 3, the Malice at the Palace, the lockout, the Allen Iverson era, the dress code, the rule changes, the millions of other things I'm forgetting -- the fact that one team bookends it all just grows more and more fantastically insane.

LeBron's the closest thing to basketball perfection we'll maybe ever have; Gregg Popovich is his coaching equivalent. Seventeen years after he hired himself as head coach, his current team, anchored by the same critical players, is virtually unrecognizable stylistically. That's for me the most impressive thing in all of this -- the way Popovich has adapted to the way the game has evolved is absolutely beyond compare.

And so it's with this landscape in the background that I find myself looking to the future, to the hope that one day these names going into the history books come from the city of New Orleans. Even the most tremendous potentiality guarantees nothing; Cleveland and Portland and Oklahoma City can tell you all about that. But the flip side of this is, I suspect, the very reason I enjoy the NBA more than any other league; you cannot win without luck, but luck will not do anything remotely resembling the heavy lifting for you either.

LeBron James came into the league an athletic marvel, sure, but just as equally, as a poor shooter, an inefficient scorer, a mediocre rebounder, a late game settler. Ten years on, through his dedication, every one of those things is a virtually insurmountable strength. The Spurs and Popovich, through a decade and a half of front office aggressiveness, scouting, and intelligence and on-court innovation and evolution set themselves up for luck to provide just the final little nudge. This is a league where the best players and most smartly assembled teams will succeed almost every time; there are no fluke champions. There are barely even fluke series winners, the likes of which the NFL and MLB seem to spawn on an annual basis.

And so it's heartening that New Orleans appears to be progressing in the correct direction, with the long game in mind over short term fixes, with the knowledge that the foundation they put around Anthony Davis today will, with a little bit of luck, grow ever entrenched over the seasons. It's a long road ahead; all we can do now of course is think of the future, plot out how it'll all come to pass, blissfully unaware of the Toasts and ACL tears and bargaining machinations yet to arrive.

I'm reminded of Goethe's line, "thinking is more interesting than knowing, but less interesting than looking."

After that series, I'm inclined to agree.