There is always a lot to take in during the NBA Finals, but more than just the bright lights or the sound of Mike Breen’s “BANG!” there is an ever-present historical aspect looming over each and every shot. Legacies are always on the line. In some Finals, the historical energy is palpable. Take Warriors-Cavs, Game 7 in 2016 — for example — or Game 6 of the 2013 Finals between the Heat and Spurs, ending with two massive missed free throws and one of the all-time great shooters hitting an incredible game-tying three pointer. In games like those, it feels like you can’t even breathe. Careers are being defined by every dribble, pass, and shot.
So, what about these Finals? The Celtics and the Warriors present some different styles. The Celtics come in as the young guns with a handful of key players aged 25 or younger. While some have made deep playoff runs before, they are playing in their first Finals appearance together. Not to mention, the rookie head coach Ime Udoka, who has found a way to turn around these Celtics after a below .500 start to the season.
On the other hand, the Warriors are veterans, a team full of experienced, older players who have been on these big stages before and have the rings to show for it. They are led by their core of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green, all of whom are over the age of the 30. There’s also the 38 year-old Andre Iguodala playing big minutes as well, and don’t forget head coach Steve Kerr — someone who has coached and played in tons of big games with big players — who is looking to add a ninth NBA Finals ring to his prestigious collection. With these two different casts of characters, what’s the historical significance of these Finals, and what’s at stake for these players and their legacies?
I don’t think a lot needs to be said for the best player in this series and a guy who has cemented his leagcy on the game of basketball. The unquestioned greatest shooter of all time (for some reason) has a reputation for not being able to win on his own, despite winning a title on his own in 2015 and coming a game away the following season. Curry’s legacy is not going to make or break based on this series. It’s his sixth Finals appearance, and a fourth ring brings him to the same total as LeBron.
Regardless, he has been one of the great winners and teammates in this era of basketball. I have Stephen Curry ranked 16th all time on my list of greatest players, right behind Moses Malone and one spot ahead of Julius Erving. It’s clear that Curry will move up as time goes on and his career stretches out. He’s one of the four best point guards of all time, and if he were to win another ring (and most likely a Finals MVP), it would solidify his place as the best point guard ever not named Magic Johnson. He probably moves into the top twelve of all-time players. An iconic achievement for a guy that was said to be too small and relied too much on his jumper coming into the 2009 Draft.
Even though he’s been sub-par during the playoffs, a few good games and another Finals ring would certainly be good for Klay, who has had it tough since coming back from two major injuries. Unlike Steph, there are no all-time ranking spots up for grabs with another championship, but it would certainly help cement his legacy as one of the better role playing guards on title teams in recent memory. Isiah needed Dumars, the Celtics needed Ray Allen, Giannis needed Middleton. Klay Thompson belongs in that group.
I’ve always thought Draymond reminded me of Dennis Rodman. Simply because he brings energy and intensity, he was a good defender, he grabbed rebounds, and his continuous motor was really important for those Warriors teams. As his game slows down and his offense regresses, it would be quite the feather in his cap to get a fourth championship while he’s still an important player. A player with such passion and emotion that it goes almost unmatched by everyone else on the court, and we’ve seen how his spirit can help will the Warriors to wins when their shooting isn’t so hot. Green’s career definitely won’t be forgotten by those who have watched him, whether you loved him or hated him.
It wouldn’t have been crazy before the 2014 Draft to say you thought Wiggins could play a part on a championship team. Wiggins was eyed by so many teams before the Draft that organization tanked two years for him. He was a hot commodity in NBA front offices before he even got to Kansas, and he was thought to be the jewel of the 2014 draft class. Flash forward a few years to a horrendous Timberwolves team that featured Wiggins, who was inefficient and played poorly. Despite his Rookie of the Year award, it seemed ridiculous to think he could ever reach the heights people expected from him before the Draft.
That’s why the T’Wolves didn’t think twice when they traded him to Golden State (on a max contract) for known ball-hog and awful defender D’Angelo Russell. And while Wiggins still hasn’t reached the lofty heights we had set for him, here he is playing a meaningful and important role on a team that can win the title. A ring on Andrew Wiggins’ finger would at least prove some of us wrong. He’s not a bust, and with the right cast around him, he can play well enough to help a team win a championship. I still expect the Warriors to move off of him in the offseason (most likely in a trade for a big name or good role player), but a championship would sure be good for him after some of the slander he’s received over the years.
Tatum is playing probably the best basketball he’s ever played over the course of these playoffs. He’s had his fair share of bad games, but that’s to be expected from a guy who just turned 24 years old. If he can lead such a storied franchise like the Celtics to a title, at this young age, against one of the all-time great players…it would be quite the achievement for a guy who has a lot left in his career. In fact, his numbers this postseason have already put him in great company.
Before this season, only two players aged 24 or younger averaged 26, 6, and 6, while getting out of the first round: 2001 Kobe and 2008 LeBron. Add 2022 Jayson Tatum to that list. Through his 19 postseason games so far, Tatum is averaging 26 pts, 6.6 reb, and 6.2 ast, but it’s his amazing shot-making ability and composure in big moments that have been great to see. Last postseason, we saw Giannis take a giant step forward and go to the next level every single round, resulting in a Milwaukee Bucks championship. It’s not quite on the Giannis scale, but Tatum is doing that too. Through these playoff series, we have seen him grow to the point where it feels like he has moved into “Top 8 Players in the League” range. The numbers and lists are cool and all, but a championship at a young age could be the beginning of a historic career.
It’s hard to find any legacy altering, career changing stakes for most of the Celtics players because they are so young. Their careers still have so much to offer. But there is one veteran who could really change how he is viewed by the public if he were to win a title. Al Horford has always been a decent player. He was sometimes overlooked because he’s gone about his work quietly for most of his career. But these playoffs have been anything but quiet for Horford. Whether it was locking up two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo in the second round, or hitting six threes to help the Celtics take Game 1 of the Finals, Horford has put himself in the spotlight on the biggest stage.
This situation for Horford reminds me of another veteran who recently won his first title and changed how he was viewed around the league: Kyle Lowry. Lowry was a good point guard who never quite got the credit he deserved, but after playing a key role beside Kawhi Leonard in 2019, he got the respect around the league that was warranted. It feels to me like Horford is in a similar position. A big role on a title winning team could forever change how the 36 year old’s career is remembered.
Photo: Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire
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