If the season ends Thursday night in a San Antonio sweep of Cleveland, who wins the Finals MVP award? Where do LeBron's Cavs go from here? Will we see a rematch next year? Our experts answer six questions heading into Game 4 of the Finals.
1. Who's your Finals MVP (so far)?
Greg Anthony, ESPN: Tim Duncan. Yes, Tony Parker has scored more than anyone else. But Duncan is the guy that dominates both ends. He's the only one averaging a double-double and, let's face it, the reason we haven't seen any of LeBron's high-flying spectacular plays is because of a certain someone manning the paint.
Henry Abbott, TrueHoop: Tim Duncan. He defines the Spurs' defense and makes or facilitates a huge percentage of their points. I appreciate John Hollinger's case for Tony Parker as co-MVP of the Finals. Pending what happens in the rest of the series, I think that would undersell Duncan. Admit that if you were Coach Gregg Popovich and had to face the Cavs in a seven-game series without one of those two players, Parker would be on the bench, right?
Chris Broussard, ESPN Mag: Tony Parker's the MVP. That's no slight on Duncan at all, and I'll be the first to insist, "The Spurs are still Tim Duncan's team!'' But Parker's penetration and clutch shooting (the big Game 2 layups, the big 3-pointer in Game 3) have been the keys this series. For those who think a superstar must always win the Finals MVP award, do your homework: When Larry Bird won his first title in 1981, Cornbread Maxwell was the Finals MVP.
Ric Bucher, ESPN Mag: Tim Duncan. As terrific as it is to see Tony Parker prove himself in an NBA Finals, what the Spurs (Tony included) do begins and ends with Duncan. A vote in their locker room wouldn't be close.
John Hollinger, ESPN.com: I realize this is something of a cop-out, but we may need co-MVPs here. Tony Parker's ability to break down Cleveland off the dribble has been devastating, but Tim Duncan has been equally important with his defensive superiority, his passing out of double-teams, and his somewhat overlooked scoring. I'll go for whomever plays better in Game 4.
Chris Sheridan, ESPN: At this point I have to go with Tony Parker, although it's a tough call between Parker and Tim Duncan. But to me, it comes down to the matchup disparity at the point guard spot, and how huge of an advantage that has been to San Antonio.
Marc Stein, ESPN: Tim Duncan. Because I'm the last guy who can get away with voting for Bruce Bowen ... and because Duncan's mere presence helped Tony Parker get loose in the first two games ... and because defense is winning this championship. We all know the Spurs' D is built around TD.
2. Assess LeBron's Finals so far.
Anthony: We've come to expect so much from the kid after his brilliance in the conference finals. (I sure did.) It's probably unfair, because no one in this league has the responsibility he has, and other than Game 1 he's been, well, average. No matter how great your talent, you need help. Obviously the 911 he sent to his teammates and coaches went unanswered.
Abbott: The guy just jumped over a 700-foot-high hurdle. It seems wrong to get mad at him for not clearing the 1,000-foot-high hurdle that was behind it. Sadly for LeBron James, even though he just led a mediocre roster to the NBA Finals at the age of 22, the focus will probably be on how much of his expansive potential is not yet realized. Now everyone wants him to have a more reliable jumper, a midrange game, quicker moves with the ball and more assertiveness in the post. That's all stuff he ought to make it his business to get. And I think he will. He can play on my team anytime.
Broussard: He has struggled, but there's not a player alive who wouldn't struggle when essentially going one-on-five against the best defense in the world. He's scored and created tons of scoring opportunities for his teammates with his passing but, for the most part, they've missed shots. As great as LeBron is, though, he has much room for improvement, which is actually scary. If he had a better midrange J, he'd hurt the Spurs' sagging defense, and he's got to develop a better post game and take advantage of his size on the block more often.
Bucher: Sobering. No more "he's the best player in the league" until further notice. No more Michael Jordan comparisons. He's an incredible talent who still has a lot to learn about leadership and execution. Pretending he doesn't isn't doing him any favors -- and it's insulting to those (Duncan, for one) who have.
Hollinger: Forgettable. He's shooting 36.7 percent and has nearly as many turnovers (17) as field goals (22), plus his early foul trouble was a factor in Game 2 and he couldn't make the tying shot in Game 3. The Spurs are doing what the Pistons failed to do -- swarm him and make somebody else win the game.
Sheridan: Mediocre at best. He has been too slow to find ways to counter the defensive schemes the Spurs are throwing at him; his team has been basically trounced twice; and his body language after Game 3 was that of a defeated man.
Stein: The word is fortuitous. Thanks to a favorable draw and one great series against Detroit, LeBron was insanely lucky to get this experience at the tender age of 22, before the team around him was ready for it. I'd certainly like to see him play more decisively at the offensive end, but facts is facts: He often has been going one-on-five against the league's best D. The biggest LBJ disappointment in this series is that, after all the Michael Jordan comparisons, he couldn't pull in TV viewers in like everyone thought.
3. What should the Cavs do after this series to improve the team?
Anthony: A combination of things must happen. First, growth from the young players -- Gibson, Gooden, Varejao (if they can re-sign him) and Pavlovic. That by far is the most important; Larry Hughes showed people that you can't solve everything via free agency. Also, I'd like to see some depth in the backcourt. Eric Snow has provided leadership, but he and Damon Jones have not provided much else. Ilgauskas is also not getting any younger, so developing a center is another issue.
Abbott: The thought is a guard who can reliably handle the ball, take pressure off LeBron James and knock down shots. (Maybe Daniel Gibson evolves into that, or maybe you want to keep him coming off the bench.) But I think offensively challenged title teams should have a big man on the bench who can "manufacture some runs" by posting up and bulling to the hoop for some and-1s. Players like Adrian Dantley and Corliss Williamson have played that role, taking part of the game that might have been a 10-2 run for the opponent and turning it into a 10-6 run, while controlling the tempo. Also, wouldn't it be nice for LeBron James to play with a big man who regularly commanded a double team?
Broussard: The Cavs cannot rest on their laurels. While they've had a terrific season, they must realize that they had an easy run to the Finals (barring Detroit). This experience will certainly strengthen and embolden the young Cavs, and they'll be much better next season. They legitimately could be considered the favorite in the East, but winning the East isn't the goal. They have to improve to win it all. Ideally, they find a way to put an All-Star-caliber 4-man next to LeBron. They shouldn't be afraid to move any of their young talent to try to get that done.
Bucher: Have LeBron develop a post game and the ability to move without the ball. Have coach Mike Brown add post-up plays and curls off screens to the playbook for LeBron. He would be unstoppable, even versus San Antonio. Oh, and develop a fast-break offense. As the Suns and Spurs have shown, you can play good D and score in transition.
Hollinger: They have a lot of work just to keep it at this level, since Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic are free agents. But beyond that, they've got to figure out how to get another ballhandler on the court and should add another shooter, too. LeBron is a great playmaker and finisher, but he can't pass it to himself.
Sheridan: That's a tough call because of the way they are tied up cap-wise for the next couple years with guys like Eric Snow, Ira Newble and Damon Jones taking up so much room while on the downside of their careers. Making another run at Mike Bibby makes sense, though it'd probably cost them Anderson Varejao and a future No. 1, at the very least.
Stein: The Cavs' issues haven't changed. They still need a proven playmaker and better shooters around LeBron, for starters, but they still have a payroll that offers no easy fixes because of the big contracts owned by Larry Hughes and Zydrunas Ilgauskas. And now expectations are a lot higher because of this Finals run. With only three seasons to go before LeBron can (and will) opt out, Cleveland will be depending on the East's continued suckitude as much as anything.
4. Forty years from now, your grandkid says: "Tell me about the Spurs."
What do you say?
Anthony: They were perhaps the best defensive team ever. They didn't have the charisma or the persona of some of the other dynasties, and they played in San Antonio, which is not as compelling or as significant a sports market. And of all the great dynasties, this team never won back-to-back titles (the one glaring quality absent from its résumé). However, there's nothing else to argue. They had the best power forward ever! And one of the best coaches and front offices the game has ever had.
Abbott: There was a lot more than basketball to the NBA. There were marketing deals. There was hype. There were agents, shoe contracts, police records, media, money, strippers and a million other things. But the San Antonio Spurs? As much as is possible in that era's NBA, they were an organization that was about basketball. And you know what? They were pretty good at it.
Broussard: The Spurs were a very good team led by the greatest power forward of all time and a Hall of Fame point guard in Tony Parker. They didn't capture the imagination of the public because they were a fairly dull team, both in terms of playing style and personality. But they were the most professional team in sports. Their players were old-school in that they respected the coach's authority and didn't mind being yelled at, and the coach was old-school in that he was no-nonsense and didn't care about having his name up in lights. The Tim Duncan Spurs were a dynasty, but not as good as the Jordan Bulls, Magic Lakers or Bird Celtics. But Duncan retired with five rings. Wow!
Bucher: The best example of teamwork and ego-less NBA basketball in their era. Proof that mainstream America couldn't care less about those qualities -- otherwise, the Spurs would draw the highest TV ratings, not the lowest.
Hollinger: They were the first basketball team to really operate like a corporation, and as a result they were the best-managed sports organization of their era. Now, four decades later, everybody operates like this and we take it for granted, but the Spurs were truly ahead of their time -- everyone else ended up copying them, even in other sports. Amazingly, at the time almost nobody remarked about how incredible the Spurs were in this regard. I was a witness.
Sheridan: Pretty much every other year they were in the Finals, and in those in-between years they were the team everyone feared most in the playoffs. They were a model franchise in so many ways, and they were the first to successfully make the move toward importing international players. They weren't a dynasty, but they were a known commodity that every other team feared, year in and year out.
Stein: I will say that Duncan was the most dominant player of his generation more than I will call this a dynasty. I will say that I was lucky to live in Texas for a good chunk of Duncan's career so I could cover it closely. I will say that Popovich and Duncan were the pre-eminent coach/player combo for the first 15 years of my career covering the NBA. And I will say what Brent Barry said the other day to the New York Times, except I will have to explain that the Spurs never got their due from the people in spite of these truths: "No character issues, professionalism, preparation -- everything people always say they want, it's all happening right here."
5. Who wins Game 4? Game 5? Game 6? Game 7?
Abbott: Before the series started, my consistent prediction was that it would not be a cakewalk. (When I packed for Cleveland, I packed for San Antonio, too.) But now I'm just as convinced that I was wrong. With the pressure now off, perhaps Cleveland finally manages to have a good shooting night in Game 4. But barring a major San Antonio injury or an unforeseen tactic, I don't think Cleveland can win more than one game, and that's iffy.
Broussard: There will be no Game 5, 6 or 7.
Bucher: Spurs win Game 4. Handily.
Hollinger: Cavs. Spurs. San Antonio will lose a rigged Game 4 because a beleaguered commissioner Stern wants to punish the media by keeping them sequestered in Cleveland for three more days, before rallying to a 15-point win in the Game 5 clincher.
Sheridan: Spurs will win it in 4. The Cavs don't have the mental toughness to climb out of the hole they're in.
Stein: Stop it. Spurs finish this off in Game 4.
6. Which team is more likely to return to the Finals next year?
Abbott: Even though the West is so strong, my gut is San Antonio because they'll be more or less intact. The Cavaliers are in need of some retooling, and the Eastern Conference already has several teams with the potential to knock off Cleveland next year (Chicago, Miami, Detroit, Orlando, Washington, Toronto ...) and might also be importing big names from the West like Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and Shawn Marion.
Broussard: Both clubs have a good shot, a very good shot, but the Spurs have the better shot. Duncan is still the most dominant player in the game, and Parker is still young and only getting better. This team will be motivated to repeat.
Bucher: Tough call because of San Antonio's inability to win back-to-back years and the West's greatness, but I'll say Spurs. Cavs have some inherent organizational flaws that need to be addressed, the first being a way to fully utilize LeBron's capabilities.
Hollinger: Cleveland, because the East is so dilapidated. Let's hope they make a better show of it next time.
Sheridan: The Spurs, simply because they're better. Yes, they play in a much tougher conference, but they've been the class of that conference (if you look at it in terms of longevity) for a while now, and their experience in just being able to get through the first three rounds will still be there a year from now.
Stein: San Antonio. The case for bestowing dynasty status on the Spurs is that they've been a contender for the championship for a full decade except for the 1999-2000 season, when Duncan was injured in the playoffs. LeBron's development can only benefit from getting here so soon, but the wide-openness of the East benefits four or five other teams as much as Cleveland.