Duncan hoped the Spurs would make it back to the Finals, of course, but he indicated on Wednesday that he was sure James would return.
"Knowing the player that [James] was then and the trajectory he was on, I had no doubt he would be back here," Duncan said. "I had no doubt he would be tops in this league at some point." And here we are. A champion will be decided between the Heat and Spurs over the next two weeks, and depending on which team gets to four wins first, the legacies of Duncan and James will be altered.
As Per Diem pal Kevin Pelton shows us, Duncan reigns as the greatest player of this post-Jordan era. But it may not be long before King James wears the crown. As Duncan readily admits, James is the best player in the league. And he has been for quite some time, with four Most Valuable Player awards in five years.
Duncan, owner of four championship rings and two MVP awards, has had an astoundingly successful career that spans three decades. Not since Jordan has someone boasted individual and team success quite like Duncan. Not Shaquille O'Neal. Not Kobe Bryant. Not Kevin Garnett.
The gap between James and Duncan is closing fast.
The key word in Duncan's statement about LeBron is "trajectory," the functional word in any legacy conversation regarding James. We can't fully compare the career of James to Jordan, Duncan, Shaq, KG or Kobe because those all-time greats are either finished or wrapping up their careers, while James is in his prime.
Because of these staggered NBA career arcs, we're forced to measure James and his trajectory, not the sum of his accomplishments. This can be awkward stuff.
Here are some things you probably haven't done very often:
Have you watched a movie and paused it halfway to compare its merits to those of "The Godfather"? Have you stopped dinner after soup and salad and declared it the best meal of all time? Or listened to the first six songs on an album and deemed a band better than the Beatles or [insert you favorite musician here]?
OK, basketball isn't just about personal taste and isn't as abstract as art and cuisine; we can quantify greatness a little more easily.
Still, we have to qualify anything we say about LeBron's place among the all-time greats.
So our sentences start like this:
He's on pace to …
James is the youngest ever to …
At James' age, Michael Jordan was …
Yet there's no way around it: James is on track to be one of the very greatest ever and to be the greatest player of the post-Jordan era.
One funny thing about James and Duncan is you could hardly find two greats with more dissimilar paths to greatness. Duncan played four years in college, James none. From day one, Duncan starred next to a Hall of Famer still in his prime (David Robinson); James had to wait until his eighth season, and leave Cleveland controversially, to play with an All-NBA teammate. Duncan had Popovich as his first (and only) coach; James had Paul Silas, Brendan Malone and Mike Brown as his first three coaches. You can hardly imagine a better situation for Duncan or a worse one for James.
That's one reason it's difficult to make a direct comparison between Duncan and James. Considering they play different positions and have had such different career arcs, comparing Duncan and James is like comparing apples to ostriches. And in NBA evaluation, separating the individual from his context is tough business.
One technique is to use advanced stats to put players on a more level playing ground, and one tool is Pelton's wins above replacement player (WARP), which can tell us how players' individual numbers have translated into wins.
As Pelton points out, Duncan has accumulated 258 WARP in his 16-year career (16.1 WARP per season) whereas James has already produced 216 WARP on his 10-year résumé (21.6 WARP per season). At this rate, James would pass Duncan by age 31 or so, if we assume Duncan still has a couple more years left at his current rate. It probably won't take long for James -- who already has as many regular-season WARP (216) as Bryant in seven fewer seasons -- to be the regular-season WARP leader of the post-Jordan era.
You can see James (above in red) has started pulling away from the pack. That's the trajectory that Duncan was talking about.
But Duncan has a commanding lead in the postseason department, right? Actually, no, and that's what's so fascinating here. When we look at their individual accomplishments, James trails Duncan in postseason WARP by only 10 (53 to 43) while playing in 73 fewer games. In other words, Duncan has just a 23 percent lead in postseason WARP despite playing in 56 percent more postseason games.
If you prefer more traditional numbers to assess James' postseason production, he is averaging 28.2 points, 8.5 rebounds and 6.7 assists in his playoff career. In fact, he is only one of three players in playoff history to average at least 25 points, five assists and five rebounds. The other two: Jordan and Jerry West.
In terms of legacy, it's hard to find a more fitting mix for James than those two icons: the greatest of all time and the logo of the league who needed 12 seasons before he won his first title.
Let's talk about those titles. For many, rings are the end-all, be-all. James has won only one Larry O'Brien trophy, and until he matches Duncan (four, and going for a fifth), Bryant (five), Shaq (four) and Jordan (six), a large section of the NBA audience won't consider James an equal.
But that line of reasoning conflates individual success with team success.
Put it this way. If we swapped James and Duncan's supporting casts and organizations, how would we feel about their careers? What if James entered the league with Dwight Howard in his prime as a teammate, just as Kobe enjoyed with Shaq (and that assumes Howard is even in Shaq's stratosphere)? Should we penalize James for having guys like Larry Hughes and Sasha Pavlovic as his Scottie Pippen?
Objectively, Duncan may be the best player of the post-Jordan era now, but James is already nipping at his heels from a statistical standpoint. While the four-time MVP may not have been gifted with the supporting casts of the post-Jordan giants, his individual production at age 28 is astounding. With a supporting cast more befitting his stature, James has reached the Finals in three straight seasons and a second title is in view.
Even if Duncan wins this time around, he's probably just delaying the inevitable. For James, most of his legacy has yet to be written. For perspective, Jordan ended up being regarded as the greatest ever, but he hadn't won a title yet by his 28th birthday. James at 28 is already looking for his second.