With the NBA Finals scheduled to begin Thursday (9 p.m. ET, ABC), our 5-on-5 crew takes a look at the most important storylines heading into Game 1.
1. What's the most important storyline of the Finals?
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: The Miami Heat going for the three-peat. We'll try to remember this is a team sport and stick with the broader themes at the top. A franchise that didn't exist 30 years ago has a chance to join the legendary Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers and the iconic 1990s Chicago Bulls as the only teams in NBA history -- a history that stretches back nearly seven decades -- to win three consecutive championships. It would be the fourth overall championship for the Heat, which would move them out of a four-way tie for the fifth-most-decorated teams and elevate them to fourth place -- tied with the San Antonio Spurs.
Tom Haberstroh, ESPN Insider: The rematch. The rubber match. The revenge series. Call it whatever you want. If you believe that everyone deserves a second chance, this is the Finals matchup for you. The San Antonio Spurs want payback. The Miami Heat want a three-peat. Who wins? We all do.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: What LeBron does when it's over. As he vowed before the season started, LeBron has somehow managed to keep talk about his free-agent future to a surprising minimum. But the prospect of a historic three-peat that many assume would cement his decision to stay in Miami, or how losing to the Spurs would affect his decision to stay or go, is as big as the series itself. It's also true that big NBA Finals news conferences tend to attract broader and more challenging questions, so there should be some fun theater at the podium to test LeBron's ability to smother this stuff.
Michael Wallace, Heat Index: Tony Parker's health. The Spurs point guard entered the Western Conference finals nursing a bum hamstring. Now, he heads into the Finals dealing with a bad ankle. If Parker is limited to the extent of being neutralized, it's a huge advantage for the Heat's perimeter defense.
Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com: The Spurs' desire for redemption. They've burned for 11 months. Burned! Tim Duncan is almost talking trash about it. They're on a mission, etc, etc.
2. What's the second-most important storyline of the Finals?
Adande: The San Antonio Spurs' drive for five. Vengeance for their only NBA Finals loss, against the team that handed it to them, would be the immediate gratification. In the history books they would stand just below the Bulls' six championships. It would cement them as a model of sustainable success; let's not forget that the second half of the run came after the retirement of Hall of Famer David Robinson.
Haberstroh: LeBron James can add a third ring before age 30. It seems like it was yesterday that some folks doubted whether he'd win one. At 29, he has a chance to hold a trio of Larry O'Brien trophies all before he turns 30 years old. Why is this significant? Michael Jordan was 30 when he first three-peated. Something tells me LeBron knows the stakes.
Stein: What Pop and Timmy decide to do when it's over. Particularly if the Spurs win it all this time. The two faces of the franchise, as well as Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, are all under contract for one more season. Do Pop and Timmy want to come back next season no matter what? Would winning it all prove to be too storybook a final chapter to resist? This is actually tied for No. 1 for me with the LeBron stuff, because it's going to be such a shock to the system when Pop and Timmy finally do leave us.
Wallace: Dwyane Wade's health. This time a year ago, Wade was dragging both knees through the stretch run of the playoffs. He needed to have one knee drained and the other put through around-the-clock treatment. We're seeing a completely different and much more explosive Wade these days. He's gotten stronger each round and is coming off his most productive series in two years.
Windhorst: Tony Parker's health. History tells us the Finals turned on Ray Allen's 3-pointer. In reality, it turned when Parker hurt his hamstring. He's a huge problem for the Heat -- well, he's a huge problem for anyone when he's healthy.
3. What's the third-most important storyline of the Finals?
Adande: LeBron James'/Dwyane Wade's ring count. Wade would have more, but LeBron's would mean more. If LeBron is assembling his case for greatest ______ (he's nominated for several categories), he needs to up the ring count. We've been so mesmerized by the ability, we haven't waited for the accomplishment. Shouldn't a winning record in NBA Finals series be a prerequisite? These Finals could bring that (although if he'd still have a losing record in Finals games if the series goes longer than five). Three rings would equal Larry Bird and a host of Celtics, Bulls and Lakers who were either great or had great timing to land on the roster when they did. Three in a row equals Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, Kobe and Shaq. Wade's fourth would also tie him with Shaq -- and Tim Duncan.
Haberstroh: Dwyane Wade is looking healthier. The Spurs packed the paint last season with hopes that they could shut down Wade and make him a jump-shooter. It worked. Wade didn't have a strong counter due to his troublesome knees, but he's shooting 45 percent on jump shots this postseason compared to 39 percent last postseason. Can he make the Spurs pay this time around?
Stein: Tony Parker's health. I know I've skipped ahead to the big-picture stuff, but you could obviously make the case that nothing impacts the actual basketball we see more than the state of Parker's left ankle. We know he's going to be out there for Game 1, but it's hard to make an intelligent prediction about the series without knowing how limited (or not) he'll be.
Wallace: LeBron James' legacy. While it's pretty much established that LeBron, at age 29, is already one of the top five talents to ever play the game, this series can fortify his legacy more than any he's played to this stage. A win, and LeBron has done something his idol, Michael Jordan, and his biggest contemporary co-superstar, Kobe Bryant, have achieved with a three-peat. A loss drops LeBron-led teams to a 2-3 record in the Finals.
Windhorst: Danny Green's 3-point stroke. The Heat made a strategic decision to attack the ball and bet they could stall the offense before the ball could swing to Green. In the first five games, Green burned them on the way to a Finals 3-point record. In Games 6 and 7, not so much.
4. What's the fourth-most important storyline of the Finals?
Adande: Duncovich. The Tim Duncan/Kobe Bryant debate gets more interesting when you factor in Duncan's late-career greatness. A win, and the ring count is even at five (along with Magic Johnson). Gregg Popovich would join Pat Riley and John Kundla with five, as well. To have those five spread out so far -- from 1999 to 2014 -- and done so with many different versions of the team would be astounding. The Spurs have adapted to play a modern version of NBA basketball, but the long-term commitment these two have given each other and their team is old-school.
Haberstroh: Does Tony Parker have bad wheels? The Spurs have to be thrilled that they won Game 6 not just because they earned a trip to the Finals, but that Parker would have four days to let his body heal. His bum ankle knocked him out of Game 6, and he also suffered a hamstring strain a little over two weeks ago. If Parker can't go all-out, the Heat's chances get a big boost.
Stein: The format. 2-2-1-1-1 is back for the first time in more than 30 years, and I suspect you're going to hear a lot about it. It's a big change that, while putting the Spurs at home for a vital Game 5, also sets Miami up for a potential closeout opportunity at home in Game 6 that it wouldn't have had in the 2-3-2 format. This is a big deal.
Wallace: Tim Duncan's motivation. Rarely, if ever, before has Duncan so strongly and so publicly voiced his motivation to take out an opponent than he has with the Heat. Considering the way the Spurs collapsed in the final moments of Game 6 last year, it's easy to understand why Duncan and the Spurs have been so obsessed with avenging their performance against Miami.
Windhorst: LeBron making open jumpers. Seems simple, right? Well, it's not always. The Spurs historically have gambled by backing off James on the outside and denying the drive. I mean wide open. James hasn't always reacted to it well. He canned them all in Game 7 but was totally out of sorts in Games 1-3, because it's not something he's used to.
5. What's the fifth-most important storyline of the Finals?
Adande: Greg Oden could get a ring before Kevin Durant. It's so bizarre I had to throw it in here. It does nothing for the Portland Trail Blazers and their decision to select Oden over Durant, but it would be nice to see something go Oden's way for once, because the Oden/Durant storyline has been lopsided since Game 1 of their rookie years. Unlike the others mentioned above, Oden's ring wouldn't be fodder for debate. More like trivia, just like the fact that Darko Milicic won a championship before his more celebrated 2003 draft classmates LeBron and Wade.
Haberstroh: Does Tim Duncan go out on top? There are 10 million reasons he won't. That's the number of dollars Duncan can make next season if he executes his player option for next season. He's 38 years old with over 50,000 minutes played in the NBA. If he wins another title, which would be his fifth, does the Big Fundamental ride off into the sunset?
Stein: The apparent good health of D-Wade and Manu. The Heat have been validated for how often they sat Wade during the regular season, because Wade has looked good this postseason. And Ginobili was huge for the Spurs in the last round, which sends him into this Finals rematch in the best possible place to atone for a subpar 2013 Finals. Both are spry enough to be difference-makers in this series. Now let's see who delivers.
Wallace: The looming offseason of change for both teams. Enjoy this series while it lasts. We might not see either of these teams return intact next season, considering the contract options and potential retirements that loom in the future. What we do know is there are at least six future Hall of Fame players on display these next couple of weeks. Take it all in.
Windhorst: The fifth-most? This question demands my triteness. What sort of mood will Pop be in? The more sarcasm, the better for San Antonio.