Luka Dončić, Jayson Tatum and the legacies on the line in the 2024 NBA Finals

Ahead of the tipoff for Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday night, let's take a deep dive into what this championship series will mean for the legacies of so many of the Boston Celtics and Dallas Mavericks.

We talk a lot about legacies in basketball, probably too much, but the NBA Finals have an actual impact on how we perceive someone long after his playing days are done, and Dončić has a shot to emerge as a nascent all-timer. He is well on his way, even if his Mavericks lose. His five All-NBA first-team selections at the age of 25 are matched only by Tim Duncan and Kevin Durant, two of the 20 greatest players ever.

Win a title, and we will probably call him The Best Player Alive, even better than Nikola Jokić, since the victory would mark one of the biggest betting upsets in the history of the Finals. He will have to be incredible for Dallas to win, and we enter the series expecting him to average a 30-point triple-double.

Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic smiles during a news conference after the team's win over the Minnesota Timberwolves in Game 5 of the NBA basketball Western Conference finals Thursday, May 30, 2024, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Matt Krohn)
Luka Dončić has the opportunity to win his first NBA championship — and the title of Best Player Alive. (AP Photo/Matt Krohn)

His historical place in the game will be harder to peg, because he is still so young. The list of those who made the All-NBA first team on an NBA champion as its best player before the age of 26 includes only Duncan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, George Mikan and Joe Fulks.

Imagine walking into the legacy conversation on that ground floor. This would be Luka Dončić.

Seriously, when Dirk Nowitzki won his championship for the Mavericks in 2011, cementing himself as the greatest player in franchise history, he was a 32-year-old, four-time All-NBA first-team selection. Dončić will have stacked a similar résumé — save for Nowitzki's MVP and a career's worth of counting statistics — a few months after his 25th birthday. Nowitzki is one of the 25 best players the game has ever seen, and Dončić will have seven more seasons to add more hardware to his trophy room before he turns 32.

I am not saying he will leave the NBA Finals as one of the 10 greatest players ever, but he has a chance — with his first ring and a Finals MVP — to come out the other side on pace to match (or surpass) anyone.

I am not sure anyone would be willing to stamp Tatum as The Best Player Alive, even if he were to nab Finals MVP in a championship victory, but he will be top five — and maybe closer to one than he is five.

He will also be a certified No. 1 on a title team, a list not as long as you would think for a 77-year-old league. Even the group of players who won one title as a No. 1 includes Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett, Dwyane Wade, Julius Erving, Bill Walton, Rick Barry, Bob Pettit and Dolph Schayes — members of the NBA 75. If Tatum takes home a Larry O'Brien trophy, and he is not on the league's next list in 2047, something has gone terribly wrong.

(Amy Monks/Yahoo Sports Illustration)
(Amy Monks/Yahoo Sports Illustration)

The question will be how high he could climb. It is tough to crack the NBA's pantheon when you have never won a league MVP, but it is possible. Take Jerry West, for example, widely considered one of the 20 greatest players ever. At age 26, same as Tatum is now, he was a four-time All-NBA first-team selection with nearly 10,000 career points who lost all three of his Finals appearances. If Tatum loses, he would be a three-time All-NBA first-team honoree with more than 10,000 points who failed twice in the Finals.

If he wins and hoists the Finals MVP, he will have matched West's career achievements in that regard — with a decade's runway to eclipse them. The pantheon is possible, especially since Tatum's Celtics are poised to contend for the foreseeable future. The road back here is easier in Boston than it is in Dallas, unless these Finals reveal a gap between Tatum and Dončić that is wider than our current view of them.

The danger for Tatum is losing and never getting a third shot. The list of two-time Finals losers and zero-time champs includes Karl Malone. His legacy is marked more by that losing than his Hall of Fame career, even if he lost to Michael Jordan. Tatum has more riding on these Finals than anyone. Win, and he stays apace with all-timers — with one up on Dončić; lose, and he may become a meme in Dončić's documentary.

Who is the best of the second-best players on an NBA team? Prior to the season, Anthony Davis, Devin Booker, Damian Lillard, Paul George, Bam Adebayo and Jamal Murray all would have been considered. Whoever wins this series — Brown or Irving — will have a better claim than any of those other names.

A quick glance at the best wingmen in NBA history turns up Scottie Pippen, Kevin McHale, James Worthy and Klay Thompson, among others. I am not sure either Brown or Irving cracks that list, even if they win, simply because those other guys won three or more titles. Participating in a dynasty is its own legacy act.

But Irving could become the rarest of Robins, sidekicking both LeBron James and Dončić to titles. It is hard to think of someone who has been so clearly the second-best player within two entirely different championship cores. Bob Dandridge, Jamaal Wilkes, Dennis Johnson and Dennis Rodman came closest.

What do all of those players have in common? They are Hall of Famers. Pencil Irving in. He is an eight-time All-Star with a ring. Nobody who can make those claims has been left out. Only 25 players in NBA history have made eight All-Star appearances and won multiple titles. Irving has a chance to join them. James, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant are the only other active players to do it. And the only others to accomplish that this century: Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Duncan, Bryant, Ray Allen and Shaquille O'Neal.

Is Brown a Hall of Famer if he wins? Not yet. He has earned three All-Star nods. With a ring, though, his career to this point would most closely resemble that of Joe Dumars. He won another title, and if Brown gets there, then we can start the debate about where he belongs among the best wingmen historically.

Boston, MA - January 10: Jrue Holiday #4 and Al Horford #42 of the Boston Celtics celebrate during the second half at the Garden.  (Photo by Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images)

Am I crazy to think that both Horford and Holiday are Hall of Famers if the Celtics win the title?

Five All-Star appearances and a championship would give Horford a legacy that has never been left out of the Hall of Fame. It took awhile, but Chauncey Billups earned his induction this season. He was the last holdout. Horford is essentially the guard version of Kyle Lowry, and I think Lowry gets into the Hall of Fame. Kevin Love will be an interesting test case if his eligibility comes due before Horford gets in line.

Horford may also get his No. 42 retired in Boston if he gets his ring. That is generally a prerequisite to joining the 24 other numbers in the TD Garden rafters. Horford has appeared in more than 100 playoff games for Boston, including five conference finals, and this will mark his second Finals appearance. What a story it would be for Horford to shepherd Tatum and Brown from their rookie seasons, and for them to help the 38-year-old hoist his legacy two more levels — as a Hall of Famer and an all-time Celtics great.

Holiday will not have his number retired for helping the Celtics win in his first season in Boston, but he will have been an integral member of two different championship franchises in a span of four seasons.

He is only a two-time All-Star — his appearances coming 10 years apart — but he is indisputably one of this generation's best defenders. Of the 16 players who have made six All-Defensive teams, as Holiday has, and won two championships, as Holiday could, 15 of them are in the Hall of Fame. Michael Cooper and Bruce Bowen are the only ones to never make an All-Star team. Cooper got in this year; Bowen is out.

The NBA began tracking deadline trades in 1987. Since then, six players have been traded in the same year they averaged 20 minutes for a title team, per The Ringer's Zach Kram: P.J. Tucker, Milwaukee Bucks (2021); Marc Gasol, Toronto Raptors (2019); Nazr Mohammed, San Antonio Spurs (2005); Rasheed Wallace, Detroit Pistons (2004); Clyde Drexler, Houston Rockets (1995); and Mark Aguirre, Pistons (1989).

Gafford and Washington would make Nos. 7 and 8. Might a title make Dallas' February moves the greatest trade deadline in history? Nobody has ever scored two starters at the midway point and turned them into champions in a matter of months. Take a bow, Nico Harrison, Executive of the Midseason.

Stevens coached Butler University to back-to-back NCAA championship games, losing both, before becoming coach of the Celtics at the age of 36 in 2014. He led Boston to conference finals appearances in 2017, 2018 and 2020, failing to reach the Finals each time. Since stepping down and moving into the front office, replacing Danny Ainge in 2021, Stevens has stewarded two NBA Finalists in three seasons.

He could become the first coach-turned-executive to win a championship since Pat Riley.

Stevens' 2022 Finals team was mostly built by Ainge, save for the reacquisition of Horford and a midseason trade for Derrick White. This year's team, though, has Stevens' stamp all over it. Tatum and Brown are still holdovers, but trading Marcus Smart for Kristaps Porziņģis and adding Holiday remade the foundation of this team in a way that elevated Boston from perennial contender to 64-win juggernaut.

Stevens also hired a 34-year-old Mazzulla to replace the exiled Ime Udoka. Stevens stuck with Mazzulla last season, when a loss to the eighth-seeded Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals put him on the hot seat. Now, Mazzulla can become the youngest head coach to win a title since Bill Russell in 1969.

The list of rookies to average 20 minutes per game during the playoffs for a championship team is 13 players long: Manu Ginóbili, Sam Cassell, Marc Iavaroni, Magic Johnson, Johnny Davis, Jamaal Wilkes, John Havlicek, Satch Sanders, Bill Russell, Tommy Heinsohn, Tom Gola, Red Kerr and Clyde Lovellette.

Lively could become the first rookie to accomplish that feat since Ginóbili in 2003. He would also be the youngest to ever do it, eclipsing Johnson — the 1980 Finals MVP at age 20 — by roughly five months.

Tim Hardaway Sr. played 13 NBA seasons, making five All-NBA teams and five All-Star appearances, but he never won a ring, coming closest with the Miami Heat in the 1997 Eastern Conference finals. Tim Hardaway Jr. is a reserve for the Mavericks who could help deliver the championship that his father never won.

Celtics bigs Horford and Luke Kornet also have fathers who played in the NBA as teammates on the 1989-90 Milwaukee Bucks. Neither of their elders sniffed a title. Bragging rights for sons are on the line.

Jones was on the fringes of the Chicago Bulls' rotation last season. He was available this past summer to any team as a free agent from July 1 to Aug. 18. He signed with the Mavericks — over the Celtics — for the veteran minimum, filling their 15th and final roster spot. And he has started every playoff game in Dallas.

His is one of the more remarkable career turnarounds in recent memory. Two years ago, Gary Payton II also went from a fringe NBA player to a vital piece of a title in the span of a season. He immediately turned his success with the Golden State Warriors into a three-year, $26 million contract. Jones is set to be a free agent at season's end. He has already earned himself a raise. Might it be bigger with a ring?

Fourteen people have won NBA titles as both players and head coaches: Rick Carlisle, Larry Costello, Billy Cunningham, Tommy Heinsohn, Red Holzman, Phil Jackson, Buddy Jeannette, K.C. Jones, Steve Kerr, Tyronn Lue, Pat Riley, Bill Russell, George Senesky and Bill Sharman. Kidd would be the seventh Hall of Fame player to win on the court and bench, joining Cunningham, Heinsohn, Jeannette, Jones, Russell and Sharman. Not bad for someone who was also on the hot seat last season in his third head coaching job.

This might not be a Willis Reed moment, but I am not sure we have talked enough about Porziņģis' return from a soleus strain. He is expected to start Game 1 for the Celtics after a 37-day layoff. He last played on April 29, when he came up lame with a non-contact injury to his right calf. He sounded cagey on Tuesday in response to questions about his health. Is he 100%? "We'll see." Is he pain free? (Long pause) "Yes?"

It is kind of wild to think that the Celtics stormed through the Eastern Conference playoffs in 14 games without arguably their third-best player, albeit against teams that experienced their own injury issues. Boston has another gear, and Porziņģis could be it. His could be one of the great comeback stories in history, as wild as that sounds. I am hard-pressed to think of others that led to a championship, outside of Willis, whose 27 minutes in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals have taken on mythological proportions.

I am sure you will let me know of more heroic returns. Enjoy the Finals, folks. Legacies are on the line.