The best matchup in the 2013 NBA Finals isn't Heat star/basketball demigod LeBron James versus plucky Spurs defender Kawhi Leonard, or even All-Star center Chris Bosh against aging legend Tim Duncan.
In fact, it's not between any two players. Though the action on the court will certainly be exciting to watch, the most fascinating subplot going into Game One on Thursday night will be between the two coaches: the San Antonio Spurs' Gregg Popovich and the Miami Heat's Erik Spoelstra.
The two teams haven't played each other at full strength since January 2012 thanks to some pointed gamesmanship and roster-doctoring by Popovich and Spoelstra. Popovich sent Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Danny Green home before the Spurs' game at Miami in November, which earned the team a $250,000 fine. Spoelstra responded by sitting LeBron and Wade for the Heat's game in San Antonio, an obvious response to Popovich's move.
So there's some unsettled tension between the two coaches, and each one will be looking to gain an early upper hand on the other. But their styles and pedigrees couldn't be more different.
Popovich, the contempt-filled genius who has dominated the Western Conference for 15 years, is Bill Belichick mixed with a little cantankerous Sean Connery. Though he's notoriously cranky with the media, mocking reporters and delivering terse one-word answers to sideline interviewers with a mixture of disdain and glee, he's also a coach so confident in his process that he benched Duncan, San Antonio's meal ticket for more than a decade, in the fourth quarter of Game Six in the second round of the playoffs last month. The Spurs won that game, like they usually do, and eliminated the Golden State Warriors.
In the era of the pro-sports coaching carousel, Popovich is eternal. He has overseen the Spurs since 1997, and his 16-year run is the longest of any active coach in the four major North American sports. Since Popovich joined forces with Duncan in 1998, the Spurs have had a .702 winning percentage in the regular season. They also own four titles, including a lopsided sweep of LeBron's Cleveland Cavaliers in 2007.
Pop, as his players call him affectionately, has overseen the franchise irascibly but loyally, building a roster with top international players from France (Tony Parker), Argentina (Manu Ginobili), and even Brazil (Tiago Splitter) and getting the best out of young players like Leonard. The Spurs players follow Pop's command without reservation—even Duncan. After Popovich sat Duncan for the final 10 seconds of a game against the Mavericks in March (a game the Spurs won), Duncan told the San Antonio Express-News that he respected Popovich's decision. "You've got to sit there and cross your fingers," he said.
The surefire Hall of Famer, whose four titles are the fifth-most for any coach in NBA history, is respected everywhere but loved only in San Antonio, where his unwavering commitment to the Spurs and his knack for winning have earned fans' loyalty.
At 64, Popovich is the oldest coach in the NBA and a full 22 years older than Spoelstra—the largest age disparity between coaches in the 65-year history of the NBA Finals.
Spoelstra, 42, started as the Heat's video coordinator in 1995 and worked his way up until Pat Riley, the coaching legend-turned-Heat president, anointed him as the man to coach LeBron, Bosh, and Dwyane Wade in their self-stated quest for multiple championships. With serious expectations weighing on the Big Three, Spoelstra coached under as much pressure as anyone in NBA history and succeeded. He weathered calls for his dismissal after the Heat lost the NBA Finals in 2011 and then led the Heat to the 2012 title.
Spoelstra has been even better this year, freeing LeBron to take an unprecedented level of control over the offense to create a high-scoring, ball-moving juggernaut. Miami scored 110.3 points per 100 possessions in the regular season—the most in the league—without a big man to command double teams or an elite point guard to run the offense. They did so because 1. LeBron took his game to new heights, and 2. Spoelstra installed an offense that played directly to the Heat's strengths, such as "athleticism" and "having LeBron James."
With the significance of this series heightening the drama of every hot run and cold streak, this year's Finals will surely feature some masterful in-game and between-game tinkering by the two coaches. When Miami plays its small-ball lineup with LeBron at power forward, will Popovich play Duncan and Splitter together to overwhelm the Heat with size, like Indiana did in the conference finals? Will Spoelstra use Wade or LeBron to defend Tony Parker if the All-Star point guard gets hot on offense? Every maneuver will matter when these two polar-opposite coaches meet on the biggest stage in basketball, and only one can emerge victorious.