The Story of the 2020 NBA Finals

I’m not breaking any new ground when I say that the best sports moments are remembered because of their place in a good story. Some are even turned into movies, like Rudy or Brian’s Song, and retold on the big screen. The underdog narrative is probably the most common feel-good story vehicle, though there have also been joyous breaking-the-curse moments, like the Red Sox in 2004 or the Cubs in 2016 – even though that one came at the expense of my beloved Cleveland baseball team.

Speaking of Cleveland sports, as I am wont to do, the Browns became the subject of national hype when they traded for Odell Beckham Jr. in advance of the 2019 season. He’s a genuine superstar, one of the best at his position and a pop culture personality. The Browns already had a promising young quarterback and talent at other positions, so all of a sudden they were poised to reverse their own curse. But Nike, gifted in telling stories through their ad spots, celebrated instead by pointing out that Odell was reunited with his actual best friend Jarvis Landry, and they would finally be playing professional football for the same team. The commercial is one of my favorites, and I would watch it before every game.

It should go without saying that the Browns season that followed was a bust. But they held onto Jarvis and Odell, and the story of best friends playing together has another opportunity for success. Though in Cleveland, the undisputed feel-good sports story of recent memory is LeBron James coming home to win the NBA Finals in 2016. There are so many elements to the story: LeBron grew up and became a superstar in Northeast Ohio, went straight from high school to the Cleveland Cavaliers, then left us for Miami where he finally got to win. But then he dumped Miami and came back! Not on a TV show but a magazine cover – see, he’s learning! And after only two years back, he finally got to win in Cleveland, and he did it against the best basketball team in history. LeBron is the epicenter of those stories, as well he should be.

But there’s another element to that Cavs season. Their moves at the trade deadline brought in Channing Frye, uniting him with his friend Richard Jefferson. And their friendship was contagious, bringing the whole team together in a way that manifested on the court. That’s why I was so excited for the Browns to get Odell. The stories outside the statistics and hometown tribalism make the best sports moments the best.

Now here we are at the 2020 NBA Finals: the LA Lakers versus the Miami Heat. It’s almost certain this series will be talked about for years regardless of the outcome. And that’s not accounting for the shortened season, the bubble, the state of the world coming into basketball. On Los Angeles’ side, there’s the sudden and catastrophic death of Kobe Bryant earlier this year. A win for the Lakers is a win for Kobe and a win for the city, well deserved. On Miami’s side, every player is a unique story unto himself, and I’ll get back to this in a moment. Then you have the story of LeBron, now in LA, playing against a city he dumped, on the grandest stage. I agree with the sports writers calling this the story to watch, especially through the lens of LeBron versus Heat president Pat Riley.

No one expected Miami to make it this far this year except themselves. That’s part of Riley’s Heat culture. LA has two headliners in LeBron and Anthony Davis. Miami is a team that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Jimmy Butler is only in his first season with the team, but he’s the anointed leader and he’ll tell you why. Bam Adebayo is the ascending superstar, a Miami secret for the past few years and now breaking out nationally, as he seals a playoff game with his left wrist. Tyler Herro is the rookie with the swagger of a champion. Goran Dragić and Andre Iguodala are turning back the clock. Udonis Haslem is Heat culture personified, leading huddles from the bench. And then there’s Duncan Robinson.

• • •

The brief summary of the Duncan Robinson story is, he was good, but somehow not good enough to demand your attention, until he was. He started at Division III Williams before transferring to Michigan. No NBA team drafted him, not even Miami. He worked his way up through tryouts and the G League to a starting role on the Heat and, more importantly, one of the best three point shooters in the sport. He’s fascinating to watch.

On the day of the second game of the second round of the playoffs, ESPN published a profile of Duncan, with the chief story element of him overcoming impostor syndrome. And who could blame him? Everything up until then would suggest that he didn’t belong where he was, even despite his historic three point shooting ability. That in itself is worth examination: you don’t have the monumental shift in importance of the three point shot without Steph Curry. He redefined basketball for this and future generations. Kids watching the NBA are working on their distance shooting because it’s something anyone can do. Not everyone can be Shaq, 7 feet tall with hundreds of pounds of muscle, able to dunk for an automatic two points at will. Steph is (relatively) short and slender, and a two-time MVP. And his team didn’t qualify for the bubble, so he was out of the picture for Duncan’s star turn. It’s not hard for a self-criticizing mind to wander down the path of, if the guy who paved the way for you to excel were here, would you still be in the spotlight for excelling?

And worse, in the games that followed the publication of that article, Duncan went cold (for him). His shots weren’t falling as frequently, and he was getting into foul trouble early. That’d be plenty of confirmation for someone with impostor syndrome: the stakes were getting higher and performance was getting lower. But Erik Spoelstra kept Duncan in the starting lineup. One great part of that profile is how Spoelstra himself had to overcome the feeling that he didn’t deserve to be a coach. He started as the video guy for the team, the D3 school of the Heat organization. But he learned to believe in himself, as is the Heat way, and he still believed in Duncan – whose game, naturally, returned. He had a big game five in the conference finals, making layups that confounded the announcers who had never seen him attempt a shot inside the three point arc, and hustling on defense. He sank five threes in game six as the Heat made the Finals. And when he starts in game one tonight, he will be one of only ten people that qualify to do so. Top ten in the world.

I don’t have anything wise to offer about impostor syndrome. I’ve definitely felt it. I worked at big internet companies in development-adjacent roles, rarely if ever writing code. Any programming I knew was largely self-taught, leagues below the guys (they were almost all guys) with years of professional experience and CS degrees. And the social hierarchy of the companies reflected that. Rather than get better, to justify my place and even rise into a role with prestige, I quit. The next big thing I sunk my life into was live comedy, which is full of the funniest people you know walking off stage and focusing on their mistakes. Even if the audience laughs, it’s not enough until Lorne Michaels laughs, and from what I hear he’s mute in those auditions.

On a video call with high school friends this summer, one of my buddies remarked that he was really impressed with the stuff I did with computers when we were kids. Now he’s a professional programmer. My impostor syndrome patterns from years ago would’ve seized on the fact that he overtook me in ability, further proving I had no place doing what I was doing. But instead it was empowering, because he still thought about me that way enough to remember it as so. It’s not the same as your coach sticking by you when you may not believe in yourself, but it’s gotta be related. The strength and inspiration to break out of that spiral really can come from anywhere.

Duncan Robinson is the story of the 2020 NBA Finals for me. I’ll be watching for him, rooting for him, and happy for him if Miami wins. Shoot, as a current South Florida guy, I’ll be happy for the city of Miami. And if LA wins, I’ll be happy for them too. Overjoyed for LeBron. There are so many good stories to follow.