LeBron vs. Jordan, Duncan vs. Kobe: Matchups you feel but can’t see

If LeBron James and Tim Duncan meet again in The Finals, they'll be both playing against each other and for their place in history.

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Something incredible is happening in the shadow of these NBA playoffs: Two of the greatest players of all time are making their assault on two of the most impressive legacies the game has ever offered us.

The first is LeBron James’ continuing quest to topple Michael Jordan as the greatest basketball player of all time, a goal LeBron has become candid about, including in a sitdown interview with me before the season started.

The other is Tim Duncan’s much less talked about but increasingly possible takedown of Kobe Bryant’s standing as his era’s best player.

Let’s start with LeBron.

He is without a doubt the most talented basketball player on earth, and his attempt to Be More Like Mike than Mike seems both possible and still as daunting as it was when Sports Illustrated first threw him on its cover with the words, “The Chosen One.”

Jordan won six titles. All six times he was the MVP of The Finals. So Jordan never failed to be the most important player in a series on which a championship rested, as LeBron has twice; he never choked, as LeBron so clearly did in his first Finals with the Miami Heat.

But Jordan didn’t have LeBron’s almost supernatural skills. And while LeBron did fall under the weight of all the ugliness he created that first year in Miami, there’s a good chance that experience shaped him – forged him, really – into something capable of attacking the highest mountain in all of basketball: the one where the only face chiseled on the side is that of Air Jordan.

James doesn’t yet have Michael Jordan’s six rings, but he does have plenty of years ahead of him to catch up.

LeBron has a long, long ways to go. But notching his first three-peat would be a giant step in that direction.

Duncan’s journey toward his own incredible place in the history of the game is clearer because we can grasp more completely (as we can with Kobe) the fullness of his career. Both men have, most likely, only a few years left. The second half of LeBron’s career is guesswork. The second halves of Kobe and Duncan’s careers have mostly happened.

Win one more title, and Duncan matches Kobe in rings, but passes him as an all-time great.

He and Kobe are both somewhere between the top five to 12 players of all time, and their careers are linked both in what they share and what they do not.

Kobe arrived in 1996 but out of high school. Duncan arrived a year later but after four years of college. Kobe was flashy, a guard, a shooter, all Hollywood and buzz and, yes, that controversy, and he won and lost on one of the game’s brightest stages.

Duncan was the quiet big man, playing in the sleepy NBA backwaters of San Antonio. Both men will play their entire careers with one team. Both men are among the greatest ever – short of Jordan, short of where LeBron hopes to tread, but very close to each other.

If Duncan matches Kobe Bryant’s five titles, he’ll likely surpass his contemporary’s legacy.

Kobe has five titles, Duncan four. But slip on another ring and their resumes shift. Kobe has always been a master of the media, but if Duncan gets to five he becomes the master of the court. Duncan has two MVPs, Kobe one. Duncan has three Finals MVPs, Kobe two.

It is the last two years that have put Duncan so clearly within grasp of Kobe’s legacy. While Kobe spent his time “leading” one of the most disappointing teams in NBA history and then missing all but six games this season with injuries, Duncan enjoyed a late-career resurgence that included an NBA Finals appearance last year. And here he is again, chasing another title while we wonder whether Kobe will even make the playoffs again.

You can argue for Kobe, of course, as so many Lakers fans surely will. And you can feign indignation that one would put the quiet, plodding, “boring” Duncan ahead of a guy who nicknamed himself Black Mamba and too often decided to strike at his own teammates or coaches. But there is no insult in calling one man greater than another when you put both squarely among the 12 greatest of all time.

They are both legends, and what made Kobe impossible to play with to some made him impossible to beat to so many others. There is no unwinding each man from the player and the greatness they have shown us.

Still, facts are facts. And Phil Jackson, in his autobiography, did call Kobe “uncoachable.” Duncan, meanwhile, quietly signed for less money and built a dynasty in San Antonio, far from the spotlight and the credit and the praise.

Whereas Kobe couldn’t play with Shaq, couldn’t make it work with Dwight, and took a giant end-of-his-career contract that makes it much harder for the Lakers to keep winning, Duncan ceded the stage to Tony Parker. And so the Spurs kept winning, and the Lakers did not.

That is what is at stake in this postseason: not just a championship but Kobe’s place in NBA history and, perhaps eventually, Jordan’s.

The idea of LeBron eventually becoming the Greatest Of All Time or of Duncan overtaking Kobe will be unwelcome for many of you.

I get it. That reaction makes sense. We crave to see greatness – all-time greatness, in all things about our time and place – and then we cling fiercely to nostalgia. It was true of our fathers, and their fathers, too. It’s the most human of reactions – to see in the history around us what we’d like to see in ourselves: uniqueness, beauty, meaning.

SHOCKING DECISIONS

I’m guilty of it, too. When we glimpse something that transcends us or – as sports and art do, at their best – underscores something about us and our time here, we don’t just love it. We cling to it. We defend it. We protect it – particularly against something that might surpass the thing we so cherish.

Something like LeBron, or like Duncan.

With the Heat’s 102-90 win over the Indiana Pacers on Monday night putting them up 3-1 in the Eastern Conference finals and the Spurs able to take the same lead out West against the Thunder if they win Tuesday night, Duncan and LeBron again seem on a collision course for each other.

So this seems a particularly good week to contemplate LeBron and Duncan’s all-time value.

Duncan’s quest seems open-and-shut to me. Win another ring, and he passes Kobe. Fail, and he doesn’t.

LeBron has further to go, and it’s that journey I can’t wait to take in. Personally, I don’t think he gets there. Not past Jordan. Not quite.

But I could be wrong.

Which is why these NBA Finals and the postseason leading up to them are about more than one ring, one game, one thrilling moment in time.

LeBron James and Tim Duncan are chasing history, and I crave the idea of sitting back and watching one all-time great go after another.

Bill Reiter is a national columnist for FOXSports.com, a national radio host at Fox Sports Radio and regularly appears on FOX Sports 1. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at foxsportsreiter@gmail.com.