ESPN analysts Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson talked to the media yesterday about today’s start of the NBA Finals. The duo discussed not only this year’s finals matchup between the Spurs and Heat, but also the impact of another championship on either team and the role of the Eastern Conference on the Heat’s place in the NBA Finals this year among much more. The following is the complete transcript from the conversation that the pair had with members of the media in anticipation of tonight’s opening game of the 2014 NBA Finals. Game one tips off tonight at 9pm ET on ABC. The game will be preceded by NBA Countdown at 8:30pm ET.
Q. Could you have thought that the Heat could have gotten back here without contributions from their two new guys Michael Beasley and Greg Oden? As you know they’ve gotten very little from either during this run.
JACKSON: I would say to that answer, yes, they certainly anticipated both of those guys playing some sort of role. But at the end of the day, they brought back the nucleus, and when you bring back the big three in James and Wade and Bosh, and you bring back the same mentality, and obviously some of the guys off the bench that have proven, that are champions. Erik Spoelstra has done an outstanding job. I would say, yes, because at the end of the day they’re built defensively, and they’re built with some special talent that puts them in position to, in spite of who they rotate as far as role players, be in the mix year in and year out.
VAN GUNDY: I concur with Mark. I think there are a couple factors. I think we have to change the big three moniker to the big four because I think Spoelstra definitely belongs in there. They have four guys who could be going to the Hall of Fame as players, Ray Allen and Bosh and Wade and James. But Spoelstra is absolutely vital and instrumental to their success and he’s going to be there as well. You add to that the weakened state of the Eastern Conference. They really weren’t tested. Throw out the playoffs and so they’re here once again.
You know, Beasley in particular I thought might find his way onto the court, but Rashard Lewis has given good minutes. At times Battier has given them good minutes, but he hasn’t been able to find his way consistently on the floor.
Q. I was wondering if either of you have any interest in the Lakers head coaching position, and if they’ve reached out to you about it?
VAN GUNDY: I found that it’s in everybody’s best interest never to comment on jobs. I don’t think it does the team any good or the individual coach. If teams ever want to state what their plans are before they’ve named a coach, that’s up to them, but I think it’s best that I don’t get involved with that.
JACKSON: I totally agree. Obviously, it’s an incredible job, and I’m sure they’ll pick an outstanding coach to lead them forward.
Q. Could you look into your crystal balls and speculate on what might happen if the Spurs either win or don’t win this or the same question with the Heat. How does the outcome impact how these things might be made up next year?
JACKSON: I’m tired of looking in the crystal ball when it comes to the Spurs. Not just me, but we’ve all been wrong for quite a while now. We had them dead a couple years ago. We had them dead after The Finals last year. Truth be told, they’re going to be relevant and be around for the foreseeable future because they’re playing the right way, led by an incredible coach, an all-time great coach – not just in basketball but in sports in general – a bunch of Hall of Famers, and they just find ways to win ballgames. So they’ll be around.
I think when you talk about the Heat, I think it depends on those guys and the decision they’re going to make after the season. When you talk about Pat Riley and that organization, when you talk about Erik Spoelstra, I’m sure they’re going to, whatever the decisions are by the players, find a way to regroup, come back, and be just as strong, if not stronger.
VAN GUNDY: Yeah, I can’t envision going to four straight Finals and any of the better three players deciding that they’re better served someplace else. The Eastern Conference is definitely the place to be right now if you’re a great player because the road is just a lot easier to navigate. So I can’t see them willingly changing their path. And San Antonio, I think the Kawhi Leonard-George Hill trade got them back to where they are now. They’re a little small at that position. Now not only did they have the courage to make that trade, then they picked the right guy, and he has performed fantastically over his short career, and along with the depth they’ve added, and the great, great coaching, they’ve been able to surround their three best players with terrific players, and it’s going to be fun to watch.
Q. I know the word legacy gets thrown around a lot. But how do you view a third championship for LeBron James on an historical plane if the Heat end up winning the series?
VAN GUNDY: I think it would be a terrific accomplishment. Winning a championship is hard, being in The Finals is hard, but a lot about how much you win is who you play with and who you play against at any particular time in your career. So I don’t look at his career in Miami as being any more successful than his time in Cleveland. He’s just surrounded with better players, weaker conference. I think this guy is an all-time great. I think one of his greatest accomplishments is taking a very average to below-average Cleveland Cavaliers team to The Finals, I think, it was in 2007. I think he won 66 games with a starting lineup in Cleveland that I’m not sure would have won 36 games without him.
So to me, both places have been ultra-successful. I don’t think a guy’s greatness is directly tied to his number of championships won because a lot of it comes down to circumstance.
JACKSON: I totally agree. I look at LeBron James, and he’s an all-time great basketball player. I said it, and it’s documented that my opinion is he’s one of the best forwards that ever played the game. I really am not a guy to look and see championships to find your greatness. Because I, like Jeff, agree the fact is who you play with and who you play against. At the end of the day, the guy has played at an incredible level for a long time, and it does not seem the end is near anytime soon.
Q. Mark, can you comprehend what Jason Kidd and maybe Derek Fisher is pondering going straight from a playing career to a coach? Would you have been able to do that a few years ago after you retired? And are you sure – are you convinced you want to coach again, or are you good where you’re at? What is your state right now, now that you’ve signed with ESPN?
JACKSON: Well, I do look forward to coaching one day if it presents itself again. Right now I’m having a blast being back with my crew. I’m fortunate and thrilled to death to be back. If the opportunity presents itself, I look forward to coaching again. If I end my career the way it ended and I continue to call games, I’m fine with that, just to clear that up also. I’m having the time of my life calling these games and being back with this incredible group.
To answer the first part of the question, I believe I would have been able to do it. Unfortunately, I did not have an opportunity. But as far as players today, obviously Jason Kidd had success and continued to get better. I think his future is extremely bright. So I believe that the point is picking the right person. So I believe you can do it and you can be successful. It’s important to make sure that you pick the right person. I don’t think just anybody can do it, but the right person can be successful.
Q. Jeff, you’ve alluded to the weakened state of the Eastern Conference a couple times now. I’m curious if either of you think that might affect the Heat’s standing when you look at that team and what they’ve accomplished among some of the all-time greats? You know the Bulls dynasty very well. Where does the Heat as a team and what they’ve accomplished kind of rank with some of the all-time great teams?
VAN GUNDY: I hate to compare because ultimately people will read into it that you’re diminishing one at the expense of the other. I would just say the Bulls teams back in their heyday had to go through some monster teams to win it all, some really incredible teams. I think it’s hard to compare teams from different eras. But to me, Jordan’s Bulls could compete against any of the great teams that were ever put up. I think they were that good, and they had to go through some great other teams to win those championships.
JACKSON: For me watching Jordan’s Bulls, and obviously the Celtics with Bird and McHale and Parish, and those guys, D.J., watching Ainge and the great Showtime Lakers, those were incredible teams. I look at this Heat team, and I, like Jeff, don’t diminish what they’ve been able to do. Obviously, the competition is not the same as far as the teams that they’ve faced but you go through who you have to go through. They’ve done it; they’ve done it with class, and at an incredible level, so I don’t think it diminishes their accomplishments at all.
Q. I saw a story on the website that refers to the 1994 NBA Finals 20 years ago as being sort of a forgotten Finals. I presume part of that is because of the O.J. Chase, and part of it may be because of other factors. Do you agree with that thinking that the Rockets Knicks series has been lost to history for circumstances that have nothing to do with basketball?
VAN GUNDY: Well, for me, it’s not lost on me. I think about that, maybe not every day, but most days. I’ve talked about this to Mark a lot because, to me, you’ll never convince me that those Knicks teams from when Pat Riley came to when he left to go to Miami – even though they didn’t accomplish winning a championship – that the players there weren’t champions, because they gave championship energy and effort and enthusiasm every day. Unfortunately, they came up a few plays short.
But when you’re talking about Olajuwon in his prime, he’s as great to me as anybody that’s ever played. Ewing didn’t match up a lot with Olajuwon in that series because we played him single coverage, and they doubled Ewing on every catch. But it was still having two great, great competitors, players, humble people going at each other in that series.
I don’t remember anybody talking about O.J. in our locker room and those circumstances. I think the nation was captivated by that. I think the teams were locked in very much to that series. It was hard fought. Houston got home court. They beat us both times in the regular season, and that gave them the advantage to have home court, and they made a couple more plays than we did, and I’m not bitter.
Q. Do you have any regrets about your stint with the Warriors? Jeff, how does it feel having Mark back in the booth with you guys? Obviously, it cuts into your time.
JACKSON: Well, listen, there are no regrets. I think about the three years there. I think about the opportunity that was presented to me by the ownership, by management. I think about the relationship with incredible players and what they were able to accomplish in three years and where that organization was and where it is today – you got a lot to be proud of. Ownership, management, players, fans – it’s in a great place. There are absolutely no regrets.
VAN GUNDY: Before I get to what you were asking me, I would say the unfortunate thing when change comes about whether it’s players or coaches in the NBA, is more focus is given to how things ended than what was accomplished during their time together. I think it speaks volumes that everybody wants to talk about how it ended between Mark and Golden State instead of taking a look at and examining Mark’s impact there in that he came into a team that, minus minor blips of success had been historically bad for two decades. And he came in there and remade them. Who would have thought Golden State would become an elite defensive team?
Defense in this league is about coaching and the ability to protect the basket, and I was utterly amazed how quickly Mark transformed them from a porous defense into an elite defense, and taking them to 47, 51 wins. They hadn’t won 45-plus games in back-to-back years in forever.
So my focus when I look at that is what was accomplished versus how it ended. Now, to get to your question about less air time, basketball fans in America are applauding the three-man booth so they don’t have to listen to my inane rants. And believe me, no one is upset, myself included, that I do less talking.
Q. I know both of you have said that you don’t want to discuss any team’s interest in you or your interest in any job openings, and I definitely respect that. But I did want to ask you, there’s been a groundswell from a vocal segment of Knicks fans that Phil Jackson reach out to you guys for the Knicks coaching vacancy, I just wanted to know if you had gotten wind of that at all, and how you react to that?
VAN GUNDY: When you spend 13 years with an organization like I did, which gave you your first chance of being in the NBA, your first chance of being with a championship-caliber team, and your first chance to be a head coach, you’ll always be a Knick.
So there are a few box scores I check every morning right when I get up. It’s obviously wherever my brother is coaching, Chicago, Charlotte, Golden State, the Rockets and the Knicks. Those are my guys and those are my teams. I’m always going to have great, great feelings for the Knicks, hoping that they have great success and really appreciate whenever I am back in New York, how positive the fans were to me when I was just getting started. So I’ll always be so appreciative of how they treated me.
JACKSON: Obviously, you hear the talk, even if it’s the New York Post reporting my inner circle made a statement, and I have no clue because my wife and kids have not spoken to the Post, so just to counter that. It’s an incredible job. It’s an incredible opportunity. And I’m sure that Phil Jackson will do an outstanding job of finding the right coach to get that organization and that team headed back in the right situation.
Q. You guys mentioned some of those old Bulls teams. It’s been 30 years since that ’84 draft that Michael Jordan came in. Just wanted your thoughts and memories on facing him, and particularly at this time of year how good he could be.
JACKSON: He’s the best I’ve ever faced, and he’s the best I’ve ever seen. Flat out, there were times when Jeff can recall he single handedly beat us with the Knicks when other guys were not ready at that particular time. He propelled them to be great and propelled them to championship level. Absolutely incredible, fierce competitor. Invited a winning spirit, and did everything on the floor to attempt to tear the heart out and put daggers into his opposition, and you can see the impact that he’s had not just in that time, but even in watching players after him, how they attempted to duplicate or put some of the things in their game that he had mastered. But those were great Bulls teams. Like I said, there are times when he single handedly put them in position to win it all.
VAN GUNDY: Yeah, we used to kiddingly refer to as the triangle with the 23 in the triangle because that’s what made it run. I just went back and looked at his numbers. I think sometimes with great players you forget the longer they’re out how great they were. I mean, this guy played huge minutes with the Washington Wizards when he was 39, and averaged over 20 points a game. Played all 82 games, I think, when he was 38, averaged 22.6. Then the run he had with the Bulls, I mean, this is legendary stuff.
But if you don’t take a peak back every once in a while, you can start to forget just how great he was. To me, his post-up game and the triangle, how he got into the post, out of the triangle, to me was the hardest part to guard. We didn’t have big two guards at that time in New York, but we did have big point guards. We had Mark, we had Doc Rivers, and we had Derek Harper. Starts with a great competitor, add the two, but we had no answer for him in the post. Defensively it wasn’t an every play mentality, but he had the ability, along with Pippen and Grant and Rodman to turn it up such that it was they could make it very difficult for you to find good shots.
So Jordan to me, it’s like Mark said, I don’t like to compare eras because I didn’t see some of the guys play live. But with my own two eyes I loved going into Chicago Stadium, the old Chicago Stadium, because you came out of that tunnel three and a half or whatever it was, and you knew it was on. In a great atmosphere against the greatest to ever play during my time in the NBA. You know, it was an honor to be on the same floor.
Q. It’s been mentioned the East is much weaker than the West this year. Do you think either team has an advantage? The Heat have had a fairly easy pass through the playoffs so far versus the Spurs who have been much more tested in the regular season and the playoffs. Do you think it gives either team an advantage?
JACKSON: I think that’s a great question. I think the Spurs being battle tested this year certainly puts them in position. But I don’t look at it as just this year. I think both teams are prepared for this moment because of their history, not just the history of 82 games and a playoff round, but the history – playoffs, battle-tested, championship. So I don’t think it plays a role in who gets the advantage. Both teams are prepared, both teams are ready, both teams are extremely well coached, and I think it sets up for an outstanding NBA Finals.
VAN GUNDY: I would agree. I think so much of it depends on Parker’s health. If he’s healthy, obviously, the Spurs have a great opportunity. If he’s hobbled, I think Miami has a better opportunity. I think both teams are missing some people who had a major impact on last year’s series. Gary Neal had some great moments for San Antonio. Mike Miller, obviously, had some great moments, had a great run for Miami.
I think both teams are ready, like Mark said. I don’t think either team has an advantage in that way. I just think it’s going to be close, hard-fought, a tip of the ball here, a missed free throw there or an injury that crops up or doesn’t heal right could be the difference in who wins it.
Q. Do you think the Heat will have a problem with the Spurs bench with the way Diaw and Ginobili have been playing in the playoffs this year?
JACKSON: I believe that the Spurs bench creates match-up problems every single night the way that they’ve played all season long, the way that you cannot identify one guy that comes in and impacts a basketball game. They do a great job of understanding their roles, being prepared and playing within a system. I think the difference this year is Ginobili’s fresh body, the way he’s playing. Diaw is certainly playing at a high level. I think Patty Mills gives them a guy that can continue to play pick and roll off the bench, Belinelli’s ability to shoot the basketball.
But I think the Heat also have guys that are playing at a high level coming in off the bench. It was amazing to watch Ray Allen this late in his career still playing with fresh, young legs and a live body. So I think it’s going to be a chess match as far as both benches in the level that they play. They very well could, when you talk about the benches, decide who wins this series.
VAN GUNDY: I love how both teams are constructed. They surround their best players with shooting and passing so that their best players have enough room to operate. You look at San Antonio, the floor is spread and they may have weaknesses in some areas, but their guys can shoot and pass. Same with Miami coming off the bench. I love Norris Cole, his competitive streak. I love how Battier comes off and can hit timely threes. Ray Allen, Mark spoke about, one of the great shooters that’s ever played.
You need to have a team that fits together well, and both teams played beautiful offense because they have Hall of Fame, first-option players surrounded by skilled, smart shooting at the other positions. I think that’s why this Finals is going to be absolutely beautiful basketball viewing for the fans.
Q. I wondered if you guys thought LeBron James was a better player this season than he was last season?
VAN GUNDY: I think you would actually have to coach him and watch every possession to really know that. I think he’s been great from probably his second year on in this league, and he’s had incremental, steady improvement. But at this date, I think it would be miniscule improvements and Erik Spoelstra would have to be the one to decide if he’s taken a dip in certain areas or he’s upgraded other areas. That would be hard for me to be perceptive enough to see.
JACKSON: I totally agree with Jeff. He’s in rare air, and if you look at how great he’s been throughout the course of his career, to me it’s tough to say if he’s better this year than last year. I just know he’s still great and he’s still playing at a level that we’ve only seen a couple of people play at in the history of this game.
Q. People always make a big deal with the idea of coaching in New York, and it takes a certain type of guy. You guys worked at other places too. And Steve Kerr came close to getting the job, a guy that got close to getting the job, a guy with no connection to New York other than Phil Jackson, and same thing with Derek Fisher. Do we make too much of it? Is it a little different in New York with all the demands, whether it’s from within the organization, with the media?
VAN GUNDY: I don’t know if too much is made about it, but I do believe that New York, their fan base, the media coverage helps a coach coach his team well. I think there is a misnomer that New York demands someone famous. I mean, I just don’t believe that. I think they embrace – New York embraces, to me, everybody that works hard, competes, shows confidence in what they do and fights for their team, whether it’s player, coach, management person, owner, whatever it is.
So I think this idea to be a star before you come in there to either play or coach is wrong. I think New York fans have a patience to allow someone to develop and get better. I’ve always thought that the thinking of them having to win right away, and they wouldn’t undertake a rebuilding plan, New York fans – I’ve always disagreed with that as well. I think they’re bright and they understand where a team is at at any particular time. But they do want to see progress, and they want to see effort, and they want to see a combative spirit on the floor. If you do that, I think you’ll be appreciated.
JACKSON: Obviously, Jeff can answer the question better from a head coaching aspect in New York City, but as a kid that grew up in New York City and with the Knicks, everybody’s not made for New York City, whether you’re in management, whether you’re playing, whether you’re coaching. I can remember as a kid watching very good to great players play other places, be traded to the Knicks and not be the same player, whereas some propelled when they got the opportunity to put on a Knicks uniform. It’s something about the fans. It’s something about the pressure. It’s something about the media.
So to be quite honest, everybody is not built for it. It’s a different animal. It’s a different monster. It takes special personality and a person understanding the things that come into play to a tee. I thought, obviously I’m biased, but I thought Jeff did an incredible job juggling all of them during his time as head coach of the Knicks, but everybody’s not capable or qualified to do just that.
Q. You had a nice debate going about the Greg Oden, Kevin Durant draft class, do you think we’ll see more of that during The Finals? And do you think you’ll fill in for Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless on First Take?
VAN GUNDY: I can say that they broke the mold with those two guys, so there is no replacing those two. But I would say this. Mark and I agree on everything, basically, except what we don’t agree with which is about everything too. I think we even agreed on that, but got bogged down in semantics. I just, the idea that because everybody would have taken Oden first wouldn’t have made it the right selection.
Durant from his physical, to his great career, hey, you make mistakes in the Draft, and Oklahoma City was the beneficiary of a mistake by Portland. You know, he’s proven out to be – I think he’s going to be one of the all-time, all-time greats. I’m not sure what we were arguing about, but I remember Mark was wrong.
JACKSON: Well, I will say that Stephen A. and Skip do an outstanding job, and they’re enjoyable to watch, but they do have substitutes so I think it would be a great opportunity.
What you see with Jeff and I, the thing I love about it is we don’t create the moment. Sitting there talking with a mic, you get the same thing if you sat with us at a restaurant. We’re going to grab different topics, we’re going to have different opinions, we’re going to honestly and respectfully agree or disagree, and it’s going to be entertaining.
So the thing I love about it is I was raised in a household that way, and Jeff is like family to me, so it’s something I truly enjoy doing. I’m sure you’ll see – who knows what the topic will be, but you’ll certainly see plenty of that starting Game One.
Q. How useful a motivation is it to the Spurs to look back 12 months ago to what happened in The Finals? As a coach, how would you channel that correctly to benefit the team?
VAN GUNDY: I think too much is made about last year and the motivation it provides for this year. You don’t get to this point if you need some outside force to motivate you. I also think Duncan’s quote about they’re going to, I forget the exact words, but they’re going to do better and win this year, like that’s going to motivate LeBron James and Dwyane Wade like they were sitting there in the need of some motivation from the outside, external motivation. I don’t think you need to channel anything. I think both teams are ready. Both teams are great, great teams. I think the games and the script has yet to be written, but I think it’s going to be an interesting one.
JACKSON: I believe your question was geared towards the Spurs, so that’s the way I’ll answer it. But I believe that you don’t get caught up in what happened yesterday, meaning last year in The Finals, if you’re the Spurs. They’ve already put together an incredible season post last year’s Finals experience. So, my mindset would be don’t get caught up in yesterday and lose sight of the now.
The bottom line is they have an opportunity, and they are back in position to win a championship. That’s old news and let’s move forward. They’ve done an incredible job, and I think that’s been their mindset the entire season, and that’s why they’re in this position again.
Q. What do you both feel are the main differences between last year’s Heat and Spurs teams and this year’s and what do you think will be different in the series?
VAN GUNDY: I think Ginobili and Wade’s health are better, Parker’s health is not as good. Both are missing shooting that had an impact on the series. Neal for San Antonio, Miller for the Heat. And I think to me the Kawhi Leonard-LeBron James match-up becomes even more fascinating the second time around because we know where James is at. We don’t know where Leonard is going to reach. But when you look at his demeanor, his improving skillset, this guy has a chance to be very, very, very good. I love watching him compete against James. So that’s still to me the best part of this series.
JACKSON: I agree with Jeff. I think the health of Wade and Ginobili will play a huge factor. They’re at a different place right now. I think the difference is the role players of San Antonio. They’ve enhanced, like I said earlier, difference is having a guy like Patty Mills who really was a third point guard last year, played a huge part and had a great year for them in his ability to play out of pick and rolls. Going and getting Belinelli, another guy that can stretch the floor and play out the pick and roll. Last year pretty much Ginobili was the impact player off the bench creating offense. This year it’s other guys, and they’ve got live weapons all around the floor.
With the Heat, it’s just Wade is playing at a high-level right now, and it takes the pressure off of LeBron to pretty much carry them. I think that’s a huge difference.
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