Don’t hate NBA super-teams, hate the ‘rings culture’ that created them
The basketball gods truly blessed me.
Sometimes, I can’t help but sit back and think on it and just say, “Damn, Poz, you were fortunate.”
Now let’s not get it twisted, though, I earned everything I got. But the three championship rings and the gold medal I won in the 1998 Goodwill Games are not things I take for granted. Yes, I earned them, but I’ve definitely been around the block enough times to know that — no matter how hard you work and no matter how much talent you have — winning and losing often just comes down to "chance" plays and being in the right place at the right time.
At the end of the day, though, you won’t even have the chance to compete at the highest levels without the talent, and that’s one of the reasons why I never understood why people tear down some of the greatest players we’ve seen just because they weren’t able to win a championship.
Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Garnett each won one. If they hadn’t, would that have made them lesser players? I wouldn’t necessarily think so, but I know plenty of others who would.
That’s why, if you ask me, I understand why so many of today’s players decide to form super-teams. It’s the new wave — stars feel like they need championships to validate themselves, and they’re willing to get it by any means necessary.
For me personally, Karl Malone was the first player I remember really being criticized for not being able to win a title. He was so great for so long, and mind you, he’s the second all-time leading scorer in NBA history. With him and John Stockton, the Utah Jazz came close a couple times, but they just so happened to run into a man named Michael Jordan.
It got even worse for the Mailman when he went to the Los Angeles Lakers, and they ended up being upset by the Detroit Pistons in the 2004 NBA Finals.
It’s like people tried to diminish Malone’s stature because he was 0-3 in the Finals. Again, you’re talking about the No. 2 scorer in NBA history!
Charles Barkley definitely got some criticism as well, but once it was over for Malone, the criticism for failing to win a championship really went to another level.
I think Malone falling short of a title (and how people reacted to it) was the beginning of “rings culture.”
Now, almost 20 years later, players like LeBron, Carmelo, KD and Giannis have seen so many other great players who came before them be measured simply by how many championships they won, and it’s a little unfortunate. Obviously, whether someone was able to win a championship is the ultimate measure of team success, but just because someone wasn’t able to win a ring doesn’t mean they were a failure. But today’s players seem to believe that. Now, it’s gotten to the point where guys have sorta been trained to believe it’s the end-all, be-all.
Even Kevin Durant — one of the most gifted players we’ve ever seen — felt like he wasn’t complete enough and that he wasn’t going to get the respect he deserved until he added a championship to everything he’d already done. For whatever reason, KD felt like he needed to win a championship by any means necessary, even if it meant joining a team that had already won without him. So, that’s what he did.
Instead of being mad at KD for making that decision, we should be asking ourselves why he felt like he had to do so in the first place.
Let me let you in on a little secret: players are competitive.
Someone like Carmelo Anthony probably grew up being the best player in every gym he ever set foot in. Some guys don’t really get challenged until they get to the collegiate level, and in Carmelo’s case, even then he was head and shoulders above everyone else.
When most guys pick up a basketball as a kid, they dream of being the top dog on their team and leading them to a championship. No young baller thinks to himself that he’d really like to be a role player on a title contender some day. And I bet KD didn’t either.
If given the choice, I’m sure that Russell Westbrook would have chosen leading the Oklahoma City Thunder to a championship over winning one with LeBron and AD.
So again, before we criticize these guys for joining forces and creating these super-teams, let’s just stop for a minute or two and think about why they felt it was something they needed to do. It probably has a lot more to do with us as fans and media than we’d like to admit. As much as guys like to pretend they don’t listen to what’s being said and written about them, most of them know how they’re being perceived. And the pressure to win a championship has put the most gifted players in a really tough predicament.
Not everyone can do what Giannis did.
No matter what happens from here on out, he can rest easy knowing that as badly as he wanted to win, he was able to do so without taking an easier path. He stayed committed to the Milwaukee Bucks and things fell into place. Many people, including myself, hope that the same happens for Damian Lillard. But it’s a tough path to follow.
Super-teams have always been a part of the NBA. Some would argue that I was on one in 2008. But at least with the Lakers and Nets this season, we’ve never really seen a concentration of that much talent on just two teams.
Maybe we’ve reached a tipping point. Giannis sure looked happy winning in Milwaukee. He may have made other guys think it’s cool to stay with one team. He may have made players like Lillard and Bradley Beal decide they’d rather go down with the ship than abandon it.
We might actually be reaching a turning point in basketball history where players are beginning to realize that there’s a difference between defying the odds and winning a championship, and stacking the deck and winning a championship.
I’m not sure we’re there just yet.
At the end of the day, every player dreams of holding up the Larry O’Brien trophy and hearing their name called on ring night. It’s an experience that guys spend their entire lives pursuing.
But somewhere along the way, it seems like an entire generation of basketball players were led to believe that their careers were meaningless without a championship.
I understand it, but I just wish it wasn’t that way.
And to some extent, I think we should be pointing the finger at ourselves.