Championship rings are the No. 1 criterion used to evaluate the careers of great basketball players. But in a team sport in which chance plays such a prominent role in the success of individuals, do we place too much emphasis on championships? Are rings overrated?
In Jack McCallum's excellent book Dream Team: How Michael, Magic, Larry, Charles, and the Greatest Team of All Time Conquered the World and Changed the Game of Basketball Forever, the author recounted how Jordan and Magic Johnson relentlessly teased their ring-less Dream Team teammates.
"Barkley would sit down with Jordan and Magic only to hear, 'Sorry Charles, this is a ring table,'" according to McCallum. "Magic would say something similar to Barkley or Ewing when he and Bird shot around together. 'This is a ring basket' was Magic's comment."
Clyde Drexler, whose Trail Blazers lost in the finals twice during the early 1990s, most recently to Jordan's Bulls months before the ’92 Games, took exception to such comments.
"I used to tell them, 'Let me play on your team and you play on mine,'" Drexler told McCallum. "'Let me play with Cap (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), Worthy, Byron Scott and A.C. Green, and you play with my team and let's see how many rings you'd have.' Or, 'Let me have Scottie. See how I do then.’"
Drexler was not on the same level as Magic or Jordan. Jordan embarrassed him when the two faced off in the 1992 finals. But, Clyde makes a fair point.
In our rush to deify and rank the greatest players, we underestimate the role that teammates, competition and chance play in their success. From a torn hamstring to the bounce of a ping pong ball, myriad circumstances affect the outcome of a team’s season and a player’s career.
It is inadequate and lazy to reduce a brilliant career like Drexler’s to the number of rings on his hand (He finally won one with the Rockets in 1995.)
Comparing Drexler to Jordan, Magic and Bird
Clyde was a phenomenal all-around talent. In fact, his game was similar to Jordan’s, if not quite as ruthless and polished. The 10-time All-Star was a superb athlete with an explosive first-step and breathtaking leaping ability which earned him the nickname "Clyde the Glide."
But, Clyde did not have the first-rate supporting cast that Magic, Bird and Jordan worked with. Magic won his five titles with the NBA's all-time leading scorer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. James Worthy was his wing man for three of those runs, and prior to Worthy’s arrival, Hall of Famers Bob McAdoo and Jamaal "Silk" Wilkes filled the lanes for the Lakers.
Bird won three rings with the help of a low-post wizard, Kevin McHale, and "The Chief" Robert Parrish. Dennis Johnson of the 1984 and 1986 Celtics championship teams, Tiny Archibald of the 1981 team and Bill Walton, sixth man for the 1986 squad, are also enshrined in Springfield.
Jordan had the versatile Scottie Pippen as his sidekick for each of his six championships, and they were joined by the greatest rebounder of the era Dennis Rodman for the final three.
Drexler's two best teammates on the Blazers’ finals teams were two-time All-Star Terry Porter and Buck Williams, who though still a great defender, was past his prime. Jerome Kersey and an overweight Kevin Duckworth rounded out the starting five.
Would the results have been different if Drexler had swapped supporting casts with Magic or Michael? Probably. Magic and Jordan were so exceptional that they may have won two or three rings with Drexler's teammates, but Jordan would not have won six titles without Scottie nor Magic five without Kareem.
If Drexler was able to carry the squad he had to two NBA Finals, imagine what he could have done with Kareem. What if Pippen was the small forward on those teams instead of Jerome Kersey? It's fair to assume Drexler would have won at least a couple of rings before the 1994-95 season.
To take it a step further, how many championships would Drexler have won if Portland had selected Jordan instead of Sam Bowie with the second pick in the 1984 draft? What if Arvydas Sabonis had joined the Blazers when they drafted him in 1986?
The Second-Best Players on Championship Teams
The ring standard also fails to adequately account for players like David Robinson, who had phenomenal careers and won at least one ring but were not the best players on their championship teams.
Earl "The Pearl" Monroe had his most sensational seasons with the Baltimore Bullets but did not win a title until he joined the star-studded New York Knicks. "The Doctor" Julius Erving won an NBA championship in 1983 with Moses Malone and the Philadelphia 76ers, long after his prime years with the Nets of the ABA.
After racking up triple-doubles over 10 seasons with the Cincinnati Royals, the “Big O” Oscar Robertson finally won a ring with Lew Alcindor—who changed his named to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar the following day—and the 1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks.
Robinson, Monroe, Robertson and Erving did not need rings to validate their greatness.
Jerry West, Injuries and the Old Lakers, Celtics and Knicks
A player's career is also affected by his level of competition. Jerry West, the man whose legendary postseason performances earned him the moniker "Mr. Clutch," made nine trips to the NBA Finals but won just one championship.
Led by Bill Russell and a supporting cast which included countless Hall of Famers, the Celtics beat West's Lakers in the finals six times. “The Logo” averaged nearly 38 points per game and was named MVP of the 1969 finals, despite coming out on the losing end.
When “Mr. Clutch” finally won a ring in 1972, he and the Lakers defeated a Knicks team in the finals that was without their injured captain Willis Reed. New York had beaten the Lakers in the finals with Reed in 1970 and did so again in 1973, though Celtics fans argue that Boston would have beaten the 1973 Knicks in the playoffs if John Havlicek had been healthy.
More recently, if Isiah Thomas had not severely injured his ankle in Game 5 of the 1988 NBA Finals against the Lakers, the Pistons' back-to-back titles in 1989 and 1990 may have been a three-peat. On the other hand, if Byron Scott and Magic did not injure their hamstrings in the first two games of the finals the following season, the Pistons may not have won a ring that year.
Why Olajuwon and Robinson Have Rings, but Ewing and Barkley Don’t
Returning to the Dream Team, Ewing and Barkley both reached the NBA Finals—Barkley with the Suns in 1993 and Ewing with the Knicks in 1994 and 1999—though they each fell short of a championship. Neither played with a Hall of Famer who was in his prime.
Kevin Johnson, Barkley's point guard in Phoenix, was an excellent playmaker, though not quite a Hall of Famer. By the time "Sir Charles" teamed up with Drexler and Olajuwon in Houston, their best years were behind them. They advanced to the Western Conference finals in their first season together—1996-1997—then Barkley and Olajuwon began a precipitous decline the following year.
Ewing was injured for the 1999 finals, and the second-best player on the 1993-1994 Knicks was either Charles Oakley or John Starks. Yet, Patrick still came within a game of a championship.
Ewing and Bernard King would have been a formidable duo had the latter not tore up his knee months before the former was drafted. It’s also interesting to consider how the balance of power between the Knicks and Bulls would have differed if Pippen had played in New York instead of Chicago.
Patrick’s nemesis in the 1994 finals, Olajuwon, did not have an All-Star supporting cast himself and significantly outplayed Ewing to win the championship. Still, it is fair to question whether “The Dream” would have won either of his back-to-back titles if Jordan had not been playing minor league baseball.
A few years later, an injury to David Robinson and a lucky ping pong ball resulted in the Spurs drafting Tim Duncan. If Robinson had not hurt his back, Duncan would have ended up on another team, altering his and Robinson’s legacies and the history of the league.
Kobe’s Rings and the Celtics and Heat’s Big Three
A more contemporary example of an athlete whose career has been affected by chance is Kobe Bryant. Kobe was drafted by the Hornets with the 13th pick in the 1996 draft and promptly traded to the Lakers for Vlade Divac.
Weeks later, the Lakers signed the most dominant big man in the game, Shaquille O'Neal, and after a few disappointing seasons, hired Phil Jackson. Under "The Zen Master's" direction, Shaq and Kobe won three consecutive championships from 2000-2002.
The Lakers traded Shaq to Miami in the summer of 2004 and won just 34, 45 and 42 games over the next three seasons. Then the team acquired multi-talented 7-footer Pau Gasol in February 2008, and Kobe and the Lakers won two more championships in 2009 and 2010.
Would Kobe have won any rings if he had remained with the Hornets? What if the Nets drafted him with the eight pick, as planned, before Kobe’s people convinced them otherwise? How many rings would he have if the Lakers never signed Shaq or traded for Gasol?
Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce have 34 All-Star appearances between them, though they would not have won a championship if they had not joined forces in Boston. Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and LeBron followed their lead, forming their own "Big Three" in Miami.
With his contrasting performances in the past two finals, LeBron has made a compelling case for the importance of championships when evaluating a player’s legacy.
Through struggles and triumph, he demonstrated that the pressure of the finals presents a mental hurdle which cannot be duplicated in any other realm of the game. Champions distinguish themselves by making that final leap.
Yet, LeBron also serves as another example of an athlete who would not have had the opportunity to win it all without the support of elite teammates. Regardless of how great an individual player may be, teams, not individuals, win championships, and they always have a little luck along the way.
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