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Predicting When Panic Mode Sets in for the NBA's Ringless Stars

Zach BuckleyNational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 2, 2016

Predicting When Panic Mode Sets in for the NBA's Ringless Stars

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    Joe Murphy/Getty Images

    NBA legacies aren't measured by rings alone.

    If that were the case, Bill Russell would be heralded as the league's greatest player on the strength of his record-setting 11 championships.

    But rings aren't left out of the equation, either.

    Everywhere you look there are discussions of the greatest players to have never won a championship: Allen Iverson, Charles Barkley, John Stockton, Elgin Baylor, Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing, the list goes on and on. Each of these players is a Hall of Fame talent in his own right, yet that's the way they are remembered.

    Thanks to this generation's mini dynastiesKobe Bryant's Los Angeles Lakers, Tim Duncan's San Antonio Spurs and now LeBron James' Miami Heat—a number of players could be headed to that same fate. You can't take over the castle without dethroning the king.

    So when does panic time set in for today's current ringless stars? When will these hardwood heroes see that unsightly asterisk next to their names?

     

    *No more than one player was selected per team. So players like Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Zach Randolph are off the hook.

    **Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.

Carmelo Anthony, SF/PF, New York Knicks

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    No. of NBA Seasons: 10

    Career Per-Game Averages: 25.0 points, 6.4 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 20.8 PER

    Years Until Panic Mode: Two

     

    Carmelo Anthony's stint with the New York Knicks wouldn't quite be called a worst-case scenario, but it's a lot closer to that label than he'd like.

    The same postseason demons that haunted him with the Denver Nuggets have followed him to the Empire State. Anthony's Knicks are 7-14 in playoff games since his arrival. New York has a single postseason series victory to show for his first three seasons there.

    His supposed superstar teammate, Amar'e Stoudemire, is barely a shadow of his former self. Injuries and age have forced the six-time All-Star to make the most out of his 20-to-25 minute runs.

    Anthony's already lowering the bar for 2013-14, the last season before he can opt out of his current contract. He refused to put a "championship or bust" tag on this year when talking to reporters at media day, via ESPN New York's Ian Begley.

    While New York's championship window may have never opened, the 29-year-old Anthony's own window is closing in front of our eyes. If he doesn't see title potential in this current Knicks team, that's not going to change next summer.

    He'll have one year to go ring chasing—with the Los Angeles Lakers perhaps—before panic mode takes over. But if he strikes out this season and next summer, his playoff dreams will become postseason nightmares.

Stephen Curry, PG, Golden State Warriors

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    Rocky Widner/Getty Images

    No. of NBA Seasons: Four

    Career Per-Game Averages: 19.2 points, 4.0 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 19.2 PER

    Years Until Panic Mode: Five

     

    I'm not going to make the same mistake the All-Star voters did last season. Stephen Curry is absolutely a star, even if he's starved for individual accolades.

    But with that elevated appreciation level come heightened expectations. The offseason arrival of Andre Iguodala has only increased those hopes.

    With a reportedly healthy Andrew Bogut manning the middle and a Sixth Man of the Year candidate in Harrison Barnes, the Golden State Warriors should continue climbing the NBA power rankings in 2013-14.

    But Curry's championship chase doesn't need to be a sprint. With his injury history, he's better served by taking a marathon approach.

    Assuming the Warriors fall short in their championship pursuit this season—they look more like a really good team than a great one—the team will have a tough time adding missing pieces to the roster. Curry, Iguodala and David Lee are all on the books for more than $30 million over the next three seasons, and that doesn't include Klay Thompson's possible extension in 2015.

    Once Lee comes off the books in 2016, the Warriors will have a boatload of cash to search for a difference-maker. If Curry's not thrilled with their find, he can bolt from the Bay in 2017.

    But if he goes ring chasing that summer, he better hope he finds it soon. His balky ankles can only carry him for so long.

Kevin Durant, SF/PF, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

    No. of NBA Seasons: Six

    Career Per-Game Averages: 26.6 points, 6.8 rebound, 3.1 assists, 23.6 PER

    Years Until Panic Mode: Three

     

    In all honesty, Kevin Durant might be even closer to his breaking point than this. Like he told Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins back in April, he's sick of being No 2.

    With that in mind, I guess he has what any player could ask for—ultimate control of his destiny.

    He lost super sidekick James Harden in a last-minute trade to the Houston Rockets prior to the start of 2012-13. He'll open this season minus All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook, whom Sam Amick of USA Today reports underwent his second knee surgery since suffering a torn meniscus in April.

    The three-time scoring champion will need to take on even more offensive responsibility for the Oklahoma City Thunder. He tossed out a career-best 4.6 assists per game last season and may need to be even more generous this time around.

    At the opposite end he'll need to use his length (6'9" with a 7'5" wingspan) and basketball instincts to make the same kind of impact he does offensively.

    For Durant to keep climbing the list of all-time greats—an amazing feat for a 25-year-old—he needs to add a championship to his resume.

    Michael Jordan got his first ring in his seventh NBA season. Durant's training partner, LeBron James, tasted championship bliss in year No. 9.

    So we'll give Durant that same measuring stick, those same nine years to reach the game's greatest stage. Any runner-up finishes after that could prove disastrous.

Marc Gasol, C, Memphis Grizzlies

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    Joe Murphy/Getty Images

    No. of NBA Seasons: Five

    Career Per-Game Averages: 13.3 points, 8.0 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 18.2 PER

    Years Until Panic Mode: Two

     

    Marc Gasol has been a gift to the league's advanced-statistics movement.

    He keeps the traditional crowd happy with his larger-than-life profile (7'1", 265 pounds) and unbelievable highlight reel. But he has the analytical crowd salivating over his contagious selflessness and tremendous impact on his team (plus-10.7 net rating last season, via 82Games.com).

    Still, he's underappreciated. Yes, even with that 2012-13 Defensive Player of the Year award sitting on his mantle.

    But the five-year veteran is also already 28 years old. He's much closer to reaching his ceiling than most would like to admit.

    Between he and Zach Randolph (32), the Memphis Grizzlies can't afford to think about the future. It may never be as good as it has been in recent years (2013 Western Conference Finalist).

    Gasol needs to track down a title by the end of 2014-15. That season marks the end of his current contract, possibly the end of Randolph's if he exercises his player option for that year. It will also witness Gasol's 30th birthday, a time when most players are looking to clean up their resumes, not start them.

    He doesn't seem like the title-chasing type. But he may have no other choice if he wants to avoid being known as just another ringless wonder.

Paul George, SG/SF, Indiana Pacers

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    Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

    No. of NBA Seasons: Three

    Career Per-Game Averages: 12.9 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 15.9 PER

    Years Until Panic Mode: Six

     

    No player raised his career arc higher last season than Paul George.

    He picked up his first All-Star nod in February. By season's end he'd added Most Improved Player, third-team All-NBA and second-team All-Defense honors to his hoops resume.

    Then, he stood toe-to-toe with four-time MVP LeBron James for seven grueling Eastern Conference Finals games. The Indiana Pacers saw everything they needed to see and locked up George with a five-year max contract in September.

    His championship senses are definitely tingling. His Pacers fell a game short of the NBA Finals last season, then turned a ho-hum second team into one of the league's deepest reserve units over the summer.

    But even if 2013-14 is a championship-or-bust year for Indiana, George's own clock has some time before the alarm will ring.

    Even with these new accolades and all those zeros on his deal, he's still only 23 years old. Those career averages show just how far he's come in three NBA seasons considering last season's marks read 17.4, 7.6, 4.1 and 16.8, respectively.

    Give him the life of his contract, which doesn't kick in until 2014-15, to add NBA champion to his resume. If his fingers are still empty after that, then would be the proper time to panic.

Dwight Howard, C, Houston Rockets

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    Bill Baptist/Getty Images

    No. of NBA Seasons: Nine

    Career Per-Game Averages: 18.3 points, 12.9 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 22.2 PER

    Years Until Panic Mode: Two

     

    Dwight Howard has had a taste of the sweet life before.

    He's had a seat at the championship table, only to have it ripped out from underneath him as his Orlando Magic were dispatched by the Los Angeles Lakers in five games during the 2009 NBA Finals.

    Despite the drama that has surrounded him since, Howard was only searching for a path to title town.

    Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News reported that Howard would make his free-agent decision this summer based on which suitor offered him the best shot at a ring. Howard confirmed as much when he lauded the Houston Rockets' championship potential after signing with the franchise in July.

    If the Rockets can help Howard realize his lofty goal, then all those Dwightmares were worth it. Championships have a way of changing public perception; just ask best player on the planet, LeBron James, about their healing powers.

    Like James' migration to the Miami Heat, Howard might need this first season to find championship chemistry with his new team. But he'll be engulfed by panic if he falls short again in his second season.

Kyrie Irving, PG, Cleveland Cavaliers

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    USA TODAY Sports

    No. of NBA Seasons: Two

    Career Per-Game Averages: 20.6 points, 3.7 rebounds, 5.7 assists, 21.4 PER

    Years Until Panic Mode: Seven

     

    Kyrie Irving couldn't have found a worse situation to start his NBA career. As the No. 1 overall pick of a Cleveland Cavaliers franchise still reeling from the loss of LeBron James, Irving had to be a superstar.

    Incredibly he's not only met those expectations, he's exceeded them. And he needed all of two seasons in the league to do just that.

    Despite being the obvious focal point of opposing defenses, he's shot 45.9 percent from the field for his career. But here's the real kicker—he isn't even a natural scorer. His traditional point guard skills drew NBA comparisons to floor generals Mike Conley and Chris Paul on his NBADraft.net scouting report.

    So no matter how good he's been to date, he'll only get better from here. As the Cavs have added pieces around himnone more intriguing than former All-Star Andrew BynumCleveland's hopes transformed from more lottery magic to postseason series wins.

    If the Cavs can find one more key contributor next summer, when they can wiggle their way to a max contract opening on their payroll even with an extension for Irving, their goals won't stop short of championship contention.

    But the 21-year-old has plenty of time to worry about ring shopping. Don't expect his alarm to sound before he's completed both his rookie contract and anticipated max deal, which wouldn't start until the 2015-16 season.

Kevin Love, PF, Minnesota Timberwolves

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    John Autey/Pioneer Press
    John Autey/Pioneer PressDavid Sherman/Getty Images

    No. of NBA Seasons: Five

    Career Per-Game Averages: 17.3 points, 12.2 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 22.1 PER

    Years Until Panic Mode: Four

     

    Despite missing out on the postseason in each of his first five seasons, Kevin Love's championship clock might already be ticking.

    The 25-year-old is getting restless. He's tired to knowing playoff basketball the same way the rest of us do: through his TV.

    Try as they might, the Minnesota Timberwolves have yet to field the right roster around him. It's not that the team can't find talent, it just hasn't been able to keep those players on the floor.

    Another promising offseason (additions of Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer, Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng) has once again been mired by injury. Sharp-shooting forward Chase Budinger, who re-signed in Minnesota over the summer, has already opened the path to the training room after having undergone arthroscopic surgery on his left knee, via the Associated Press.

    It's an ominous start to a season rife with expectations. The Timberwolves have been forced to take a win-now approach with their roster, as Love can bolt from Minnesota after 2014-15 if he opts out of his current contract.

    If he hasn't tasted at least a championship appetizer by then, it's hard to imagine that hunger for success not driving his decision in free agency. Assuming he swaps jerseys that summer, he'll have a LeBron James-like two-year window to realize his dream.

    It might be time to sound those sirens now. Love's a lot closer to panic than he'd like.

Steve Nash, PG, Los Angeles Lakers

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    Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

    No. of NBA Seasons: 17

    Career Per-Game Averages: 14.4 points, 3.0 rebounds, 8.5 assists, 20.0 PER

    Years Until Panic Mode: Zero

     

    Honestly that zero should probably be a negative number.

    Steve Nash finds himself in an incredibly uncomfortable setting—he's entering his second season of ring chasing with the Los Angeles Lakers absent any realistic hopes of competing for a title.

    The 39-year-old was bitten hard by the injury bug in 2012-13 but took more damage from L.A.'s complete lack of chemistry. The preseason championship contenders needed all 82 games just to find a playoff ticket. Their tumultuous season was brought to a merciful ending by way of an opening round sweep at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs.

    Without the body or the talent around him to orchestrate Mike D'Antoni's up-tempo offense, Nash's basketball identity has been reduced to that of a floor spacer. He's still an effective shooter (.497/.438/.922 slash last season), but his days of MVP efforts and shouldering a franchise are behind him.

    He's left with nothing more than thoughts of what could have been. And none of those questions are more unsettling than the ones left behind from the 2007 Western Conference Semifinals.

    Nash doesn't have the energy left to panic. He doesn't have a reason to either, as the league's oldest player seems headed for an unsightly retirement unless this failed experiment in L.A. ends with an unlikely trade to an actual contender.

    The two-time MVP and eight-time All-Star has had a brilliant career. But short of a miraculous ending, he'll be just another all-time great to have never won a title.

Chris Paul, PG, Los Angeles Clippers

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    NBA Photos/Getty Images

    No. of NBA Seasons: Eight

    Career Per-Game Averages: 18.6 points, 4.4 rebounds, 9.8 assists, 25.5 PER

    Years Until Panic Mode: Two

     

    With a new coach, a new cast of teammates and even new jerseys, Chris Paul is primed for championship contention like never before.

    And he knows it. That's why he was willing to let Doc Rivers talk him down from the pedestal that hoops heads have placed the former Wake Forest star on throughout his career.

    "In the first meeting I had with Doc, he pretty much told me I wasn't anything," he said, via Melissa Rohlin of the Los Angeles Times. "He told me I hadn't done anything in this league, and he was right."

    Clearly there's some exaggeration at hand here. Paul has done plenty of things in his career: six All-Star selections, five All-NBA honors and the sixth-highest career PER in NBA history.

    But Rivers is right to a certain degree. For a player tasked with raising his team's level of play, Paul's postseason resume is severely lacking.

    Now armed with a championship-caliber arsenal and backed by an elite-level mastermind, Paul's individual achievements will mean nothing without a date with the Larry O'Brien Trophy in the near future.

    He's two years shy of his 30th birthday, which in my book equates to being two years away from pandemonium.

    He has this season and next to figure out this new cast of characters. If he doesn't have a ring by 2015, he'll have some serious soul searching to do over the final seasons of his new five-year deal.

Derrick Rose, PG, Chicago Bulls

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    No. of NBA Seasons: 4

    Career Per-Game Averages: 21.0 points, 3.8 rebounds, 6.8 assists, 19.9 PER

    Years Until Panic Mode: 4

     

    After missing out on the entire 2012-13 season while rehabbing his torn ACL, no one knows quite what to expect for Derrick Rose's return.

    Well, no one other than Rose.

    And the youngest MVP in NBA history says don't expect to see any changes. "I'm going to play the same way," he told reporters at media day, via K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune"Going out there and showing people that I’m the same player, a more efficient player, that’s what I’m trying to prove."

    If Rose gets back to his old form (21.8 points and 7.9 assists in 2011-12), then the Chicago Bulls should reclaim their spot near the top of the Eastern Conference (50-16 that same season).

    Despite having a horse in this championship race, Rose is in no need to rush.

    Chicago will shed more than $18 million off their payroll at season's end in the form of Luol Deng's and Kirk Hinrich's expiring contracts. Another $20 million will be erased from the books the following summer as Carlos Boozer and Mike Dunleavy see their deals come to an end.

    With reigning Spanish ACB league MVP Nikola Mirotic anticipating a 2014 arrival and Chicago still waiting to collect a draft debt from the Charlotte Bobcats, the Bulls are sitting comfortably for the present and the future.

    So Rose gets the superstar treatment in his championship pursuit. Expect his blood to start boiling in season No. 8, putting him right in the middle of the paces set by Michael Jordan and LeBron James.

Deron Williams, PG, Brooklyn Nets

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    Al Bello/Getty Images

    No. of NBA Seasons: Eight

    Career Per-Game Averages: 17.8 points, 3.2 rebounds, 9.0 assists, 19.3 PER

    Years Until Panic Mode: One

     

    This one-year championship window isn't unique to Deron Williams. That same hurried time line faces the rest of his Brooklyn Nets teammates, thanks to owner Mikhail Prokhorov's financially driven directive to win now.

    Never mind the rash of new faces in the locker room or that rookie coach, Jason Kidd, pacing the sideline. It's a championship-or-bust season in the worst kind of way for the Nets.

    And no one will feel that pressure to perform more than Williams.

    He's the only member of the projected starters that hasn't past his prime (Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Joe Johnson) or not entered it yet (Brook Lopez). He's also the only one operating without a competent backup behind him (sorry TyShawn Taylor and Shaun Livingston).

    And no player on the roster is in more dire need of a reputation repair.

    Williams has shouldered the label of "coach killer" for his reported involvement in Jerry Sloan's swift exit from the Utah Jazz and Avery Johnson's firing last December. Not to mention those dreadful pre-All-Star break numbers Williams put up in 2012-13 (16.7 points on 41.3 percent shooting) that weren't entirely salvaged by his post-break performance (22.9 points on 48.1 percent shooting).

    Williams can't afford to panic now. This is his time to deliver on Prokhorov's nearly $200 million dream.

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