For years, great players in all sports have been judged not only by statistics, but also by the collective performance of their team.
Elway is considered better than Marino because he won Super Bowls. Players like Barkley, Malone, and Stockton are constantly referenced as among the best in the “without a ring” category.
The prestige of the ring has been largely lost already in baseball as free-agents now take their mitts to whatever team is willing to pay the most. With no economic restrictions other than the depth of the owners’ pockets, baseball free-agency is truly an open market.
As a result, most great players are winning titles with the traditional power teams.
Is the NBA heading in a similar direction?
I highly doubt that the NBA is going to remove its salary cap under the next collective bargaining agreement, but aren’t we starting to see a more “power team” driven basketball league?
The Boston Celtics won with Hall of Famers Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and developing All-Star Rajon Rondo. The Lakers won the past few titles with a core of Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and Ron Artest.
While Bryant may be the lone lock for the Hall of Fame, it is worth noting that those other four players possess 18 All-Star game appearances, 17 All-NBA nominations (1st, 2nd, or 3rd team), 15 All-Defensive teams, an MVP, a 6th man of the year award, a Rookie of the Year award, and a Defensive Player of the Year Award.
Last summer, in a move that I’m pretty sure has been reported on a time or two and discussed on occasion, LeBron James decided to “take his talent to South Beach". Chris Bosh went to Miami as well, and Dwayne Wade decided tostay in south Florida for a few more years.
Another super-team was formed.
James was labeled a traitor, while Cleveland fans (and the ownership) were labeled insane.
However, the craziest result of “The Decision” might have been the expectations and the justifications called for by the media and critics alike.
After the rock show of an introduction for the new Big Three, demands were made.
We started hearing things like, “If they don’t win the championship this year, then this whole transition was a total disaster,” and “is it unfair to expect four titles from this trio?”
The speculation didn’t end when the season started. Everyone hung on every game the Heat played. Losses were celebrated, wins were heralded and drama was exaggerated (although I could see Chris Bosh crying after a game).
As the tumultuous season took a toll on the Heat trio, especially James, the media and critics changed their angle from hated to unjustly maligned.
James was no longer the villain making selfish moves, he was the victim searching for vindication in the form of a title.
Then a funny thing started happening.
The verbiage of the unbearably high expectations was changed slightly and the significance of the statements was greatly altered. We no longer heard, “If James doesn’t win this year than his decision was idiotic and poorly thought out,” and started to hear “an NBA title this year sure would go a long way in vindicating LeBron’s decision.”
We no longer heard, “They have to win three titles in the next four years to be considered a success,” and started hearing, “if the Heat can win this year, how many more could they reel off?”
While such differences in diction may seem trivial, I find them telling. NBA fans no longer hate the trio in Miami for their bold move.
Rather, we are embracing the Big Three and waiting for a title to vindicate not only James, but also our incessant intrigue with the Heat as a franchise. After all, wouldn’t it be great to know that our relentless reading, highlight scouring, and hours wasted on the Heat were justified by a World Championship?
I guess we really wouldn’t mind too much if James, Wade and Bosh did ultimately get what they set out for, an NBA title.
But something else has been lost along the way.
The use of an NBA title as a measurement for NBA greatness will be forever eliminated should the Miami Heat win it all this year.
If the Heat do win a title this year, and all other factors were equal (position, size, athleticism, statistical performance, individual accomplishments, etc), would you be prepared to say that Chris Bosh has had a better career than Karl Malone?
Would Bosh’s title elevate his resume that much?
What about without equal stats. Do you feel that a title would now elevate Bosh to being closer to Charles Barkley’s level than he was last year?
How about Dwayne Wade?
He already has a title, one that he claimed in 2006 after averaging 34.7 points per game and putting up one of the greatest individual performances in the history of the game. Which would do more to build his credentials? That title or one alongside James and Bosh?
I’d take the 2006 title. After all, Wade, who has made seven-consecutive All-Star appearances, is playing alongside LeBron’s seven-consecutive All-Star games and Bosh’s streak of six straight.
It’s worthwhile noting how James' arrival has reduced Wade’s performance in these playoffs. ESPN.com offers game recaps. Here are the Headlines for the Miami Heat’s nine wins during the playoffs this season:
- Dwayne Wade’s late heroics help Heat open playoffs with tight win
- LeBron James scores 29 points as Miami cruises to 2-0 series lead
- Dwayne Wade scores 32 points as Miami takes 3-0 series lead
- Dwayne Wade leads Heat into Eastern Conference semifinals
- Dwayne Wade, James Jones help Heat stifle Celts, take Game 1
- LeBron James, Heat go up 2-0 after late 14-0 run buries Celtics
- LeBron James scores 35 points as Heat take 3-1 series lead
- Dwayne Wade, LeBron James lead heat past Celtics into East Finals
- LeBron James clutch as Heat even Eastern finals with Bulls at 1
If you’re keeping track that is five Wade references and four James references. In other words, when searching for the best way to represent a Miami Heat victory in a single sentence or phrase ESPN.com reporters have found Wade’s name necessary on only five occasions in nine victories.
In 2006, when the Miami Heat won the title, ESPN.com listed 14 individual player references in their headlines following Miami victories. Dwayne Wade earned mention on 12 occasions; Shaquille O’Neal got a shout out twice.
Statistically speaking, Wade was much better in the 2006 playoffs. Wade had better scoring, steals and assists numbers in 2006 and shot a higher percentage on field goals and three-pointers. It’s hard to argue that a ring in 2011 would do more to encapsulate Wade in the treasury of all-time greats than his performance in 2006 did.
And then, of course, there’s LeBron James.
His talent, size and athleticism obviously place him amongst the all-timers with or without a ring. But, would a ring this season move him into the next category of athletes?
I have a really hard time accepting that. I’m not sure that I’ll ever look back and compare James to another player and say, “Well you’ve got to give LeBron an edge here because he won that NBA title while playing with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh.”
Granted, there may never be a comparable basketball player to James during my lifetime, but it’s hard for me to embrace that a title in 2011 would give the King a decisive edge. A title with the scrubs in Cleveland would have been undeniably impressive. Had he taken his talents to Los Angeles and won an NBA Championship alongside Blake Griffin and the Clippers, I would have been in awe. But, a title this year just doesn’t do much for me.
Of course, this issue goes much deeper than the Miami Heat. Should the title be won by Miami this year, it suddenly becomes much harder to elevate individuals based on the amount of jewelry on their fingers, at least in this current NBA era.
If I jump to conclusions and label the hypothetical ring the Heat win in 2011 as impressive, but ultimately meaningless in regards to elevating an individual's status, what happens when the Atlanta Hawks win the 2012 NBA Finals (aside from hell freezing over)?
Do I ignore Joe Johnson shaking his “not a playoff player” reputation as he averages 35 points per game in playoffs while shooting 55 percent from the floor?
Do I put an asterisk next to those statistics and next to the Larry O’Brien trophy indicating that this title was won with just a single fantastic performance and a number of well-placed and efficient role players? How do I indicate that the 2012 ring goes a long way in validating the Hawks’ best player, Joe Johnson, unlike some of the other championships of this era?
I’m honestly not sure what I do. For the past 23 years I’ve used championships as a measuring stick of individuals, but I’m not sure that will be relevant for much longer.
At the time, cheering for the Dallas Mavericks seems like the best idea. I expect a Mavs-Heat Finals series (no disrespect to Chicago or Oklahoma City, but I think the more experienced teams will win out in the conference finals), which will ironically be a rematch of the 2006 series in which Dwayne Wade won MVP.
By cheering for Dallas, I can embrace a team that has only one player who averaged over 15 points per game in the regular season. By cheering for Dallas I’m cheering for a team that has one superstar (Dirk Nowitzki), a past-his-prime future Hall of Famer playing in his 16th season at the age of 38 (Jason Kidd) and a few former all-stars (Caron Butler 2x, Shawn Marion 4x, Peja Stojakovic 3x).
By cheering for the Mavs, I’m cheering for the idea that Championships should mean something, not only as a representation of great teams, but also as an indicator of elite players who took their game to the next level in the process.