What Does Winning the NBA Finals Have To Do with Legendary Status?

Scott OttersenCorrespondent IJune 4, 2009

DENVER - MAY 29:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers looks on against the Denver Nuggets in Game Six of the Western Conference Finals during the 2009 NBA Playoffs at Pepsi Center on May 29, 2009 in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

I have been reading a lot of "expert" opinions the past few years about how if Kobe Bryant wins another title, he will move into the top five, top 10, or even top two players of all time in NBA history.

I ask, what does it matter if he wins another Championship or not?

Look, I'm not a Kobe Bryant fan.  I will always respect his game, and consider him one of the greats of the game, but this article is not in his defense.  But, since he is the one being mentioned in these "experts" articles, I am using him as a reference.  But, I will make my argument with other players, as well.

Before it is all said and done, Kobe will be in the top 10 all time in scoring, possibly top three if he plays into, or near, his 40s, like most NBA greats have.

He will have won, at least, one NBA MVP award, with others arguably being taken away from him and given to others.

He will have been named to, at least, four All-NBA First Teams, one All-NBA Second Team, and two All-NBA Third Teams, along with six times being award All-NBA Defensive 1st Team.

He will move his career scoring average over 26.0 ppg before his time is up, with more of a chance of increasing it over 27.0 ppg for his career.  He is being held back by his first four seasons, where he hadn't quite reached Kobe-status yet.

He has helped lead his team into the playoffs nearly every single year of his career, and into the NBA Finals six times now, with possibly more coming.

I am not saying all of this qualifies him to be one of the top players in NBA history, because stats are useless in that regard.  But, to hear all these columnists talking about how if he wins just this one more Championship, he will cosy up next to MJ as one of the greatest players ever to play the game.

They said this last year, as well. 

He lost last year.

Shouldn't that disqualify him from moving up there?  If not, then we should not even have this conversation until his career is over and done with, so that we do not have to go back and forth in this discussion.

Basketball is not an individual sport.  Every great NBA player needs help winning a title.  Bill Russell didn't win 11 titles on his own.  The only sports where greatness can be measured by titles are ping-pong, boxing, MMA, and golf.  Those are individual sports. 

But, even measuring fighters and golfers can be trivial, due to other factors like opponents, eras, and other weathering factors that occur from time to time.

In basketball, greatness cannot be changed due just to winning a title.  If we were going to measure greatness based on winning titles, than the top players of all time list would look something like this:

Bill Russell, Sam Jones, Tom Heinsohn, KC Jones, Tom Sanders, John Havlicek, Jim Loscutoff, Frank Ramsey, Robert Horry, Bob Cousy, Kareem, MJ, Scottie, George Mikan, Vern Mikkelsen, Jim Pollard, Slater Martin, Larry Siegfried, Don Nelson, Michael Cooper, Magic, Dennis Rodman, Ron Harper, and Steve Kerr.

There is a list of players who have won five or more Championships.  There are nine names on that "greatest" list that belong there.  The rest have all been lucky enough to be on great teams at the right times. 

Saying that Kobe is only deserving of a top 10 greatest of all time distinction if he wins another title trivializes everything he has done in his career.  But, it also makes the argument that players who have performed well in one playoff series deserve the right to be called "great" players.

If Kobe hasn't played well enough in his already 170 playoff games to deserve that distinction, and needs only one more good series to earn that right, then what do we say about the Jerome James' of the NBA, who have played out of their minds in one playoff series, turned it into big money, and then done nothing after it.

Do we move Jerome James into the top 150 players of all time because he had that great series?  Or, do we count all of his craptastic regular season games and not even consider him in the greatest of all time debate?

Of course we don't consider him.  He had one good series of games in one NBA playoff run.  That is nothing.

So, why does it matter how Kobe performs in this NBA Finals?

Let's translate this into other sports greatest debates:

Barry Sanders never won a Super Bowl, Jim Brown won only one NFL Championship (retired before Super Bowl started), Walter Payton only won one Super Bowl.

Emmitt Smith won three.  And, was named MVP in one of the wins.  So, by the deduction that titles make a player great (in TEAM sports), Emmitt Smith is greater than the three backs listed above him, that are usually named as greater players in any debate, without even thinking about it that long.

So, again, why does Kobe need to win this title?

If you think it was dumb to make a football analogy, I will make a basketball one.

John Stockton never won an NBA title, Oscar Robertson only won one, Isiah won two.

Tony Parker has won three.  Derek Fisher has won three.  Hell, Steve Kerr has won five.

So, based on this ridiculous theory that helping your team win the title makes your status in the pantheon of legends, Parker, Fisher, and Steve Kerr are all better point guards then Stockton (way better since he won none), the Big O, and Isiah.

And, what happens if Kobe has a halfway decent-to-bad Finals, where he averages 21 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists, but his team still wins in seven games?  Do we still catapult him because his team won the title?  The "experts" would have to after all this talk, right?

I could go on for hours with my argument, but I will just end by saying that to be great, you need to be great over your entire career.  It should matter that you are a Champion, but only to an extent.  Winning titles in team sports does not make an individual greater than another who has not had the fortune of being on good enough teams to win titles.  There is only so much one great player can do.

I will say one last thing.  Kobe Bryant is a great player, but his status is already cemented.  His playoff failures have cost him more than his playoff successes in my book.  All I needed to see was his no-show, give-up game seven against the Suns back in 2006.

The Lakers should have won that series in six, even with the better team being the Suns.  No "second greatest player" would ever allow that to happen, especially when "experts" say an individual can do so much to help his team win.

Let's leave the greatest of all time talk for after players careers are over, please.


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