X

There's More to Life in the NBA Than Winning Championships

Josh Martin@@JoshMartinNBANBA Lead WriterDecember 23, 2014

PHILADELPHIA, PA - NOVEMBER 1: Chris Bosh #1 and Dwyane Wade #3 of the Miami Heat look on during the game against the Philadelphia 76ers on November 1, 2014 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 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. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

Herm Edwards never played or coached basketball at a high level, but there's a reason the ex-NFLer's famous postgame rant is still so popular in the sports world.

That is because it's true. You play to win the game. Every game. No matter the stakes or the opponent.

At least, that's the point of the exercise. It's not competition if only one party is competing. Hence, you may play to win the game, but things aren't always going to turn out in your favor.

What then? What happens when the inevitable nature of sports as zero-sum games comes home to roost? What's an NBA player to do when he's not one of the fortunate few on the one team out of 30 that wins it all? What if he's not on one of the final two, or final four, or final eight or even the 16 that qualify for the playoffs in pro basketball? Does he just give up?

Not usually, no. Hardly ever, it seems.

In the NBA, as in any sport, there's far more to play for than lifting the Larry O'Brien Trophy, raising a championship banner or finding the right place to display a commemorative ring slathered in diamonds. 

"It's incredibly difficult to win a championship," Miami Heat forward Chris Bosh told CBSSports.com's Ken Berger. "I know that, and I know it's a whole process."

Video Play Button
Videos you might like

Indeed, Bosh experienced seemingly every possible peak and valley associated with title contention during his four years as LeBron James' teammate in South Florida: 

The periods of uneven play and overriding uncertainty, like during the Heat's 9-8 start in 2010-11. The long winning streaks, like the 12-gamer that immediately followed that shaky beginning or the historic 27-gamer that came together in 2012-13. The postseason epiphanies, like when Bosh's abdominal injury in 2012 sparked a small-ball revolution on South Beach. The sky-lighting flame of a shooting star, as in the team's back-to-back titles, and its eventual fade, as in the Finals shellacking this past June.

Bosh could've sought out such a roller-coaster ride this past summer after James took his talents back home to Ohio. Reports at the time had Bosh strongly considering a shorter, less lucrative contract to form yet another formidable Big Three, alongside Dwight Howard and James Harden, with the Houston Rockets.

"I could see where people would think that's an attractive site," Bosh told Berger. "They were trying to win right away. And I was really happy to be touted that I possibly could've been out there. But you know, that doesn't guarantee anything, and I know that. All that guarantees is a bunch of pressure." 

Bosh and the Heat endured that incessant pressure throughout their four years together, from their bombastic introduction to the basketball world until their flameout at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs in the 2014 Finals. It wore on them to the point where the game itself wasn't quite as fun to play.

"It was great, you know, we went to the Finals four years in a row, and it was everything we wanted from that standpoint, but sometimes throughout that run, at certain times, it just wasn't fun," Dwyane Wade told Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick. "Individually, it was great having certain relationships and having my best friend here with me, but all of us didn't have fun all the time."

May 28, 2014; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Miami Heat center Chris Bosh (1), forward LeBron James (6), and guard Dwyane Wade (3) react during the fourth quarter in game five against the Indiana Pacers of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at
USA TODAY Sports

That experience led Wade to re-evaluate his priorities—not that winning was no longer important, but rather, winning wasn't the only thing.

"I think now I'm at the point where I want to enjoy the game," Wade went on. "Because once I've won three championships and been so successful, you've got to have something to play for. And I want to be able to play for my teammates and just the joy of the game."

The joy of the game. In other words, playing because it's fun—something that the game wasn't always for Wade when everything the Heat said or did was being dissected a gajillion times over. Basketball may be more fun when you win, but chances are, you won't be able to sustain a winning environment if those within it aren't enjoying the process to some extent.

And not just on the court either. For Bosh, the comforts of his adopted home in Miami played a pivotal part in his decision to stay put.

"I'm familiar with people," Bosh also told Berger. "I know how to get to work. And if there's traffic, I know the shortcuts. It's those small things that I really love about the city and I love about being comfortable that guided me back. And you know, if you can make a couple of dollars on the side, then it works out."  

More than a couple of dollars, in fact. The deal that was reportedly on offer from the Rockets (four years, $88 million) was shorter and less lucrative than the one Bosh ultimately inked with the Heat (five years, $118.7 million).

It'd be tough to blame Bosh, though, if he did have second thoughts from time to time. His Heat, at 13-15, are hanging on for dear life in the weak East amid a flurry of injuries. The Rockets, meanwhile, are a robust 19-7, good enough for fourth place in the wild West.

The same goes for Carmelo Anthony, who's not been shy to share how close he came to ditching the New York Knicks for the Chicago Bulls this past summer.

"It comes down to winning at the end of the day, and that's what they're about. So that's what I like," Anthony said of the Bulls in his documentary, Carmelo: Made in New York, on MSG Network (via ESPN New York's Ian Begley). "For them to hit everything right on the nail, first time at bat, that's hard to do. That was impressive."

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 29:  Carmelo Anthony #7 of the New York Knicks handles the ball against the Chicago Bulls during a game at Madison Square Garden in New York City on October 29, 2014.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by do
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

Impressive, but not enough to lure Melo away from his hometown team. In the end, Chicago's shorter offer was no match for the five-year, $124 million deal with which the Knicks alone could (and did) shower him.

It's easy to consider what Anthony said and did and conclude that there's a cognitive dissonance between the two, that it didn't come down to winning for him. After all, his Knicks are a franchise-worst 5-25 in a dead-heat with the Philadelphia 76ers for dead-last in the Eastern Conference. The Bulls, on the other hand, are 17-9, just four games back of the top spot in the East.

Clearly, Chicago's in much better position to compete for a championship than New York is. But maybe, just maybe, being a hired gun on a likely title contender helmed by Derrick Rose, a hometown hero in the Second City, wouldn't have meant as much as doing for the Knicks what Rose is attempting to do for the Bulls, even if the latter situation is less likely to yield a ring than the former.

"It would be no better feeling than winning one [here], given the impact I would have, not just from a basketball standpoint, from an overall standpoint," Anthony said at his second annual Tools for Teachers Initiative back in October, via Newsday's Marc Raimondi.

To that end, Anthony's reasons for staying home aren't all that different from those that drove James to return to his roots.

"My goal is still to win as many titles as possible, no question," James wrote in announcing his return to the Cleveland Cavaliers, via Sports Illustrated. "But what’s most important for me is bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio."

So far, James' Cavs have looked like they're ready to do that only in fits and spurts. Like the Heat of 2010-11, they've endured plenty of ups and downs already amid an absence of familiarity and the trust it breeds.

"The guys in the locker room are who we have, and I think we can compete against anybody when we're playing at our best," James said the day after the Cavs' recent 127-98 loss to the Atlanta Hawks, per Fox Sports Ohio's Sam Amico. "But it's going to take us to maintain our focus every single day. We cannot afford to take a step backwards, because a lot of teams are just better than us as far as chemistry, as far as the camaraderie they have over the years, and we don't have that." 

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 22: LeBron James #23 Kevin Love #0 and Kyrie Irving #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers walk off the court during a time out during the first half against the Toronto Raptors at Quicken Loans Arena on November 22, 2014 in Cleveland, Ohi
Jason Miller/Getty Images

James might not have had to handle such challenges this season had he opted to stay with Wade, Bosh and Co. in Miami. They already knew how to win. They'd practically sleepwalked their way into a fourth straight Finals this past spring—something no team since Larry Bird's Boston Celtics had pulled off. Chances are, Miami's Big Three would be right back at or near the top of the East had James not vacated his Biscayne Bay manse.

Of course, James could be playing a longer game here. After seeing his Heat handled by the Spurs, he may have seen the end of the road for those Heat and, in turn, given stronger consideration to a Cavs roster that, despite its recent failures, was fertile ground for not only a rapid turnaround, but also a long-term success story.

That still required James to jeopardize some of his prime and potentially much more than that. Would he have taken that same chance on a team that wasn't so close to his hometown of Akron? Would he have cast his lot with a talented but unproven group if adding to his crowded trophy case was all that mattered?

Probably not.

If we flipped the script for another successful superstar, would Kobe Bryant be so loyal to the Los Angeles Lakers if they weren't like home for him? Would he be riding out the remainder of his brilliant career with a franchise that doesn't yet appear to have a clear strategy for exfiltration from its current quagmire?

As NBA.com's Shaun Powell put it:

There's nothing wrong with Kobe putting limits on what he will do to win a title. Kobe can stay in L.A. and keep shooting while the Lakers keep losing. He can puff his chest at the notion of wearing one uniform proudly from start to finish. He can pray the Lakers wisely use their cap space and lottery pick (if it's in the top 5; otherwise it belongs to the Suns) next summer to bring help, although there's no potential savior at the moment.

Sure, Bryant's $48.5 million extension looks a lot like hush money for the 19-year veteran, especially now that the Lakers are stuck among the muck toward the bottom of the West. That contract, along with Kobe's newfound physical limitations, might make it difficult for the Lakers to find a suitor for the 36-year-old's services on the trade market if they were so inclined.

But Bryant could angle for a way out if he really, desperately wanted to. And given the chance to land an all-time great who still has a lot left in the tank, there probably would've been at least one strong squad to emerge as a suitor for Bryant's services.

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 19:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers looks on during the game with the Oklahoma City Thunder at Staples Center on December 19, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

In all likelihood, Bryant won't do that, and the Lakers certainly won't push him to. He wants Ring No. 6, but there's more at stake for him than that: loyalty, legacy, comfort and his post-playing career prospects.

Granted, these luxuries are somewhat unique to Bryant. Few have ever had the privilege of playing for one organization over the course of careers that were anywhere near as long as Bryant's has been. By all accounts, he wants to be a Laker for life and will have that option as long as he wants to keep playing.

Moreover, Bryant's already proved his championship bona fides over the course of his five title runs in purple and gold. He doesn't have to go chasing rings elsewhere if he doesn't want to.

And, frankly, no player is obligated to do so. There's plenty of room for greatness among the ringless. Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Steve Nash, Elgin Baylor and Patrick Ewing are but a handful of the all-timers whose playing days came and went without a single championship sip.

That didn't render their careers any less remarkable. Nor should it read like a scarlet letter on active superstars like Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard and Chris Paul. All are tremendous talents who've accomplished plenty already and figure to bolster their resumes further in the years to come, whether or not they win it all. As Grantland's Zach Lowe opined:

The game provides truth. When you have truth, you don’t need narratives — including the one that says a player is somehow flawed until he wins a championship. Death to RINGZ.

Well, maybe not death. Paul and his fellow ringless superstars all figure to find themselves in the running for some serious hardware come spring. One of them might just be fortunate enough to extricate himself from the tired narrative over which Lowe lamented.

As for the rest? They won't give up their pursuit. Nor will they all sulk until they've achieved their dream. Rather, they'll continue to play the game—because they love it, because they get paid well to do it, because of the opportunities it affords.

And because they want to win, even though that process necessarily leaves them susceptible to the agonizing sting of defeat.

Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.

🚨 SPORTS NEWS ➡️ YOUR INBOX

The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.