For the last two seasons, veteran power forward David West has sacrificed bigger roles and much bigger contracts for the sake of being on championship-contending teams. So if he fails to win a ring with the Golden State Warriors in the next few weeks, as he did with the San Antonio Spurs this time a year ago, West is sure to be bitter and resentful he sacrificed so much for naught, no?
On the contrary, West says, it already has been worth it.
Countless players have enjoyed the perks of stardom—starting jobs, prominent offensive roles, All-Star selections—for the better part of their careers and then opted near the end to take lesser roles to acquire the one prize that had eluded them: a ring. For some, such as Michael Finley, Mitch Richmond and Gary Payton, it paid off. For others, such as Karl Malone and Charles Barkley, it did not.
With the meaning of a championship ring and how it is achieved being two of the NBA's hottest-button topics—leaving one team for another to win a ring is frowned upon by some, but then so is ending your career without a title win on your resume—perhaps the most surprising consensus among ring-bearers is the hard times that led to the prize is what they cherish most.
"We all felt, at various times in our careers, that we were close with our teams and it didn't happen," says Peja Stojakovic, who won a ring with the 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks after 14 years of trying elsewhere. "Everyone understood their roles and we played for each other. We had a common goal, which was to win the next game. It wasn't as if we were setting ourselves a goal of winning a championship because we knew how hard it was. But we have a connection now, and we'll have that the rest of our lives. Whenever we see each other, we can say, 'Hey, champ!' and it will always be true."
West, though, has no regrets about being in San Antonio last year or lopping a zero off his paycheck again this year. The ring is clearly not the (only) thing. While he certainly hopes to be fitted for a bedazzled hunk of finger jewelry whenever these Finals between the Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers conclude, his decision to sign for the veteran's minimum of $1.5 million wasn't about one moment hoisting a trophy. It's as much about every other moment leading up to it, moments that only teams such as San Antonio and now Golden State can provide.
"At this stage, what do I want?" West asks. "I'd rather be in an environment like this, learning every day. You get to be around these guys, a couple of them once-in-a-lifetime talents. I got the chance to see Gregg Popovich in the locker room—I don't know if I'll ever get a shot at being around another coach of that caliber in tense moments, highs and lows. You want that.
"This past summer a couple of teams wanted me to come start and I was, like, 'Ahhh, those days are behind me.' Then they were like, 'Well, we can offer you [more] money.' Well, it's not about money, it's about the experience of playing in an environment like this and the relationships built from it. All those things are a little more valuable to me than money."
Mike Miller echoed that sentiment. The impetus for him to find out if he could be part of a championship equation began in his last season at the University of Florida, when the Gators lost to Michigan State in the 2000 NCAA championship game. He'd been in the NBA 10 seasons when he entered free agency in 2010, otherwise known as the Summer of LeBron. For nine of those seasons, he was a starting swingman; the one year he came off the bench (2005-06), he was voted Sixth Man of the Year.
However, despite five trips to the playoffs, he'd never made it out of the first round; and in the previous four seasons to becoming a free agent, he'd been on 20-something win teams.
He was turning 30 when LeBron James called and asked him to come to Miami with him.
"Money is amazing, don't get me wrong, but once you start getting to that age, you want to be part of something special," Miller says. "Part of it was I wanted to see where I was at. You get to Game 3 or Game 4 of the NBA Finals and there are millions of people watching, what do you do? Do you make the shot or miss it? Until you know it, it's hard to answer that. For me, it was about playing on a national stage, play with the best player in the world, try to win a championship and see how you perform."
Miller and the Heat lost that first year in the Finals to the Dallas Mavericks before subsequently winning back-to-back championships over the Thunder and Spurs. Back issues plagued him for much of his three-year stint with the Heat, but he had his long-sought defining moment, burying seven of eight threes in the closeout game of Miami's 4-1 series win over Oklahoma City.
Richmond hoped for a similar moment of truth when he spent the last of his 14 seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2001-02. He has a ring to show for it but not the same degree of satisfaction. "Some people don't even realize I have a ring," he says. That's because he averaged only 11 minutes during the regular season and played a grand total of four minutes in two postseason appearances. He signed on with the Lakers expecting to do more and through the first three months of the season had only four DNP-CDs (Did Not Play-Coach's Decision); but from February on he logged 14.
"As an older player you lose your timing," Richmond says. "I told Phil [Jackson] I needed to play. 'I'm resting you,' he'd say. Then there were times he'd ask me if I wanted to go in the last five minutes of a game and I'd say, 'Go ahead and put the young guys in.' I always told him it's hard for an older player to sit the whole game and then play those last few minutes."
As a six-time All-Star and five-time All-NBA selection who'd never averaged fewer than 32 minutes for a season—or 36 minutes in his three previous playoff runs—Richmond had to recalibrate his definition of making a contribution.
"It was difficult because I felt like I could help the team," he says. "But I had to step back and accept it. When I was at my best, I had guys playing behind me and cheering me on when I was getting most of the minutes. Kobe was a young kid, so it was my time to give it back."
In doing so, Richmond believes he stayed true to the qualities that ultimately earned him induction in the Basketball Hall of Fame. "That put the whole thing in perspective," he says. "I brought something to the game. I held it up to a high standard."
Recently, though, Jackson told Richmond that he didn't use him the way he should have.
Richmond's response: "Now you tell me."
Finley went through a similar, though not quite as drastic, adjustment in San Antonio. He appeared in 77 games in his first year with the Spurs but averaged 26.5 minutes a game, a career low for his first 11 seasons. He also averaged a career-low 10.1 points per game, but his role was big enough to feel he contributed.
"When I went to San Antonio, I didn't go into the season saying I'm not going to play my game," he says. "I went in thinking, 'I'm a 20-point scorer.' But then you get there and realize what is best for you might not be best for the team. I didn't give up myself as a man or a person, but the Spurs are all about the journey. Not skipping steps along the way. I felt a part of the team. If you go back and look at the comments my coach and teammates had about me, I felt like 'mission accomplished.'"
Adam Morrison, the No. 3 pick of the 2006 draft by the then-Charlotte Bobcats, can say the same, twice over. He wins the efficiency award—two championship rings in a three-season career—after being traded to the Lakers with Shannon Brown for Vladimir Radmanovic in February 2009. He did not play in the 2009 playoffs and logged 13 minutes total in two appearances in 2010.
As he sees it, every member of a championship squad has a part. Fail to play it and maybe that's the missing piece that leaves the team one step short of the goal. He provided his on the practice floor.
"We tried to make it difficult for the guys who were starting," Morrison says. "If you don't have guys doing that, your team is not going to get better. I would be the wing scorer for whatever team we were playing. I remember being Hedo Turkoglu. Ron Artest and I had to battle each other a lot. We got along great, and I loved him as a teammate, even though he was different. But I'd bust his ass and talk s--t. When we were getting ready for Turkoglu, I'd tell him, 'If I'm busting your ass, it's going to be a long night for you.'"
Morrison pulls his rings out every now and then at his kids' request. "I'd feel uncomfortable walking around with a $50,000 ring on my pinkie," he says. "For a Type 1 diabetic slow white kid, just being drafted was my biggest accomplishment. I was nobody in high school and my first two years at Gonzaga. My time at GU, more than anything, is what I'll always hold near and dear to me."
West already had a full and successful career when he opted out of the final year of a contract with the Pacers that would've paid him $12 million to sign for the veteran's minimum of $1.5 million with the Spurs in the summer of 2015. He'd been a two-time All-Star and part of a nucleus in both New Orleans (with Chris Paul) and Indiana (with Paul George) that made it to the playoffs six times in 12 seasons.
"Most guys won't say it, but to make the All-Star team you've got to be selfish," West says. "That's not really a big part of who I am away from the game, so that's always been a struggle for me personally and as a pro basketball player. I got to a point where I couldn't find that switch. You look for that switch where you say, 'I'm going to take all the shots and try to score the ball.' That can only last for so long.
"Then with the guys in Indiana we got very close. Two conference finals, and you just get to a point where you realize, selflessly, that, 'Well, I was No. 2 in Indiana, I was No. 2 in New Orleans, that's just not good enough. You have to get on a team where you are not No. 2.' When we played the Pistons when they won it, I was saying to myself, in the game, 'You're not at this level. Where these guys are, you're not there.' I always felt if I got that confused I'd be in trouble. So you just compete. It was always having a clear picture of where I stand and going out to improve myself as best as I can."
West credits a childhood friend, Sheldon Muldrow, who just graduated from medical school, for reminding him not to frame his life by how long he can run up and down a court. "I don't look at life in a box," West says. "When I get out of the NBA, life is not over. Sheldon just got engaged and started practicing podiatry last year. I grew up with him. I said, 'Dude, you're just starting your life.'"
The move to San Antonio last season was as much about a last shot at playing with Duncan and for Popovich as chasing a ring.
"Looking at the writing on the wall, I'm hearing that it's probably Timmy's last year, so I thought maybe I'd go have a year around Duncan and an environment that for a lot of years I competed against in New Orleans," West says. "I learned more from Pop last year than I did in my first 13 years in the NBA. Seeing how a guy like Tim Duncan is a Hall of Famer but still humble enough to be coached and accept criticism and be in the gym before everybody else, to me those are invaluable experiences that if you're not in the right type of environment, you never experience. You never get to see why San Antonio is at the top every year. As a basketball guy, that's something you want to learn."
And then share with others. West is well aware of the opportunities presented down the line to players who have been part of championship-caliber franchises compared to those who chased big contracts with lesser teams.
"I want to coach one day," he says. "Being able to have what I learned in the bag is invaluable."
Finley agrees. "I have that hands-on championship experience now, and it is invaluable," he says. "I can feel what guys feel when they win one. It's not one game—it's all 82 games. It's training camp. It's what you do with your teammates on and off the court. It's the journey.
"When you celebrate at the end, you're celebrating the sacrifices that paid off. And if you're ever wondering why some great teams didn't win a championship, maybe it's because they didn't have that extra little oomph and maybe they ran into a team that did."
Getting this close, there will be no wondering for West. Ring or no ring, he has made the sacrifices. He will know who had that oomph, where it came from—and why. If it is truly not about the destination but the journey, West will walk away with something priceless—even if he can't wear it.