Predicting the NBA's Next Wave of Ring-Chasers
A rich collection of points, rebounds, assists and other trackable success measures can grant one's stead in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, but nothing quite cements one's legacy like a championship.
A championship can be an elusive and desperate icon to an athlete reaching his or her latter years. When we trace the history of some of the greats who fell short, we can also track strategic attempts to achieve it. Karl Malone and Gary Payton joined Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles. Clyde Drexler linked up with Hakeem Olajuwon in Houston. Charles Barkley (who was traded) followed suit in Houston.
From Steve Nash to Dwight Howard to David West to Kevin Durant, there are countless examples of Hall of Fame-caliber players who chased the ring. They aren't alone. A ring can do more than just cement one's legacy for long-tenured journeymen who have fallen off NBA teams' radar. The spotlight can bring with it the opportunity to resurrect one's standing following regression or a return from a catastrophic injury.
Here are the five journeymen most likely to chase a ring in 2020-21.
There are few players in NBA history to match the scoring volume of Carmelo Anthony. With 26,446 career points, Anthony stands 15th all-time with plenty of room to rise. If Anthony simply reaches his modest scoring production from 2019-20, it would be enough to vault him beyond Tim Duncan, Dominique Wilkins, Oscar Robertson and Hakeem Olajuwon.
Though Anthony has plenty of accolades worthy of a Hall of Fame career, he has never played in the NBA Finals much less won a championship. The closest he's come was a six-game loss at the hands of Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol in the 2009 Western Conference Finals.
"The ultimate goal is to win a championship," Anthony told JJ Redick on The Old Man and the Three podcast. "We all want to win championships. For me, that would validate my legacy."
For an experienced champion like Anthony, falling short of the game's ultimate prize must be particularly painful. After all, Anthony has tasted three Olympic gold medals and currently stands as the U.S. all-time leading scorer with 336 points. His success isn't limited to international play. In his lone collegiate season at Syracuse, Anthony was named the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player for leading his Orangemen to a national championship.
It's isn't too late for the free agent. Anthony can link up with buddy LeBron James and Olympic teammate Anthony Davis in Los Angeles. He can do the same with Olympic teammates Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant in Brooklyn. Miami is an option as well.
The role in which Anthony played in Portland served him and his teammates well, but to "validate his legacy" he'll need to move on from Damian Lillard and join an immediate contender.
Perhaps no candidate fits the journeyman title more aptly than D.J. Augustin. The 5'11" point guard has eight stops on his resume in 12 seasons. In those 12 seasons, Augustin has amassed 8,527 points and 3,466 assists (18th among active players).
Augustin finally found some semblance of permanence in Orlando initially as Elfrid Payton's backup. After the Magic moved on from Payton, Augustin emerged as the starter in 2018-19 and quietly put together his best season. His steady leadership led the Magic to 42 wins, 17 more than in the previous season. His 42.1 three-point percentage placed him 18th in the NBA and was his best since his rookie season in Charlotte. This level of efficiency helped him land in the 98th percentile in points per shot attempt. Shooting is hardly his only talent on the offensive end worthy of praise.
Augustin regressed as Markelle Fultz's backup in 2019-20, which may scare off contenders. Savvy franchises will note the lack of spacing available to Augustin with the Magic's second unit. The bench made up of Michael Carter-Williams, Wesley Iwundu, Mo Bamba, James Ennis, Al Farouq-Aminu and Khem Birch, each of whom shot far below league average from three. Even Terrence Ross managed just 35.1 percent from three in 2019-20.
If a contender with minimal capital to spare needs a backup point guard, it would be wise to give Augustin a look. Philadelphia and Boston could have used help in that department.
With over $50 million in career earnings, Augustin is unlikely to have money be a critical factor in finding what may be his last landing spot. Given his modest production throughout his career, this may be Augustin's last chance to chase a ring. He'd be wise to take it.
In July 2019, DeMarcus Cousins signed a one-year offer with the Los Angeles Lakers. However, he never played a minute during the 2019-20 season after suffering yet another crippling injury in the preseason. Just over 18 months after tearing his Achilles as a member of the New Orleans Pelicans, Cousins tore his ACL.
It's been a heartbreaking string of ill-begotten luck that altered what appeared a surefire Hall of Fame career. Only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Charles Barkley and Kevin Garnett collected more points, rebounds and assists by age 27 than Cousins.
Now 30, Cousins is unlikely to earn a starting look anywhere in the NBA even if fully rehabilitated. His best bet is to sign another minimum contract in Los Angeles and earn a ring through his play rather than from the bench.
Should he rediscover his form on the biggest stage in 2020-21, it will be enough to earn him a lucrative deal and put him back on the path toward the Hall of Fame.
After winning a title in 2018-19 as a member of the Toronto Raptors, Serge Ibaka hardly seems a candidate desperate enough to take a pay cut to win a championship. At just 31 years old, Ibaka is in position for his last lucrative payday after arguably his best season. Per-36, Ibaka achieved his best numbers in nearly every statistical category.
However, according to Yahoo Sports' Keith Smith, only six teams head into the offseason with enough cap room to make Ibaka a sizable offer. Of those six, only the Detroit Pistons, New York Knicks and Charlotte Hornets have a need at his position. The Heat could be a suitor if they cannot re-sign key contributors such as Goran Dragic and Jae Crowder.
Would Ibaka be comfortable joining a lottery team for additional capital after reaching the playoffs in 10 of his 11 seasons? With over $118 million in career earnings, it seems more likely Ibaka would take a pay cut to join a winning culture such as the one in Brooklyn with former teammate Kevin Durant. The two remain close, with Durant even appearing on Ibaka's cooking show before the 2019-20 season.
The Nets are almost certain to pay the tax in 2020-21, leaving them only armed with the taxpayer mid-level exception that should earn Ibaka around six million annually. Ibaka could make a bit more if he returns to Toronto, but teaming up with Durant and Irving may be an opportunity he can't refuse.
The 35-year-old power forward may have lost a step in 2019-20, but Paul Millsap was still one of the most impactful players in the NBA. According to Cleaning the Glass, Millsap's efficiency differential placed him in the 95th percentile in team points per 100 possessions. He enjoyed a career year in three-point shooting (43.5 percent) and effective field-goal percentage (54.3) and finished 17th in defensive real plus-minus.
Normally, an NBA franchise with a need in the frontcourt might be willing to throw a lucrative one-year deal Millsap's way. However, due to the limited financial means available, it's unlikely Millsap will generate anything north of the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception. Besides, Millsap has earned $173.4 million in his 14-year playing career. With limited financial resources available and plenty of career earnings, the conditions are perfect for Millsap to take a lesser one-year deal to secure a chance at a title.
Rejoining former coach Mike Budenholzer in Milwaukee alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo seems a logical landing spot. Millsap would also be a logical addition for the Heat, especially if they cannot re-sign Jae Crowder.
Preston Ellis covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @PrestonEllis.