Two years ago at this time Kevin Durant was another player with the “can’t win the big one” label following him around. He left Oklahoma City in the dust, signed on with Golden State and now has two rings and two NBA Finals MVP trophies. Durant has re-written his legacy. With the summer of free agency coming, it’s anticipated LeBron James will follow a similar path—hook up with a better team to pad his ring total and enhance the legacy. My question is this—did we, the fans, create this problem ourselves?
There was a time when players weren’t just measured by the number of championships they won. Individual production was also considered of primary importance and quality of a supporting cast mattered. The problem with that was it created a tendency to overvalue players who piled up numbers, but genuinely didn’t play well at the biggest moments or didn’t integrate well into a team concept. In that regard, the shift to a team-centered measuring stick—championships, rather than numbers—was a welcome change in the sports culture.
But all changes can go to far and the reducing of every player’s production to one number—ring totals—has created an environment where a Kevin Durant sees more value in just latching on to Golden State. Or where LeBron James will almost certainly bag his hometown for the second time and perhaps connect with someone like Houston in yet another attempt to be a part of a superteam. Is this really what we had in mind when we wanted to emphasize winning over individual stats?
Not all championships were created equal in terms of an individual players’ legacy. At the risk of being yet another middle-aged guy invoking the name of Michael Jordan, let’s point out that he had to go to the Chicago Bulls when they were terrible, let the team be built around him and then adjusted and tweaked as he stayed through the years.
When Jordan’s Bulls lost to the Detroit Pistons in the conference finals of 1989 and 1990, there was no simply signing with the Pistons out of frustration with his supporting cast. There was no calling up his good friend and gambling buddy Charles Barkley to go play somewhere and create a superteam.
It does have to be said that the structure of NBA free agency at the time didn’t make such things practical. Perhaps Jordan might have done those things if he could. And I’m not going to go along with any over-the-top assaults on players like KD, LeBron or anyone else who would use the leverage they have to do what they want with their lives. We’re not talking about a question of character here. What we are talking about is a question of what championships mean for players’ legacies.
That starts with recognizing that not all championships were created equal. The two rings LeBron won with the Miami Heat are more about his ability to network with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. Now, the 2016 title he won for the city of Cleveland? When he returned home to a bad team, with Kevin Love not yet in the fold and led a franchise to a historic title? That’s got some value. That was Jordan-esque. Before Skip Bayless or anyone else has a coronary over the comparison, acknowledging one achievement that was Jordan-esque is not the same as having an entire career that’s Jordan-esque. But I digress.
In a similar vein, the two championships Kevin Durant has won with Golden State have to be taken with a certain grain of salt, at least when comparing him to other all-time greats. If Durant wants to do something like go home to Washington D.C. and lift the Wizards to a title—or even to their first NBA Finals in forty years, that would have some historical impact.
I don’t want to return to the days of evaluating players solely by the points-rebounds-assists numbers without regard to big-game production, clutch play and intangible things like leadership. But the media culture today, the even more simplistic reduction of every player to the number of rings on his finger has to evolve.
Players do what the culture tells them to do. We the people created a situation where there’s more credit given to Durant or LeBron for blatant ring-chasing then there is to simply planting roots and letting a consistent winner grow around them. That needs to change.