The Portland Trail Blazers haven’t won an NBA Championship in the last 46 years. Tonight the Denver Nuggets and Miami Heat will open the 2023 NBA Finals, culminating their season-long quest to do just that. Marking the occasion, it seems appropriate to tackle a Blazer’s Edge Mailbag question that inquires about the value of the championship metric.
Here we go.
What do you think of the ring culture that’s spread across the league lately? Only one team wins a championship. I’m tired of players and teams being judged as failures if they don’t win it. There are plenty of other things to root for, like progress for one! Damian Lillard is a great player and if he never wins a ring he’ll still be a great player. I feel like we should concentrate on what we have. We went through plenty of good years with the Blazers with no ring in sight and I don’t remember people complaining like this.
This is a tricky topic, because it’s so subjective. Let’s break it down.
“Ring culture”—judging ability by number of championships won—is nearly useless when it comes to individual players. Too many outside variables interfere.
No player wins a championship on their own. Even Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and Shaquille O’Neal needed help, and that’s at the peak of their careers as the most dominant forces in their respective eras.
Championships might elevate superstars to Mt. Rushmore status, but that’s about all they’re good for. If you want to argue that a player in the 99th percentile is a little superior to another player in the 99th percentile because of the number of rings on their fingers, go for it. If you’re trying to argue that a player belongs in the 99th percentile instead of the 75th because of titles won, that’s a whole new issue.
Some players don’t have enough talent around them to win. Others run into teams that are just a bit superior, regardless of the talent of the respective players. I would argue that Clyde Drexler was more talented than Joe Dumars back in the 1990’s, but Dumars has multiple titles while Drexler won none in his prime. That the Blazers couldn’t overcome the Pistons in 1990 doesn’t mean Clyde couldn’t best Joe.
It’s precisely here that your “only one team wins it” argument holds strongest. All-NBA and NBA All-Star teams are never comprised of players from a single roster. For contractual and competitive reasons, the greatest players are spread out among 30 teams, 28 of which won’t even make the NBA Finals, let alone win them. 90% of your NBA Top Ten will go ring-less in a given year, sometimes 100%.
Let’s move the argument back to the player you cited, Damian Lillard. Not having won a championship so far might indicate that Lillard is not, in fact, at the level of Jordan or LeBron...in that 99th percentile in all of history. Fair enough. We didn’t need the championship argument to show that, though. Lillard sits among the Top Ten backcourt players of his era, but few would cite him #1 overall among guards, let alone among all players. Winning a title might elevate him a notch or two in the sights of some, but it wouldn’t magically turn him into the Best Guard Ever. Nor would the lack of a ring devalue him.
The argument changes slightly when you get to teams, though. Franchises are judged on championships and playoffs performances. That’s really the only fair way to do it.
This is professional sports. People pay large sums of money (and invest their time, hearts, and passion) in order to enjoy world-class athletes playing as hard as they can for a common goal. That goal is winning. The measurement for winning is simple: whomever does it most is deemed the best at it.
While we can say an individual player has value apart from championships or victory totals, that player’s connection to the team resides in their ability to help that team win. Any other agenda sets the player apart from the team and, by definition, the other members thereof.
Context matters. In a recent podcast, I shared that I was fine saying. “Only one team wins a championship each year,” when evaluating the career of an individual player, especially in retrospect. Carmelo Anthony was great no matter how many times he didn’t win it all. He should be able to say that and have it said about him, for the rest of his life. If that same player uttered that phrase to his coach in the middle of the second quarter of an ongoing game, I wouldn’t want that player on my team anymore. If you’re not here to win as much as you possible can, what are we doing?
In that way, I find advocating the value and sanctity of a championship necessary. It’s the unifying force within a team and across the league. Sometimes there’s an overemphasis. (e.g. “Our team STINKS because they lost in the Finals!”) Underemphasis happens too. (“It doesn’t matter. We’re just here to have fun. Real fans love their team no matter what.”) Both are different ways of expressing frustration rather than an objective look at the purpose and value of winning a title.
I do know this: nothing else substitutes for winning it all. The Boston Celtics just lost the Conference Semifinals in seven games a year after making the NBA Finals themselves. That’s a position Blazers fans would give anything to occupy right now. Yet the talk in Boston is whether they should fire their coach and how their two All-NBA superstars might not fit together anymore.
We don’t have to travel to the East Coast to experience the phenomenon. Go back to the “glory years” of the Blazers that you cited in your question. In retrospect, we look on those times fondly. “Two decades straight making the playoffs! Look at all the classic players we had!” During those times, the story was not the same. Complaints rose annually, persistently. Even though the team was good, everybody, including its members, wanted it to be better.
When you’re outside the playoffs, it feels like making it would be enough. When you’ve made it to the playoffs a couple years, just getting there is dissatisfying. Now you want to win. The desire rises up the ladder with the success of your team. Ultimately, only winning will satiate it.
Winning an NBA Championship is the one, undebatable achievement that nobody can reduce or remove subjectively. There’s no debate or negotiation. No voting is required. The 2023 NBA Champions will be the 2023 NBA Champions for as long as the league’s history is remembered.
In that way, the achievement deserves to be venerated and respected more than any other goal, team or individual. And in that way—as opposed to using it to devalue the achievements of individual athletes—I believe “ring culture” should not only be kept alive, but celebrated with all the teams who get to experience it.
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