The Lure of the Ring

By Josh Eberley #41

The thrill of the chase is often painfully followed by the sting of the dream gone astray.

Our inner wells rising slowly with promise and hope, only to have all that energy burst forth in one sharp prick of disappointment after another failed run. Fans and players alike know the sudden and air-stealing sucker punch all too well.

Kyle Lowry knows that pain—he watched helplessly in games three and four sidelined with an injury as the Cavaliers finished the sweep against his Toronto Raptors. Lowry has tough decisions ahead, as does general manager Masai Ujiri. However, headed into free agency Lowry is focused on one thing and one thing only: “A ring. Nothing else. I just want a ring,” he said. He’s hardly the first to think this way but it feels like stars are having this conversation sooner than they used to.

Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images

Chris Paul also knows the aching sting of defeat. Like Lowry, he too will have to prioritize his desires this offseason. Paul is due for a massive payday in Los Angeles— a north of $200 million dollar payday. The problem is, if Paul takes that money he’s also conceding to the very real possibility that he will never win a ring. Regardless of what you might be thinking, it’s a major dilemma. A man’s legacy is important, especially in sports and people will remember for all of time what Paul decides on this offseason. If you’re reluctant to believe that, consider Carmelo Anthony’s decision to remain a Knick in 2014 and the commentary he has lived through since.

Perhaps the most recent example and most powerful one we can muster in regard to ring chasing is Kevin Durant’s decision last offseason to join the Golden State Warriors. It was a seemingly preposterous and extreme decision for a number of variables we’ve been over countless times this year but perhaps is best summed up via Shea Serrano with the following:

“Imagine King Leonidas abandoned the Spartans and joined Xerxes’s army. Imagine Batman abandoned the citizens of Gotham and joined up with the Joker. Imagine Maximus left the gladiator camp to join up with Commodus. Imagine Optimus Prime left the Autobots and joined the Decepticons. Imagine Mufasa joined the hyenas. Imagine Neo joined the agents.

Imagine William Wallace was like, ‘Actually, I’ve always respected the English,’ and then left Scotland for England. Imagine Father Merrin said, ‘Oh, wow, being possessed looks like so much fun,’ and then he spotted up in the corner and waited for Regan to draw the defense to her so he could shoot a wide-open 3. Imagine John McClane was like, ‘Terrorism is actually pretty cool,’ then called Hans Gruber on the walkie-talkie like, ‘What up? Let’s build, fam.’

Imagine Blade joined the vampires. Imagine Scotty joined with Nino Brown and the Cash Money Brothers. Imagine Bryan Mills joined the Albanians.”

Last week we talked about greatness, LeBron James and the basketball communities’ eternal battle with context and winning. This week we are talking about another basketball stigma, a constant and vicious skirmish that has never settled on a cease fire. The culture of this game is currently locked in a tussle on the concepts of competitive fire and winning at all costs.

Durant isn’t the first player to leave home for a contender, he isn’t the first player to do it recently and he won’t be the last player to do it. If that’s as deep as you want to go, fair enough. But the biggest story of the offseason requires us to go deeper:

Like Ray Allen in 2012, Durant joined the enemy immediately after being defeated by the opposition. Unlike Allen, Durant did it in the middle of his prime. Durant is the youngest player anywhere near his current caliber to jump ship by a good margin over the last 20 years. The image above shows players to have their names listed on an MVP ballot at some point during their career. Everyone on that list walked in free agency for a chance at a title, all of whom did it later in their career with varying degrees of success.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Alonzo Mourning was an interesting case. Mourning left the Heat in 2003 to contend for a title with the Nets but injuries and front office decisions derailed that dream quickly. Pat Riley had this to say at the time, “His biological ring-clock is ticking, and he’s a winner. That went above and beyond any other consideration. So he feels with the team he is going to go to that he has the opportunity.”

Ironically, Mourning would wind up back in Miami later, winning a ring with Shaquille O’Neal, Dwyane Wade and fellow trophy hunter Gary Payton.

Here’s the full list of players to get their name on an NBA MVP ballot over the last 20 years to ring hunt. (Added are a few other notable names for further context.)

Now here’s the tough part. Forget franchise loyalty and whatever that means to you for a minute, are these players the ultimate competitors? Many gave up prominent roles and/or more money somewhere else. These players all took a risk to put winning first. Alternatively, some might say they were lacking in competitive drive, taking the quickest available ride to a championship. The distinction, as it always will be is up to you.

Many of the jumps to a contender were met with an abhorrent splat on the pavement. See Steve Nash’s run with the Lakers. Opposite Nash, the triumphant jumpers got to leave with a ring but how much did it really change their legacy?

Did Payton winning in 2006 as a minor contributor with the Heat catapult him up your all-time pyramid? Jason Kidd was valuable during the Dallas Mavericks 2011 championship season but how differently did you gauge his career because of it? Did you even remember Mitch Richmond’s championship turn with the Lakers? You probably missed it (he played two games totaling two minutes). Tracy McGrady with the Spurs? Chances are those last ditch efforts for a ring meant way more to the players personally than it will ever mean to their legacies.

At first glance, it’s easy to pile on Durant and the decision he made. His age and current skill level make it tough to understand, especially when the Oklahoma City Thunder were so close. In total honesty, as a general fan I believe the playoffs are significantly better if he’s anywhere else other than Golden State.

As many have pointed out, the Warriors didn’t need Durant, they just needed him not to be on the Thunder. However, in staring at the list of his Larry O’Brien Trophy-craving predecessors, a case could be made that Durant is light years ahead. Perhaps Durant made the offseason transition in his prime because he was consciously aware of the old timers who saw no change in their legacy winning as a bit player on a championship team.

Don’t forget, Durant has claimed to be the best player in the world on multiple occasions. LeBron James has been compared to Michael Jordan every step of his career and is very aware of it, just as Durant is aware he has been compared to James.

Back in March, when Durant went on Bill Simmons’ podcast, he said the following: “They [James and company] beat us a lot… Yeah, I feel like he’s a rival but if you look at it across the board are stats have been pretty equal…”

Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

For what it’s worth, James’ teams is 18-5 vs. Durant’s teams, including the playoffs. James holds the edge in efficiency, and in all-around play but Durant’s met him point for point over those 18 matchups. You know it, HOOP knows it and Durant knows it. He will never get compared to the best of the best unless he wins a title. In truth, probably multiple titles.

Consider for a moment; what will the reaction be if the Warriors fail. Imagine the hellfire that will rain down upon Durant and the Golden State Warriors should they lose to the underdog Cleveland Cavaliers. A 73-win team that already won a title, and was a cool-headed Draymond Green away from a second one, losing after adding an MVP in his prime. The fallout would be nuclear.

Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Results-based feedback is a cake, or a pie if you prefer. There’s only so much credit or blame to go around, 2007 Michael Finley got a smaller piece than 2013 Allen for example. Winning a championship as the franchise player on a team that drafted you allots a large piece of savory decadence—just ask 2011 Dirk Nowitzki or 2006 Dwyane Wade. However, it’s clear for whatever reason he felt that way—Durant did not believe he could win in Oklahoma City. Speculate all you want on the merit of Durant’s decision, the results that will come from it and to a lesser extent the results that came from all the above listed ring chasers. But all the while, keep in mind—would you rather have a small piece or no piece?

Durant left the earliest of all the ring chasers but he also ventured the most. Assuming we get the rubber match between Cleveland and Golden State, Durant will dominate the resulting conversation. No one can tell you how to feel about Durant’s decision. Just as no one can tell Durant his decision was right or wrong and to be honest, it’s far too early to have an opinion on that in the grand scheme.