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On Not Winning NBA Championships

Examining the myth of the NBA championship and its impact on the perception of any given superstar's greatness.

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Take it from an academic. Often enough, the changes in how we interpret WHY things happen have to do with a new generation getting bored-nothing more.

There have been two players in basketball history nigh invulnerable--Bill Russell and Michael Jordan, who achieved it in what we're going to pretend are the last six years of his career (spread over 8 or so). Everybody else loses. Magic Johnson and Kobe have won 5, so they've lost, collectively, 18 times. Larry Bird won 3 times in 13 seasons.

My girlfriend vehemently disagrees with me about this one-in fact it's one of our longest standing arguments-so don't feel bad if you do, too, but I firmly believe this. Nike took Michael Jordan and made him something that kids everywhere could believe in. Not that Jordan wasn't the best of all time, or anything. But between Russell and the last six years of Jordan's career there was not a person, not a person, you could say this about-they will win the championship, because they are the best.

Hasn't been anybody after either. Because?

It's not even a real thing. I don't know a thing about Russell besides the stats. Jordan was the best, but he also had the best teammates. Great rebounders, great three-point shooters. Scottie Pippen. Phil Jackson.

More than that? He won his first championship in '91, Larry Bird's second to last season, and Magic's last, besides an abortive comeback in 1995. Great as he was, and I believe that he's better than Magic and Larry, does he get past the Showtime Lakers in their prime? Does he get past Bird, McHale, Parish and DJ? He didn't. We know that, or rather, we know he did once, that first year, Magic's last. And Kareem wasn't playing for them by then.

Because of the true dominance of the NBA by the same teams for the last ten years, there is a huge backlog of young stars who have never won one. Chris Paul. Lebron, Wade, Bosh. Carmelo and Amar'e. Durant and Westbrook. Of the top 10 scorers in the NBA this last year, only Kobe and Dirk have won a championship.
And the word goes out, to every place, to every nation, that a career is not a career without a championship.

Nuts to that.

This is so obvious it's stunning. Dirk's career is now made because he won a championship last year. Okay-so his career would not be made if he had not won last year? It is not one iota Dirk's fault whether or not the Mavericks do or do not land Tyson Chandlers when they do or do not land Tyson Chandlers. No part of his hall of fame career achievements involve him being the Mavericks' GM.

Dirk literally and obviously would neither have been better or worse last season without Tyson Chandler.

Having won a championship makes Dirk's career tremendously more satisfying. It does not make it BETTER. It does not mean Dirk is a better player than he was before last year, or that he would be worse, now if last year had gone differently. He did not "learn" how to win a championship. He should have had one in '06, he could have had one in '03 when he suffered a knee injury in the Western Conference Finals-these things happen. And sometimes, if you're very lucky, the other thing happens.

Gary Payton did not win a championship with his team, the Supersonics, but at age 35, as a shadow of his old self, with the Miami Heat. Jason Kidd did the same with Dallas, even a little older. Steve Nash and John Stockton haven't won one. Magic Johnson won five---as many as Derek Fisher.

LeBron James is the best player in the NBA. Kobe Bryant is the best offensive player of his generation. Kobe did win with Shaq, and with Bynum/Gasol/Odom, he did not win and has not won without.

LeBron James does not need to win one to be the best player in the NBA. Chris Paul doesn't need to win one to be the best PG in the NBA. Kevin Durant doesn't need to win one to be the best scorer in the NBA.

Because even Michael Jordan is a myth, because the right recipe to win a championship is the most elusive thing in the world, and because no one, no one can do it by themselves.

Winning a championship proves that you're one of the best. Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely.

Not winning a championship doesn't prove anything. Period.

Photographs by jamesbrandon, jdtornow, phlezk, flygraphix, mcdlttx, tomasland, and literalbarrage used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.