I watched the Oklahoma City Thunder and Milwaukee Bucks and it got me thinking about Kevin Durant. Then I thought about LeBron James and how they will ultimately be judged at the end of their careers.
The part of their career’s that will be most scrutinized will be the number of championships they win, if any at all. Is that the fairest objective measure of greatness relative to another player?
I bring this up mainly because I am tired of players being judged solely on the basis of whether or not they won a championship. Well, I shouldn’t say that is always the case. What I am really tired of is having Robert Horry mentioned whenever someone mentions how many championships so-and-so has. Great, he won 7 championships as, at best, a role player next to some truly great players (Kobe, Shaq, Duncan, Olajuwon to name a few).
That is not meant to diminish his accomplishments, he was a critical cog to the teams that won the championships, but was not the unmoved mover of any of those teams. He was like, as are most role players, the second hand on a clock. Sure, it makes the clock easier to read and is a welcome addition, but without it the clock would still operate.
So, I would use championships to delineate the delicate differences between the truly great players in a generation. In that way, you can accurately compare the relative greatness of one player versus another great player. Michael Jordan is the obvious example, as he usually is regardless of topic.
Michael Jordan dominated the 90’s whenever he wasn’t preoccupied with fulfilling childhood fantasies on the baseball diamond. Jordan went against some great competition during his time, defeating them and proving his position as greatest of all time. Jordan won 6 championships during the decade against a Magic led Lakers team, a Clyde Drexler led Blazers team, a Barkley led Phoenix team, a great and in shape Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton Sonics team, and against Karl Malone and John Stockton Jazz team twice. Talk about great competition.
However, Jordan wasn’t the greatest only because he was the best player on a team that won 6 championships, although it was his drive to win those championships that indeed made him the greatest. To assume that his championships were the only judgmental factor is inherently wrong. If championships were the only judge of a great player then Charles Barkley was a failure, as were Malone and Stockton. Obviously, this is not the case. (Kemp is another matter)
So what role do championships play at the end of a career? I would say fairly confidently that they are used more to cement a legacy than create one. Of course, some greatness is spawned from Finals appearances and the career grows from there (Wade is the closest example I can conjure, although he was fantastic before the Finals).
I would put it this way: would Karl Malone be the greatest power forward ever over Tim Duncan had he won even one championship?
What happens to Allen Iverson if he truly is retired and he never won that illusive championship? His lack of a championship defines him as a player almost as much as his scoring average does. He will be seen as one of the greatest scorers of all time but was too concerned with his own scoring to win a championship. The validity of that thought is questionable, had he kept capable teammates like Stackhouse who knows what kind of passer he may have developed into. Still, he is widely viewed as a selfish player who would rather play 1-on-5 than a purely team game.
Had he won a championship, where would he rank among the greats of the game? He would be considerably higher than he is right now. He had his chance against the Lakers back in 2001, although he had no help (no disrespect to Eric Snow, Dikembe Mutumbo, or Aaron McKie). A championship would have meant he was so great as an individual that he carried his team to a stratosphere it had no business being in.
Back to the original topic: Kevin Durant and LeBron James. I have already discussed this topic previously when the idea that Kevin Durant could end up being better than LeBron when all is said and done.
The only way I could see Durant elevating himself above James would be for Durant to win more championships than James, a lot more. James has all the physical tools you could wish for, while Durant is somewhat physically deficient absent his height and length.
LeBron is in essence a bulldozer who uses his considerable strength to bully his way into the paint and muscles the basketball in. Durant plays the finesse game, relying on his innate ability to find the bottom of the basket with almost any shot to succeed.
However, since all-time greatness is determined more by the rings on your fingers than anything else, this matchup will be determined by how many championships they win. This is entirely speculative, but I can easily envision Durant winning multiple championships. The team that the Thunder has surrounded him with is young, athletic, and above all else, extremely talented.
For the next decade or so, they could have a lineup that already has its starting 1-4 set with tremendous talents. How many other teams can say that at this juncture?
LeBron’s future is cluttered by much more uncertainty. Without any word on his future destination, you can’t know whether he plans to stay in Cleveland or start out somewhere new beyond this season. Almost anywhere he goes, if he decides to leave Cleveland, will be a work in progress, unless he really likes the Clippers or decides to go to another team with a superstar in place (Lakers? Heat?). So, with unsteady terms regarding his future, his championship possibilities are not as clear-cut. Of course, he is on a team that can contend right now, and a championship on his end settles this debate for the foreseeable future. Still, it is an interesting discussion.